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Out West, a Paradox: Densely Packed Sprawl

Maria Sanchez is an expert on this kind of housing. She is one of nine members of an immigrant family from Guadalajara, Mexico, that lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Maywood, a one-square-mile patch of southeast Los Angeles County that is the densest city in California and probably the densest city in the West.

This summer, in one of the apartment's bedrooms, Sanchez, 42, is sharing a double bed with her mother and her father, both of them in their late sixties.

Her daughter, Yesenia, 19, sleeps in the second bedroom, along with her boyfriend, Raul, and their 2-year-old son, Raul Jr. In the living room, Sanchez's two sons, Efrain, 28, and Juan, 8, share a sofa bed with one of Sanchez's brothers.

"There is a lot more room for the kids to play back home in Guadalajara, but there is no work," Sanchez said. "We are better off here. We have enough to eat."

Efrain is the family's breadwinner. He makes about $90 a day deboning chickens in a processing plant within walking distance of the apartment.

By Maywood standards, there is nothing exceptional about the Sanchez family's living situation.

The city's white working-class population fled Maywood in the early 1980s and was replaced by Latino immigrants, most of them Mexicans from poor areas such as Guadalajara. Maywood's sewers, water lines, streets, schools and housing were built in the 1930s to serve a population of about 10,000. There are now at least 30,000 residents, and virtually no new housing or infrastructure has been built.

"It is futile to try to enforce laws against overcrowding," said David Mango, director of building and planning in Maywood. "When we go to a house and see six adults living in one room, they say, "We are just visiting.' "

City inspectors recently issued a citation to an enterprising landlord who had purchased four metal toolsheds from Home Depot, set them up around her house and rented each one for more than $150 a month.

"Every year, I say that this city can't accommodate more density," said Samuel A. Peña, the mayor of Maywood. "But every year I see the enrollment numbers from the schools, and I am wrong."

Schools have been officially overcrowded and operating on an emergency year-round schedule for 23 years. School officials acknowledge that crowding has undermined children's ability to learn.

"As it has increased, we have a seen a steady decline in attendance, student performance, graduation and an increase in dropouts," said Shelley Weston, director of instructional support services for secondary schools in the most crowded part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. To ease crowding, new schools are being built. But in Maywood, where virtually every inch of land is spoken for, less-crowded schools have meant more crowded housing. School construction required the demolition of 200 housing units, all of which were occupied, mostly by large immigrant families.

"Residents now tell me they are approached all the time by people saying, 'You have a really nice garage. I will convert it for you and pay you $800 a month,' " said Mango, the city planning director.

Maywood's housing miseries echo across Southern California, according to a report on regional housing from the School of Public Affairs at the University of California at Los Angeles. It found that in Los Angeles, the population grew by 11 percent between 1990 and 2002, but the number of households increased by just 5 percent.

Density's Burden

The regionwide momentum toward density that has jazzed up life in Newport Coast and transformed Signal Hill from industrial dump to real estate gold mine is also putting pressure on the Sanchez family.

Maria Sanchez learned a couple of weeks ago that her rent would increase in September, from $650 to $950 a month. She said that that is more than her family can afford and that she will soon start looking for another place to live.

Since there are no vacant apartments in Maywood that her family can afford, they will probably have to find another immigrant family that is strapped for cash and double up.


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Graphic
In the East and South, cities such as Washington and Atlanta became less dense as people moved to the suburbs. In the West, cities such as Los Angeles became more dense as usable land became scarce.
Population density
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau | THE WASHINGTON POST
© 2005 The Washington Post Company