Sarah Fay is 28 years old. She has a job at a non-profit, a dog, a car, and family close by. Too close, in fact, on the nights when Fay has nowhere to sleep but her grandmother’s garage, where her own mother has been living for the last 13 years. This three-part series examines the complexities of housing insecurity in Los Angeles, defying stereotypes about what it means to be vulnerable to the pressures of meager wages and rising rents:

Ideally, Sarah would not be looking for a place for the night; she wants a place to call home. She just can’t seem to convince landlords to give her a chance.

Her latest full-time job, as an executive assistant for a nonprofit focused on homelessness in West Los Angeles, pays her $24 per hour. She grosses around $4,000 per month. To people unaware of the surge in rental prices, that might seem like enough. But the median rent for a studio in Los Angeles on December 10 was $1,825 — a $275 increase over a year earlier. After taxes, the market-rate rent would consume most of what she earns. 

But in Los Angeles and other housing-squeezed cities, having the resources to pay the local median rent is a far cry from actually getting an apartment. There are, however, supports in place to help people like Sarah. 

In 2019, when she earned about $2 per hour less, she qualified for a Rapid Rehousing subsidy from the L.A. Homeless Services Agency, but that did not guarantee that she would receive it. The process struck her as complex. It involves working with a Rapid Rehousing case manager to find an apartment in the right price range, then connecting the case manager to the landlord and hoping that they could work it out. In theory, they agree to allow the subsidized tenant to rent the place based on various criteria, and then the tenant starts out paying a percentage of their rent that will grow in subsequent months and years. The exact amount of the subsidy depends on a variety of factors, including the tenant’s income and the rent, and the process involves the input of the case manager.

The problem for Sarah has been that she has needed to convince a landlord to choose a low-income tenant with mandatory bureaucratic processes over plenty of people in simpler circumstances with larger incomes and better credit applying. Nothing requires landlords to take on tenants like her, and the shortage of affordable lodging means that market forces have been blowing the other way.