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Why L.A. has fridge-less apartments

Episode Summary

Most rental units in the United States come with refrigerators. Not in Southern California. We dive into the why.

Episode Notes

For most renters across the United States, having a refrigerator come with your unit is a given. Not in Southern California. For reasons no one can fully explain or understand, renters must furnish their living spaces with their own fridges, which has created an underground economy for the essential unit. Today, we try to crack this mystery.

Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times housing reporter Liam Dillon

More reading:

Why do so many L.A. apartments come without fridges? Inside the chilling mystery

Real Estate newsletter: Where are all the fridges?

Landlords in California aren’t required to provide refrigerators

Episode Transcription

Gustavo: You know that dumb prank call joke, "Is your refrigerator running? Well, you better go catch it!" Oy vey!

But for renters here in LA, it's actually not a joke cause, well, people have to chase refrigerators.

See, they don't typically come standard with your new apartment.

Michael Maloney: It's absolutely, it's, it's the most backwards thing I've ever heard of. And again, the no landlord knows why. It's crazy.
Liam: Yeah. Yeah.

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Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to "The Times," daily news from the L.A Times. It's Tuesday, June 14, 2022. Today, the underground refrigerator economy in Southern California and how the region became a bizarre outlier and something renters across most of the rest of the country take for granted.

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Gustavo: OK, so I never even thought of this phenomenon until my colleague, L.A Times housing reporter Liam Dillon, he wrote this great piece about it and he joins me now. And Liam, how many times have you had to lug a fridge from apartment to apartment?

Liam: I've been fortunate. I've only lived in L.A a few years um and I've been fortunate that all of my apartments came with refrigerators, but I have, I know when I was working on this story, I talked to many colleagues who were like, "Oh my God, I can't believe it. I've had to buy a little fridge or I've had to search for a little fridge and it's nuts."

Gustavo: Oh, yeah, you get either the super small one, like the one that reaches to your knees, or if you want to level up, you get the one that doesn't even have a real freezer and you like try to pack it with ice. And then of course, if you get a nicer one than you move, then you have to find your friend who does CrossFit to help you, cause you're not going to be able to do it on your own.

Liam: At least one, if not three friends that do CrossFit.

Gustavo: Oh, man, it's such a trip. So who's responsible then to have this precedent of so many apartments in LA, not having a fridge? Like, if you grew up here, you think it's perfectly normal until you either meet someone who just moved here, like yourself, not, you know, having not been here too many years, or you move out of the state and you buy a fridge and then you realize like, "Oh, my apartment already comes with a fridge."

Liam: Right. Well, that's the thing, like this was the mystery I wanted to get to the bottom of like, why is L.A so different? Like, why apartments not come with fridges here? And the simplest answer for it, kind of, at base, is that landlords don't have to.

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Liam: So, I talked to this L.A tenant named Michael Maloney. He within the past few months was looking for a new place and was very frustrated that he had to bring a fridge.

Michael Maloney:I can't, I can't wrap my mind around it. I think it's all California. I think it might be a law in California that doesn't require them.
That's correct.It's not like a hot tub. It's an amenity.

Liam: If a landlord doesn't have to provide an amenity or a, or an appliance or particularly an appliance that costs money to do or to buy, and then an appliance that costs money to service, and then an appliance that some landlord groups told me, you know, when it breaks, the tenants will say they // have nice things in the fridge and then // require their groceries to get paid for too.

Michael Maloney: No one was able to give a ... no landlord or our real estate agent was able to ever give a clear answer. Some saying that, uh, the landlords are responsible for, you know, if the power goes out or the refrigerator goes down, that they have to pay for the food and all these tenants are going to claim that they had lobster and caviar and such in the refrigerator.

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Liam: What I was told is it's kind of a hassle, and so they don't want to do it.

Gustavo: Wait. So there's actual laws that dictate whether landlords should or shouldn't have to // provide  fridges for tenants.

Liam: Very good question. This is also a rabbit hole that I went down. Um, So, uh, it's under , you know, what is habitable. // What's a place that you have to provide so that someone can live there // without the safety problems and things like that? And so, you know, What I found is New York state, for instance, while there's no technical law on the books that says you have to provide a refrigerator, there'd been a bunch of court cases there where judges have said, "Hey, the fact that this apartment does not have a refrigerator means that it's not safe, that it's on habitable. And as a result, you know, in New York, it is standard for apartments to come with refrigerators, in part, because landlords don't want to get sued.

Gustavo: Wow. That's a trip though. This idea that if you have to have units habitable. That people, or at least the state of California, doesn't think that a fridge is mandatory for having a habitable environment. Like, this isn't the 1900s where people cooled their food by literally digging it or putting it in the ground or buying massive blocks of ice. So //  I'd figure at some point, California law would have been updated to see and require fridges as a necessity of life.

Liam: Nope. I mean, it hasn't, and what // we heard from landlord groups is that because the fridge wasn't part of the law, then it didn't, they didn't want to have to provide it. And so I spoke with a woman named Deena Eberly. Her family has been in the apartment business in L.A. for a hundred years. And she said, that's the reason. And you know, it's interesting, it's actually this custom, if you will, in California and particularly Southern California is well known in the rental industry. So there's this major, huge single-family home rental company named Invitation Homes. They own over 80,000 //  single-family homes that they rent out across the country, mostly in 11 states rather, mostly in the South and in the West. And California is the only state in their portfolios, of the 12,000 homes here, do not come with refrigerators. And when I asked, "Well, why?" They said, "Well that's just the way it is in California. And so we're not going to do it."

Gustavo: All of this sounds sketch to me, Liam. There has to be a conspiracy, like big fridge or something.

Liam: And what's interesting too, is like, the law in and of itself, cannot really describe the whole reason for this. And I'm going to give you a couple of reasons why, you know, this is not an issue in the Bay Area, from the renters that I've spoken with. And actually some statistics that I pulled, // San Francisco, Oakland, apartments there come with fridges and renters that I spoke with here are moving from the Bay area to L.A., describe themselves just as shocked to be fridge-less, if you will, then those coming from out of state. Also we've talked a lot about the law. you know, Florida, Texas, there's no law there that requires apartments to come with refrigerators. But when I spoke with landlord groups and I, in fact, have once been a tenant in Florida and there was no question that // my apartment was going to come with a fridge. And so there's really something else going on here too.

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Gustavo: What on earth is this mystery? Coming up after the break, we'll talk a little bit more about it.

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Gustavo:  So, Liam, you mentioned you lived in Florida, there's fridges there.

Liam: Yup.

Gustavo: They're in New York. Is basically the rest of the country a fridge-friendly uh, place?

Liam: So the best theory that I got on this is from a professor at NYU in New York. Her name is Ingrid Gould Ellen. And what she told me is that there's economic theory called multiple equilibria.

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Liam: And basically it to translate that to normal person speak is that, kind of, something happened in a market, say there was // a meeting in the 1950s L.A smoke-filled room among a big landlords who decided, you know what, we're not going to do this fridge thing. And everyone said, cool. And then that just was how the market developed in LA, whereas in these other states or these other areas fridges just, sort of, became standard, and that was, kind of, the way things were. And so, it's almost like it was always this way and then there was no reason to change it. And so it's just persisted. Whereas in other places, the custom ended up starting different and therefore, you know, being different than here.

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Gustavo: But I'm surprised, especially in California, especially in Los Angeles, where you have so many lawmakers pushing to bring equity to working class folks that this issue hasn't been brought up. This idea that, "Hey, let's make landlord, let's require them to provide fridges. We already require them to do all these other things." Why not something as simple as that, you know?

Liam: Yeah. I mean, sure. There's a lot of fights though, that are, you know, to be clear are probably our bigger ones to have than whether your apartment comes with the fridge. You know, There's constant fights in // Sacramento where I used to be stationed, used to cover state politics about things like rent control, tenant protections, tenant lawyers, evictions, et cetera, et cetera. And so those are the fights that tend to be // hashed out in Sacramento. Unfortunately, for many the fridge issue has not come up.

Gustavo: What do L.A landlords themselves say about this whole idea? I mean, are they happy that they don't have to provide fridges for tenants?

Liam: Yeah, I and if they wanted to, then they just simply would, right? But then they, then once it's in the apartment, they have to //  maintain it. So when I spoke with Deena Eberly, one of the things she said though, is that this phenomenon may be changing a little bit and that's really only so in the last 15 years where there was a bunch of /// new, higher-end construction, in /// downtown L.A and then surrounding area. And all of those new apartments // came with refrigerators because tenants were demanding it and they were higher-end. And so for some of the older properties to sort of compete with some of the tenants that would be wanting these higher-end, newer apartments // the fridge, sort of, has to come standard.

Gustavo: Wow. Gentrifiers actually doing something good for once. What would be the benefit of having landlords, of requiring them to have fridges? Obviously, besides the fact that you don't as a tenant, you don't have to be moving around fridges or buying them from place to place, but has there ever been any other studies about maybe the difference between places that require fridges and places that don't.

Liam: Not that I'm aware of. No. I mean, I think like obviously the cost is a huge benefit to the tenant, not having to do it, but I think, for many of the tenants that I spoke with in the course of reporting this story, many of whom had crazy stories about // having to consult the Yellow Pages to try to find you know, their fridge dealer.

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Liam: Running around a Craigslist and Facebook marketplace to, try to make sure that the fridge, used fridge they wanted to get didn't // smell bad or have mold or all these sorts of things. And so, I think, it's really the convenience issue almost as much, if not more than, the money issue was the big deal here. //  It's a pain to move a refrigerator. It's hundreds of pounds. You can't do it on your own. //  It's impossible. And so that's the pain and then, you know, say you buy the fridge in it and you forget to know where the, which way the door opens. And so all of a sudden your kitchen is blocked off every time you open the fridge. Or even worse, /// you buy the fridge and then it doesn't fit in the little hole, little fridge hole that your apartment has.///  Lots of logistical issues here that I think many tenants would very gladly pay a little bit more to try to avoid.

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Gustavo: And not just as it, hundreds of pounds, just the way. Yeah, the way It's uh, the, the shape It's like tall, a rectangle. You can't just deadlift it. Like I remember when we used to live, my wife and I, we lived on the second floor of a place and you had to go up stairs from the outside. There was no elevator. And so the two guys who did it, they put on like suspenders, they put it underneath the fridge and then they slowly had to walk up. It was the most bizarre thing. And then you think to yourself, "How else are you going to do it?" And gosh, what an inconvenience.

Liam: Yeah. Yeah. Pretty miserable, man. Pretty miserable. Moving is terrible. And then you add this to the list of things you have to do when you have to move. Just makes it worse.

Gustavo: The California legislature has to do something. 

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More when we come back.

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Gustavo: Liam. So you talked a little bit about that search for where to get fridges Craigslist, Yellow Pages. Me personally, I love going to the Sears outlet store. That's like the last thing Sears has going for it, but you get good fridges vastly reduced. I mean, it's going to cost you hundreds of dollars. Yes. But you got to new, and like the one that we have, I think we've had now since we moved in. So like almost 12 years. How is this market going? In other words, what is the underground fridge economy? How does it look like?

Liam: Yeah. So that's the thing that I discovered also in the course of reporting this is how vast and deep this underground fridge market is.

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Michael Maloney: Now I'm trying to find out where to buy a refrigerator and actually go to, you know, the typical places, you know, Amazon or Home Depot or, or something like that.

Liam: Obviously, if you want to make this simple for yourself, you can go to Home Depot. You can go to Best Buy. You can spend a couple hundred bucks, have it delivered. But that's going to cost you more. If you want to get a cheaper fridge, and many renters do, because they're like, why do I need to carry a fridge around for the rest of my life, they go to this // Facebook marketplace, apps on the phone Craigslist and try to find try to find a fridge dealer. As I said, one renter I spoke with ended up going to the Yellow Pages to find someone. He was very happy after all of his other fridge searches struck out. // So when I was talking to Michael Maloney, again, he was a tenant in Highland Park who was looking for a fridge for his apartment. He really wasn't sure what to do. And he was having his own struggles // navigating //  the fridge economy here.

Michael Maloney: I don't know where to buy a refrigerator that I do not need. I don't know where, you know, I'm like, well, there's a couple of appliance stores selling some used stuff, but, but I mean, I don't know what I'm going to get. You know, you go on Craigslist and you don't know what was, you know, where that was their refrigerator somebody's garage and were they keeping like, you know, a dead animal in there or something? I don't know. I don't know.

Liam: You can't know, right?

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Gustavo: Damn. // 

Liam  What's interesting too, is that fridges tend to get passed down like heirlooms // between previous tenants and incoming tenants. And often people will just leave them. And then the landlord has to decide, "OK, what am I going to cart this out or should I leave it for the next tenant?" And what I've heard is that in leases landlords will require the tenant to say, "OK, I want the fridge, but it's my responsibility." // So if it breaks, then they don't have to do maintenance on it. And so again, lots of little things that are very quirky, if you will, about, uh, about , how L.A works.

Gustavo: So finally, Liam, you mentioned how some of these apartments are a little bit more on the higher scale. They're starting to include fridges because the tenants already demand it. So do you think though, that's going to trickle down into other uh, places, other apartments, other rental homes, and finally L.A will be fridge friendly forever? 

Liam: It's a good question. I mean, I think that, ///  that there are some signs of that, but, there are a lot of apartments in L.A and this has been going on for so long and I think unless, and until there's actually a change and it may end up being more of a cultural change than a legal change. Then this is going to be with us for a very long time, // and here we are. You know, so, I mean, there are a lot of fridges now on the secondary //  market. If fridges become mandatory, I don't know what ends up happening to them either.

Gustavo: And then did Michael ever end up getting his fridge?

Liam: You know, he was so exhausted with the fridge process.

Michael Maloney:, do I have to pay more money to have them move it? Do I go rent a truck? Do I have to go find somebody else to help me carry this thing? So all those factors went into it where I was just like, I just want this done. I just don't want to even think about it. And even if I could have saved myself a little bit of extra money, the time and energy just wasn't adding up.

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Liam: On a Sunday afternoon, went to Home Depot, got himself a little fridge, and then had it delivered the same day.

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Gustavo: Liam, thank you so much for this conversation and take care of your fridge.

Liam: I will do my best. Thank you, Gustavo.

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Gustavo: And that's it for this episode of "The Times," daily news from the L.A Times. Angel Carreras was a jefe on this episode and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo, Ashlea Brown and Angel Carreras.

Our editorial assistant is Madalyn Amato and our intern is Surya Hendry. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmin Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is by Andrew Eappen. 

\And hey…quick favor. Take a minute and go to latimes dot com slash podcast survey and answer a few questions for us. Your input will help shape the future of the show…so thanks in advance.

 I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back tomorrow with all the news and desmadre. Gracias. 

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