Understanding Housing Informality in Los Angeles
by Steven Schmidt, University of California Irvine
CUSS Newsletter, 2021 Summer, Vol 34, No 2
During a warm summer evening in Los Angeles, I interviewed Mabel on the sideline of her son’s baseball practice. A single mom from Guatemala, Mabel lives with her three kids in an apartment bedroom that she rents under the table from an older woman. Mabel sees the rented room as a stepping stone to owning a home: “I want to grow, to eventually have my own house. But for now with my situation, I have to wait a little longer to be able to do it.”[i] Later that year, I met Lisa, a middle-income white woman who rents a home about five minutes away from Mabel. Although her lease does not allow sublets, Lisa usually rents out one of her three bedrooms. I asked what she looks for in a roommate: “We don’t cook animal products, we eat organic, so a health-conscious person. We didn’t want more kids, that was just too much.” Sharing a home is relatively common in Los Angeles, where an estimated 47% of families live doubled-up, or with another adult who is not a romantic partner (Bretz, 2017). While many doubled-up renters live in multigenerational homes, Mabel and Lisa live with non-family members. How do renters find opportunities to rent spaces in other households, and how do families decide who they will allow to live with them?
In this essay, I draw on my fieldwork and interviews with 120 Los Angeles renter families to describe a common but relatively understudied response to high housing costs: subleasing bedrooms, living rooms, garages, and hallways from other renters whom are often strangers. While doubling up is commonly described as a private social safety net, studying how families find subleases with non-kin draws attention to the difficulties some renters face on the informal market. I understand these housing arrangements as informal because they typically violate the terms of the original renter’s lease. Although informal opportunities are more affordable, informal renters must pass another set of ad hoc screening requirements established by the primary tenant. What does renting on the informal market look like in Los Angeles?
When Mabel separated from her husband, she knew renting a bedroom was her most accessible option, but she encountered several obstacles. She has three young children, but many families renting rooms would allow just one child. Mabel also screened her potential roommates. She wanted to live with someone older, preferably a single woman with no young kids. When she finally found an ad for bedroom that met her requirements posted inside a Laundromat, she described feeling a wave of relief: “It was like that place was meant for me, like a blessing.”[ii] Latinx immigrants also report finding rooms for rent through Spanish-language Facebook groups. Taking a closer look at these listings can tell us how families screen potential tenants. Common requirements include: full-time employment, no couples, and no children. One person looking to rent a bedroom posted, “I’m single, I have no vices, and I spend all day working. I’d only come to sleep, and I spend days off with my family.”[iii] Tenants seeking rooms work to present themselves as quiet, reliable and unobtrusive.
Affluent LA families also participate in the informal housing market. Small-business owner Lisa rents out one of the bedrooms in her home, but has run into issues with previous roommates. She told me about one tenant who she and her husband evicted after four months: “We had rules. No alcohol in the house, no smoking. We told her she would have to go out far, and she’d still sneak out to the backyard and smoke. And so she had to go.” Informal tenants generally have fewer legal protections against eviction, and many are unaware of the housing rights that they do hold under California law. Lisa’s strict screening process is reflected in another LA housing Facebook group where most posts are in English. One listing asks for: “…a film/TV professional, team player, ambitious, and hard-working.” Another included a link to a Google Form that asks potential renters, “What’s a film, book, game, show, artwork, or album that’s really resonated with you?” Although scholars tend to focus on housing informality in the low-end market, wealthier families also participate and impose restrictive entry requirements.
Social scientists consider informal housing to be an important part of the private social safety net in the United States. However, we know less about how tenants find these opportunities and who is left behind. Informal subleases in LA are less available to couples, pregnant women, families with multiple children, those with irregular work hours, and those who are underemployed. Audit studies also show how racial discrimination shapes roommate selection (e.g., Gaddis and Ghoshal, 2020). Future research could examine how building owners and managers understand informal subleases, particularly in cities where few families can afford market-rate rents.
Informal subleases play an important, and relatively understudied, role in the contemporary U.S. rental landscape. Examining renters’ pathways into informality also shows how the formal and informal rental markets are mutually constitutive. Common tenant screening practices—like credit/background checks and income minimums—limit access to formal housing opportunities, particularly in high-cost cities like Los Angeles. Additional research into informal subleases could encourage policy interventions around tenant screening, motivate greater legal protections for informal tenants, and would add to our current understanding of housing inequality in the United States.
Bretz, Lauren. 2017. “As Rents Rise, More Renters Turn to Doubling Up.” https://www.zillow.com/research/rising-rents-more-roommates-17618/
Gaddis, S. Michael and Raj Ghoshal. 2020. “Searching for a Roommate: A Correspondence Audit Study Examining Racial/Ethnic and Immigrant Discrimination among Millennials.” Socius 6:1-16.
[i] Quiero crecer un poco más, llegar a tener mi propia casa, pero por el momento, en mi situación, no, tengo que esperar un poquito más para poder hacerlo.
[ii] Creo que fue como que ya estaba ese lugar para mí, como bendición.
[iii] Soy soltera, sin vicios, y me la paso trabajando. Solo a dormir llegaría, mis días de descanso los paso en familia.