Crowded housing

Sixteen-year-old Monica, left, plays solitaire on a laptop as her brothers Cesar and Jonathan watch TV in the tiny apartment they share with four additional family members. Stretches of Los Angeles and Orange counties have some of the most crowded housing in the country. (Christina House / For The Times / January 26, 2014)

Sixteen-year-old Monica buried her face in a pillow, trying to rest for school the next day, as the clock ticked past 11 p.m.

Sleep was a battle in the tiny apartment. Hunched at the other end of the family's only mattress, two of her brothers played a video game while a third lounged next to her, watching virtual soccer players skitter on screen. Her 2-year-old niece toddled barefoot near the door, toying with a pile of pennies.

In all, seven people live in this wedge of space in Historic South-Central, including Monica's mother and the mother of the little girl — the longtime girlfriend of one of her brothers. They squeeze into an apartment roughly the size of a two-car garage, sharing a bathroom, a small kitchen and one common room.

"We're not comfortable," Monica's mother, Josefina Cano, said in Spanish. "But what can we do? It's better than being on the street."

Cano and her family live in one of the most crowded neighborhoods in the country. Nearly 45% of the homes there are considered "crowded" — having more than one person per room, excluding bathrooms, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data spanning 2008 to 2012. Almost one home in six is severely crowded, with more than two people per room.

Southern California is an epicenter for crowded housing: Out of the most heavily crowded 1% of census tracts across the country, more than half are in Los Angeles and Orange counties, a Times statistical analysis found. They are sprinkled throughout areas such as Westlake and Huntington Park around Los Angeles, and Santa Ana and Anaheim in Orange County.

INTERACTIVE: Mapping the country's crowded homes

From the outside looking in, it is a largely invisible phenomenon. Places such as Maywood and Huntington Park, south of Los Angeles, look little like the high-rises of Chicago or Boston. Yet behind the closed doors of small bungalows or squat apartment buildings, they are home to thousands more people per square mile than those large cities.

"This is an example of poverty that can go unseen in our communities," said Jason Mandell, United Way of Greater Los Angeles spokesman. "It's easy to miss if you're not paying attention."

The crowding is felt in ways big and small.

Around South Gate and Huntington Park, Head Start instructors who visit children at home find they have trouble focusing amid the hubbub. In the Florence-Firestone area, longtime resident Paula Trejo said, street parking is always scarce.

UCLA and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers have found that children in crowded homes have poorer health, worse scores on math and reading tests and more behavioral and emotional problems — such as tantrums and depression — even when poverty is taken into account.

"I don't think anyone really wants to live in overcrowded conditions," said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival. "But people will endure it because they have no choice."

::

Every inch of the apartment that Cano and her family share is consumed: Bags of clothing are heaped in the only closet. Atop the heater, under a can once used to collect funeral donations, sits a box with the ashes of Cano's late son, who endured seizures and died in his teens.

When they yearn for more room, young mother Selene Herrera takes her toddler to the hallway to sit beside a window, the same hallway where Monica and her brothers sometimes huddle with homework.

By night, they pile onto the mattress and spread blankets on the wooden floor. Late one Sunday, Monica lost patience as the toddler played with her piggy bank.

"Quit it with the pennies," the teen muttered in Spanish, pulling a blanket over her head to guard against the glow of the television screen.

Two years ago, Cano lost her job at a mini-market when it shut down. She said she has struggled to find work that will allow her to keep caring for one of her grown sons, who also has seizures.

Her eldest son also has been out of work, and Monica and Cano's third son are still in high school. The family hasn't been able to find a larger, affordable apartment that will rent to so many people, said Herrera, who interns at the community organizing group Strategic Actions for a Just Economy.