Four days a week, Leticia Ortega de Ceballos sleeps in her car so she can pay for a house more than 100 miles away.
Her workweek begins with the Sunday night shift at the Loews Hollywood Hotel, where she cleans the hallways and lobby. When she finishes, exhausted, there’s just an hour until she starts her second job cleaning hotel rooms at the Hilton in Glendale.
Then she has six hours to shower, eat and sleep before she starts all over again. Loews, Hilton, shower, eat, sleep. The 56-year-old sees the house in California City and the family within it on weekends.
Gladis Ávila, 39, can spend more than two hours in traffic commuting to her job at the W Hollywood Hotel from her new house in Victorville, a 90-mile drive away. Some nights she gets home just as her youngest children are getting ready for bed.
“At the end of the day, when I’m heading home,” Ávila said, “I wonder if it’s worth it.”
The women, both hotel workers, grapple with all the difficulties of the housing market in California today, the high prices that push first-time buyers increasingly far from work, the scarcity of anything they can actually afford.
Housing concerns have been at the forefront of contract negotiations for hotel workers. Thousands of workers recently went on a three-day strike, demanding higher pay and better benefits. It was the first wave of walkouts that anticipated this summer after the contracts expired.
But Ortega de Ceballos and Ávila are looking for more than just shelter.
Sure, they want a home to live in now. But they also want to one day give their children the financial footing they themselves never had. The key is more than just hard work and a savings account with a laughably low interest rate. The key is a house, the kind of investment that can grow over time.
Investing in a house is their way of building the kind of generational wealth that has long been out of reach for Black and brown families in the United States. The typical white family in the 21st century has five times the wealth of the typical Latino family and eight times the wealth of the typical Black family, according to the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finance.
And while home ownership represents an important component of wealth, there is a significant divide in who is able to achieve it. In California, in 2021, the Latino home ownership rate stood at 45.6%, compared to 64.5% for white families. The Black homeownership rate stood at 35.5%, according to census data analyzed by the Public Policy Institute of California.
The typical route to owning a home is to rent first and eventually save enough for a down payment. But with rising rents and wages that aren’t commensurate, that dream has become increasingly out of reach.
“Traditionally, owning a home has been the way that most families accumulate wealth,” said Marisol Cuellar Mejia, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. “That has happened for many years, and that was in some way a manifestation of the American dream.”
Ortega de Ceballos, who emigrated from Mexico in the 1980s, started working two jobs, in part so he could help his sister back home study at a university. The two were orphans. Ortega de Ceballos wanted his sister to follow her dream.
She started a family while living in North Hollywood, but as it grew she moved to Sun Valley to find a larger place. Then she moved even farther away, to Lancaster, where she rented a house for a decade and raised her three children. That’s when she started sleeping in her car to save time and money on gas.
Ortega de Ceballos has juggled both jobs for more than 20 years. At the Hilton, rooms can go for more than $200 a night. At Loews, they go for around $300. Ortega de Ceballos earns $22 an hour.
It wasn’t until four years ago that she was able to finally accomplish her dream of buying her own home. The only catch — this time the house was even farther north, in California City, about 105 miles from her jobs in Hollywood and Glendale. Although it has a population of around 15,000, to Ortega de Ceballos it’s a “pueblito,” a small town. The typical home price is less than $300,000, compared to nearly a million in LA
She shares the three-bedroom home with her husband, who is disabled, and her youngest son, who is 29 and studying nursing. The house, severely damaged when the couple bought it, has now been renovated. When Ortega de Ceballos is home, she tends to her trees in a garden out back.
Owning her own home helped Ortega de Ceballos secure a better future for herself in addition to her children. Whatever she knows, the retirement income she receives won’t be enough to pay rent in LA
“When I retire, I’m not going to be worried about all of these costs. I’m not going to be worried that I’m going to have to rent and I’ll be without money to eat or anything to live,” Ortega de Ceballos said.
The trade-off to accomplish her dreams has been brutal. The grueling, almost three-hour commute back home would be impossible, so she doesn’t return from Sunday to Friday. She sleeps in her red Kia more often than she does in her own house. She’s endured waves of heat and at times feels as if she’s homeless.
Sometimes she goes out to eat, but often she depends on the food she can get from the hotel, where she also showers. She drinks hotel coffee morning and night to keep her going.
On Fridays, her husband drives to Lancaster and then takes the train to his wife so he can drive her home and prevent her from falling asleep on the wheel.
“It’s cost me a lot of sweat and tears,” Ortega de Ceballos said, his voice choked with tears. “Everything requires sacrifice. I’ve had to make sacrifices to get to where I am.”
“The most important thing is that my kids feel secure that they’ll have something one day,” she added. “For their future.”
Ortega de Ceballos had thought about finding work closer to home, but it would pay much less. It’s a cruel irony, where the income is better in LA — just not enough to live there without throwing the bulk of her paychecks at the rent.
That fact has become a major focus as the hotel workers’ union Unite Here Local 11 tries to negotiate new contracts for its members. Thousands of workers at hotels across Southern California walked off the job over the busy Fourth of July weekend.
In a Unite Here Local 11 survey, 53% of workers said they had either moved in the past five years or will move in the near future because of housing costs. Hotel workers reported commuting hours from Apple Valley, Palmdale, California City and Victorville.
In contract negotiations, the union has proposed creating a hospitality workforce housing fund, in addition to better wages, healthcare benefits, pensions and safer workloads. The hope is that an additional tax on hotel bills could go toward the construction of workforce housing for hospitality workers, said Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11.
“I think every working person in Los Angeles is struggling to afford to live in Los Angeles,” Petersen said. “Our position is that those who work in the region’s most important and prosperous industry — tourism — need to have the ability to live in Los Angeles.”
On the Fourth of July, around 30 people, including housekeepers and cooks, picked outside of the W Hollywood Hotel, where rooms went for more than $300 a night. They twirled noisemakers, banged on pots and pans and used megaphones to amplify their chants. At times, onlookers threw eggs at them.
Ávila was among those picking. She usually commutes from Victorville to Hollywood from Sunday to Thursday. She has been a housekeeper at the W for 11 years, but she hasn’t worked at the hotel for the last few months as she helps organize her colleagues in her capacity as a union steward.
When Ávila first arrived in LA in 2009, she was squeezed into a studio apartment with her parents, sister and her young son. After she started her own family, she rented a one-bedroom in Hollywood for $1,700. She, her husband, Armando Guzmán, and their three kids shared the room, splitting up among bunk beds.
A year and a half ago, she and Guzmán found a five-bedroom house in Victorville where her children — ages 17, 9 and 7 — could each have their own room. They pay $2,000 a month toward something of their own.
The two-story house has a pool, where the family spends weekends. She has space for exercise equipment, which saves her money in a gym. Even though her oldest son had been reluctant to leave LA, she said, he was happy to have a room of his own.
To stay awake on drives that can sometimes last three hours, Ávila keeps candy and gum in her car. She rolls down the windows and calls other hotel workers throughout the commute.
Guzmán, a construction worker in LA, will sometimes stay the night with his mother or sister on days where the sun has beaten down and left him too drained to drive home.
Ávila thinks about how much she struggled in life and how she wants to ensure a better future for her children.
“I know that one day, when I’m not here,” Ávila said, “my children can have this home and know, ‘my mother made a sacrifice for us.’”