July 22, 2014

Nothin’ Goin’ On But the Rent

REntThe Los Angeles Downtown News recently reported that occupancy rates in DTLA are currently around 98 percent, e.g. essentially full. Rents are climbing as a result—they increased 6 percent last year and are expected to increase as much as 9 percent in 2019. If you’re a downtown renter, expect to get a rent increase as soon as your lease expires.

That got me wondering what prices per square foot are for various downtown neighborhoods and how this compares with areas near downtown that families may consider moving to, such as Silverlake and Echo Park. After a couple of hours browsing through Craigslist apartment listings, I present to you my completely unscientific survey of rental prices**. I’m warning you in advance: it ain’t pretty.

Big variations in rental prices downtown

If you’re looking to live downtown, you’ll find big variations in rents depending on the neighborhood you choose. I was surprised to see that the Arts District appears to have the cheapest rents—approximately $2 a square foot. Assuming an apartment size of 900 square feet (the amount of space a typical family would require), that translates into a monthly rent of $1800. Compare this to the Historic Core ($2.16/sf = $1944/month) and Little Tokyo ($2.52/sf = $2268/month). South Park has its own quirks. While prices for average (i.e., not luxury) buildings are around $2.48 /sf, higher end buildings such as EVO can cost from $3 to $5 a square foot (yeouch!). Of course, you can’t assume any of these prices include parking, so plan on shelling out an additional $150-$200 a month per car.

Okay, so downtown is expensive. What about other neighborhoods?

Well, Silverlake is popular, plus it has good schools. But in the rental market, popular means pricey. Prices are running around $2.32/sf, aka $2088/month for that 900 sf apartment. Surprisingly, many of the apartments, even the more expensive ones, only have street parking. Unlike dog-friendly downtown, you have to work to find landlords who allow pets. And the cheaper apartments often have beige carpet, stucco ceilings and old appliances, something that can be hard to take after living in a loft apartment with Pergo floors, granite countertops and stainless steel refrigerators. Echo Park is significantly cheaper–$1.91/sf, aka $1719/month. But the units have the same issues you see in Silverlake, with the added downside of gang-related crime in certain areas.

If these rents have you feeling desperate, you could give up urban living altogether and move to South Pasadena. This Mayberry-like community features a great school system and charming downtown, as well as a stop on the Metro Gold line. Rents are much cheaper than downtown: $1.69/sf aka $1521/month for 900 square feet. Like Silverlake and Echo Park, many of the rentals are in older buildings with depressing builder’s beige carpet and walls, and they don’t allow pets. Unlike those neighborhoods, the majority of rentals come with parking.

If you really want to go all out suburban, there’s Burbank. Prices per square foot are comparable to South Pasadena, but you’ll get an entire home, a backyard and parking for that money. Apartment buildings seem to be in better shape too, with many featuring updated kitchens and bathrooms and on-site amenities like gyms and swimming pools. Of course, forget about living in a walkable community. And then there’s the commute on the 5 freeway…

So we live downtown and we just had a baby. Do we stay put or move?

That’s the Million Dollar Question (or rather the $2-$3 a square foot question). Based on price alone, it’s pretty clear that the suburbs are the winner. Suburbs also have more kid-oriented amenities like playgrounds and in places like Burbank and South Pasadena, the schools are strong as well (though that’s not true of all suburban valley areas *cough*VanNuys*cough*). But if you value walkability, access to public transit, pet ownership and a strong creative community, there isn’t a neighborhood in LA that beats downtown.

And ultimately, that’s what it comes down to in the end: what you value and how much you’re willing to pay for it. As prices rise in DTLA, it will be interesting to see how many families opt to stay put. Will the prospect of a house in Burbank be too tempting for most folks with kids in downtown? We’ll see.

**I’m not covering condos and house purchases in this article because most of the families I know downtown are renters.

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About Alisa Rivera

Alisa is a writer whose work has been featured in the Oregonian, the Syracuse Post-Standard, Latina magazine and other publications. She has also had her short fiction published in the Berkely Fiction Review and Iris: A Journal About Women. Alisa and her husband, James Hightower, have been happily raising their son, Nathan, in downtown Los Angeles since 2008. You can learn more about Alisa's work at www.alisarivera.com.