Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, California

The Los Angeles metropolitan area, comprised of Los Angeles County and Orange County, is home to the largest Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) population in the US (more than 2.1 million residents in 2019). It is also one of the least affordable metros for AAPI renters: in 2019, only 1 percent of zip codes in the region had a median market rent that was affordable for median-income AAPIs. Nearly 100 percent of AAPI residents in the metro area live in neighborhoods where a median-income AAPI household would be rent-burdened by the median market rent.

Despite its enormous geographic size, the Los Angeles metro area faces the same housing crisis gripping the rest of California, where a substantial lack of housing stock has led to surging home prices and rental costs in recent decades. Despite the presence of thousands of high-income AAPI homeowners, many other AAPI residents struggle to make ends meet in a rental market hostile to low-income families.

While AAPI residents are spread throughout the entire metro area, the historically redlined, central-city ethnic enclaves in Los Angeles — Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Koreatown, and Historic Filipinotown — are not the most prominent population hubs. Rather, the AAPI population is largely suburban, with significant population clusters in Eastside and San Gabriel Valley as well as the southeast portion of Los Angeles County and the northern parts of Orange County. These neighborhoods are older suburbs that were all-white before World War II but became majority AAPI and Latinx in the late 20th century through a combination of housing desegregation, white flight, and immigration. Different AAPI communities tend to have different settlement patterns. For instance, the corridor between Long Beach and Westminster (known as “Little Saigon”) became home to many Southeast Asian refugee populations, while Chinese American residents are concentrated in the suburbs east of Downtown Los Angeles.

While these AAPI suburbs are less dense than traditional, urban ethnic enclaves and have a larger share of owner-occupied, single-family homes, they are similar since they contain invaluable community networks, financial resources, and culturally familiar goods for immigrant and linguistically isolated residents. Community advocates working with Cambodian American residents in Long Beach describe a common sense of interdependence and solidarity that brings people to seek community support instead of public services and leads them to spend their money locally.

However, local advocates also note the disparities within and between AAPI communities, especially as some AAPI residents with capital can exploit or imperil other AAPI residents. For instance, in some low-income communities, younger AAPI investors, entrepreneurs, and residents have formed a significant part of the gentrifying businesses and newcomers who are displacing longstanding, working-class residents. In Orange County, often regarded as a wealthy suburb, many low-income AAPI tenants rent from AAPI landlords. They also live in overcrowded and/or informal arrangements without regular access to kitchen space or even indoor plumbing. Many renters, who are at the mercy of exploitative landlords, choose not to register complaints or seek legal assistance because they fear that raising a stir would compel their landlords to tarnish their reputation among other landlords and jeopardize their ability to stay in the neighborhood. Beyond these coercive living conditions, many other low-income AAPI residents do not seek public services or non-community supports for several reasons, including a cultural emphasis on self-reliance, a lack of understanding of how to navigate social service systems, and political opposition to public welfare.

In all, the fact that AAPIs in the Los Angeles metro area are predominantly suburban should not mask the many financial struggles that many different AAPI communities experience across the region. Local organizers and service providers emphasize the importance of understanding not just the ethnic diversity but also the internal complexity of AAPI communities, especially when the socioeconomic diversity of AAPIs means that some residents are landlords while others are tenants. Moreover, simply offering legal aid and tenant protections is not enough to ensure that all renters will feel comfortable and empowered enough to act upon them — as community advocates note, it is important to understand the array of cultural and social factors shaping families’ search for affordable, safe housing.

Alex Jung, the director of urban design and planning at City Fabrick; Xinyu Lin, a planner at City Fabrick; and Mary Anne Foo, the founder and executive director of the Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance, contributed observations and insights to this profile.