When Emily Blake moved to Los Angeles from North Carolina, she lived in a two-bedroom apartment. She doesn’t remember how much her rent was; all she knows is she could afford it on her school teacher salary. Now, in her mid-40s, she and her husband are living paycheck to paycheck, unable to move out of their rent-controlled apartment, and they can’t even imagine owning a home in the city.
Blake and her partner both work in the film industry; she’s a freelance script supervisor and he’s an assistant to a visual effects agent. Together, they made slightly over $100,000 last year. They are lucky enough to have a great deal on a rent-controlled apartment in Echo Park, a fashionable neighborhood in the eastern part of the sprawling megacity where her husband has been living for seven years. Since Blake moved in a little over a year ago, they split the rent of $1,750 per month. So why do they feel trapped and hopeless of ever buying a house? “We can’t leave,” she tells Fortune.
“We would never be able to find an apartment for this rate, it just doesn’t exist,” she says. They used to think about buying a house, but that was before the Pandemic Housing Boom drove prices to an absurdly unaffordable level, including a mortgage rate shock that’s still playing out.
Blake and her husband should be well positioned, since they make more than the median household income and pay well under the median rent. The median household income in the city is $69,778, per the Census Bureau, while the median rent for all bedroom and property types in the city is $2,895. But just look at the average home value in Los Angeles of $923,739. Hypothetically, at a 7% interest rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage, a monthly payment on a $900,000 home would be roughly $4,790, before taxes and insurance.
“We would love a house, we want a house so badly,” Blake says, but “it’s not possible…you have to make over $200,000 a year in order to buy a house now.” Maybe if they left L.A., they could do it, and the average home value nationally is in fact much lower, at $348,539. But that would require leaving their industry behind, and even that is looking shaky now.
Blake and her husband haven’t been on strike like the Hollywood actors and writers, but they may as well have been. Blake is a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, but she hasn’t worked any industry gigs since the strikes shut down production across the industry. She says she’s very lucky, having found temp jobs that pay the bills, like subtitling for a post-production house and editing a web series. Still, she’ll likely make less this year than last because there’s hardly any work. “Everybody I know in my union has been absolutely struggling to find work since about November, so we were already kind of hurting before the strike started.”
The industry is changing, Blake says, which speaks to why writers and actors stopped working. It’s been getting harder and harder to make a living freelancing because of how short seasons are now. “I’m not making enough money, and he’s making okay money—it’s still not house money,” she says. Her husband also has student loans, which makes it harder for them to save. (She didn’t share the amount of his student loans, and he didn’t speak with Fortune.) Blake has some money saved from her share of a house that she sold after a previous marriage and a divorce, but she says that isn’t close to a down payment in the current climate.
Choosing between a career and the ability to buy a house
She and her husband want to be able to set up a workshop where she can craft, and he wants more space to work on starting his own business. They could move to a handful of cities if they want to continue working in the film industry, but one of those is New York, where the average home value is $736,314 and the average rent is $3,539.
“Unless we change careers and move out of L.A., I don’t see how we’ll ever afford a house, the prices just keep going up,” Blake says. “And every time rent control is on the ballot … it ends up getting voted down, and it’s very frustrating because rent keeps going up.”
In reality, home prices across the city are down from their peak, but they’re up substantially since the onset of the pandemic. As for rent control, it was on the ballot in 2018 and 2020 for California voters, but in both cases, those measures failed. It’ll be on the ballot again next year, but the majority of the state’s voters are homeowners, who may be less concerned about rents.
Blake says they’re not struggling to pay their rent, but they are living paycheck to paycheck. They can pay their bills, and occasionally go out with friends, but there’s no money left over—which has made it nearly impossible to afford to rent a bigger apartment, one that may not be rent-controlled, or buy a house in the city.
“We have dreams, we have plans,” Blake says. “I’m a little old, but we’ve discussed having kids, there’s still time, [but] time is going to run out because we don’t have anywhere to put them…we just really want a house. That’s the American dream, right? Get a house, start a family, have a thriving career, and that used to be possible a few decades ago.”
Blake says that, like a lot of other people, she’s waiting for the housing market to crash, so she can afford a home. She and her partner keep walking around their neighborhood, looking at all the houses, and she says she’s at the point where she’ll buy any house they can afford, regardless of what condition it’s in. “We can always fix it up later,” she says. The cheapest homes they’ve seen in the surrounding neighborhoods are still around $600,000.
“We’re both in a position where we have to choose between our careers and everything else, because again, I want to keep doing my job, he’s trying to sort of level up,” Blake says. “But, it’s really hard. It’s just all very hard all the time.”
They ask themselves, “is this just forever? We just live in this apartment until we die?”
“We have a culture here … but, if you want to upgrade your life in any way, if you don’t want to just keep existing, you gotta leave.” They keep waiting for something to change, Blake says, but it just keeps getting worse.
“I feel like, now, you have to be rich to buy a house,” in Los Angeles, Blake tells me. “It’s impossible if you’re not rich.”