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The pandemic Thanksgiving: Gratitude, hope endure amid a thankless year in Southern California

Infection rates. Drive-thru testing centers. Hospitalizations, ventilators and intensive-care units. It’s a very different sort of holiday season for Southern California.

Welcome to the pandemic Thanksgiving. This is the year our leaders asked us not to travel, dine away from home or gather in big groups — essentially, Thanksgiving’s tentpoles. So for many, that seat at the table for a beloved mom, a treasured uncle, a lifelong friend, a revered grandma … is empty this year.

The months-long coronavirus outbreak is surging anew, taking dozens more lives every day from San Bernardino to Pacoima to Pasadena, from Riverside to Orange County to the South Bay.

And still…

“We don’t have a lot of extra stuff, but I can’t think of anything we really need. I have so much to be grateful for.”

That’s the voice of Tanya Doby, 41, a business owner and the first Black city council member in Los Alamitos.

Amid the tragedy and the turbulence, Doby is deeply grateful.

She’s not alone.

She’s one of many folks we spoke to who reminded us that even amid a year steeped in disrupted traditions and heartbreaking headlines, there is still reason for gratitude. And hope.

“On Monday, I drove by a food bank in Anaheim with a long line of cars,” she said. “It occurred to me, I don’t have to be in one of those lines. I have food and clean water. My children are healthy, my husband is well.”

Los Alamitos City Councilwoman Tanya Doby poses for a photo at Laurel Park in Los Alamitos on Wednesday, August 26, 2020..(Photo by Kyusung Gong/Contributing Photographer)

Amen to that.

Others will mark the day having lost much this year, and yet, still are finding fortitude to push through. And many found ways to help those who weren’t so fortunate.

Twelve days in May

Julian Ramirez, 63, stares out at his yard. He and wife, Saramaria, planted and nurtured that mango tree.

It’s a symbol of a robust life the El Salvadorian L.A. couple lived. He proudly holds up a picture of Saramaria. Wide smile, lots of teeth. Lots of love.

Julian Ramirez shares a picture of him and his wife Saramaria in his Arleta home on Friday, November 20, 2020. Saramaria, 36, died of COVID-19 after catching the virus at the convalescent home where she worked as a nurse said Ramirez. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

The two met in El Salvador in the 2000s, but by then Julian, much her elder, had already long been settled in Arleta. So he helped her get a visa to come to the U.S. She arrived in 2005, and they would soon marry. They had a son, also named Julian. He’s 10.

It wouldn’t be long before Saramaria would earn her nursing degree, studying at L.A. Mission and L.A. Valley colleges in the San Fernando Valley, Julian said, adding it was the culmination of a life devoted to helping people.

Then, devastating news in 2018: Cancer.

“When we heard that.. believe me, everything just fell apart,” Ramirez said. “Not economically.. but in spirit everything just fell apart. We knew that it was an uphill fight.”

Julian Ramirez thinks of his wife at the mango tree he surprised her with in the garden she nurtured at their Arleta home on Friday, November 20, 2020. Saramaria, 36, died of COVID-19 after catching the virus at the convalescent home where she worked as a nurse said Ramirez. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

She battled hard. She continued her work as a nurse, still wanting to help people. Who was Ramirez to stop her from her mission, he asked.

But by May 2020, the pain in her back grew too severe. She’d see  doctor, who ultimately diagnosed her with the coronavirus.

Saramaria, 36, never came back home — back to “la casita.”

In 12 days she was gone, leaving lasting memories of Facetime connections with a mom, a sister, a wife, a son and a husband she could not see in person.

Ten-year-old Julian Amani Ramirez holds a picture of his mother Saramaria and her wedding rings with his father Julian in their Arleta home on Friday, November 20, 2020. Saramaria, 36, died of COVID-19 after catching the virus at the convalescent home where she worked as a nurse said Ramirez. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Much of her family — Julian’s father-in-law, mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, lives with Julian now — as they raise his 10-year-old together.

As Thanksgiving arrives, the memories of the year are still raw. But he said he finds strength to be thankful that his family has health and offers thanks to a country that has enabled him to have a life to provide for a family.

He continued his gaze at the mango tree, with a few tears, and the flowers the couple planted around it.

“Everything reminds me of her,” he said, remembering the best of times.

“Many times, I felt like I am feeling like the happiest man in the whole world, from my head to my toes,” he added.

“I breathed it in.”

‘A harder Thanksgiving’

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia will hunker down on the holiday, at home with his husband.

“…Just the two of us,” he said.

Mayor Robert Garcia (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

But it will be unlike any previous holiday for the 42-year-old mayor, now in his second term.

Garcia’s mother and father-in-law died from COVID-19.

Greg and Gabriella O’Donnell Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia’s stepfather, Greg O’Donnell died from coronavirus complications — two weeks after the mayor’s mother passed away. (Courtesy of Mayor Robert Garcia)

The mayor’s mother, Gabriella O’Donnell, who immigrated with Garcia from Peru when he was 5 years old, died July 26. She was 61 years old. Then, Greg O’Donnell, 58, her husband, died on Sunday, Aug. 9, one day after Gabriella’s memorial service.

The death of the Whittier couple came at at time when Garcia himself was — and still is — working around the clock to lead the city of more than 460,000 people through the pandemic.

As Thanksgiving arrives, he’s got both things on his mind.

Mayor Robert Garcia outside city hall in Long Beach, CA, on Thursday, Sept., 10, 2020. Garcia lost his mother and stepfather to COVID-19.(Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

“This is going to be a harder Thanksgiving for me, and quite frankly a lot of families across the country, who will be experiencing their first Thanksgiving, or their first Christmas, without members of their family — and for me, for my mom and my step dad,” he said this Monday. “I am still thankful that I have other members of my family who are healthy and alive.”

He hoped everyone would just try to stay safe, stay home this year for the holiday, as the surge threatens to put more stress on the region’s hospitals.

“I’m still thankful for all the blessings we still have in our life, and hopeful that there is light at the end of the tunnel,.” he said. “If we can just continue to sacrifice and keep each other safe, early next year in January we are going to start seeing people getting access to the vaccine… .”

‘Courageous dialogue’

The pandemic and the protests against racial injustice have exposed not just racial inequities, but also the fact that the country has a long way to go when it comes to battling systemic racism, said Pastor Samuel Casey, senior pastor of New Life Christian Church in Fontana and executive director of Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement.

Rev. Sam Casey, Executive Director of Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement, at his home in Fontana on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

“I’m thankful that even though we have some rough seasons this year, things are getting better, and we had the opportunity to fight for justice in new ways,” he said. “Through Black people and other people of color, it has been brought to national and global attention that America still has work to do.”

This has also been a year of reconciliation, which despite widespread division and polarization, has been taking place in pockets in communities across the country, Casey said.

“It has opened up courageous dialogue,” he said. “Proximity does breed empathy. And this year has really brought us together whether we wanted to be together or not.”

A new life

It was Sept. 9, and the time had come. After months in and out of the hospital, Janet Udomratsak was ready to give birth.

It had been a rocky road.

Janet Udomratsak with her family, James, 2 months, husband, Chris and Henry, 5 in Sylmar, CA November 25, 2020. James was born in September after a harrowing pregnancy that included complications. The family will celebrate Thanksgiving her parents and siblings who are in thier “bubble” with time. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Pregnancy complications landed her in the hospital throughout the year. Not only was her pregnancy at risk, but so was the beginning of the school year for a Sylmar woman who’s been in the business of teaching for 11 years.

Up until three days before the delivery date, during a 10-week stay, she was teaching her elementary-schoolers from the confines of her hospital room at Providence Holy Cross in Mission Hills.

But things got extra complicated at birth. Bleeding in her uterus during the planned caesarean section turned an expected 30-minute delivery into an hours-long surgery that involved tense moments, concern, multiple blood transfusions and the ultimate removal of her uterus.

Even for Udomratsak — long braced for the unexpected after such a difficult year — the tension was clear as the pre-delivery banter and anticipation turned to serious silence.

She was forced to make a life-changing decision in the matter of moments. But what mattered most was making sure the her baby was born.

Janet Udomratsak with James, 2 months. James was born in September after a harrowing pregnancy that included complications. The family will celebrate Thanksgiving her parents and siblings who are in thier “bubble” with time. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Meet James — all 3 pounds, 11 ounces and 16 inches of him at birth.

“When he came out, I was in shock,” she said. “I was like wow, he’s here. He came out, kicking and crying when he came out. The whole room was in tears. They knew the struggle. They were with me from day 1.”

This Thanksgiving, the family will be together — little James, mom, dad Chris, and Henry, 5, who loves bringing toys to show his little brother.

“Knowing it could have been worse, it makes me that much more thankful, I am more aware of everything now. I want to enjoy my time with everybody,” she said.

“And, with that, I also want to take care of myself so I can be around for everyone.”

Staff writers Deepa Bharath, Susan Goulding, Martin Wisckol and Steve Scauzillo contributed to this story.

High-balance loan limits to soar to record $822,375 in 2021

What a way to kick off Thanksgiving weekend.

For the second year in a row, maximum mortgage limits have broken a record, officially entering the stratosphere, and heading toward the moon.

The new “conforming” loan limits for high-cost areas, including Los Angeles and Orange counties, will rise to $822,375 starting Jan. 1, a 7.4% increase over 2020’s limit of $765,600, the Federal Housing Finance Agency announced Tuesday, Nov. 24.

That means loans up to that amount can be acquired by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, making them eligible for lower interest rates.

For the rest of the nation, including Riverside and San Bernardino counties, conforming loan limits will increase to $548,250, up from $510,400 in 2020.

“High-balance” loans, or mortgages for amounts between $548,250 and $822,375 in high-cost areas, will be more costly than those for under $548,250, with rates about 0.25-0.5% higher plus an additional 0.25-1 point higher in loan costs.

This is the fifth straight year that the FHFA (Fan and Fred’s conservator and regulator) has increased both high-balance and conforming maximum loan limits, enabling the mortgage giants to purchase higher-balance closed loans from lenders.

You don’t have to wait until Jan. 1 to borrow the bigger bucks. Most lenders will immediately fund new loan applications based upon FHFA’s recent announcement.

Two to four units have higher loan limits, requiring larger minimum payments and coming with additional pricing charges from Fan and Fred. Accessory dwelling units or ADU’s are not defined as units for lending purposes.

For 2021, conforming two-unit maximum limits will be $702,000, three-unit limits $848,500 and four-units are $1,054,500.

The high-balance max for two-units will be $1,053,000, three-units will be $1,272,750, and four-units will be $1,581,750.

Loans above the conforming loan limits are considered jumbo loans and won’t be purchased by Fan or Fred.

Jumbo loans generally require a higher minimum down payment of at least 10%. Conforming loans are available with as little as 3% down, and high-balance loans are available with as little as 5% down.

Jumbo loans tend to have higher mortgage rates and more stringent loan approval rules.

What if you are seeking a higher-priced property and can’t qualify for a jumbo loan? Or what if you want to lower your payment?

A piggy-back loan might be a good option.

You put at least 10.1% down. Your first trust deed (California’s version of a mortgage) can go up to $822,375, and a second lien home equity line of credit for up to $500,000 can piggy-back on top of that. The HELOC’s, as the line of credit loans are called, would be interest-only, meaning none of your monthly payment would go to reducing the loan balance.

For example, your sales price is $1,470,000. You put 10.1% down, or $148,470. Your first trust deed is $822,375, and your piggy-back second is $499,155.

California borrowers account for about 20% of all mortgages acquired by Fannie and Freddie. Even with five straight years of loan limit increases, FHFA’s maximum loan limit increases keep Californians at a costly disadvantage.

The average California purchase loan amount increased 21.2% from 2015 to 2019 (from $436,747 to $529,173), according to mortgage data from Irvine-based Attom Data Solutions.

The average refinance loan amount increased 23.2% (from $383,431 to $474,872).

FHFA’s loan limits for both conforming and high-balance loans increased just 16.2% over that same period, from $417,000 to $484,350 for conforming loans and $625,500 to $726,525 for high-balance loans.

But real estate prices surpassed those increases in the Golden State.

Average California purchase loan amounts lagged the FHFA’s conforming loan limits by 31%, while refinances were a whopping 43% short.

The Southern California counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino had very similar results.

Either California borrowers are paying more for their mortgages in pricing penalties for less down payment or equity (in the case of a refinance) or more are being forced to go the jumbo loan route.

Freddie Mac rate news: The 30-year fixed-rate averaged 2.72%, unchanged from last week’s record low. The 15-year fixed-rate averaged 2.28%, also unchanged from last week’s record low.

The Mortgage Bankers Association reported a 3.9% increase in loan application volume from one week earlier.

Bottom line: Assuming a borrower gets the average 30-year fixed rate on a conforming $548,250 loan, last year’s payment was $288 more than this week’s payment of $2,229.

What I see: Locally, well-qualified borrowers can get the following fixed-rate mortgages without cost: A 30-year FHA at 2.5%, a 15-year conventional at 2.375, a 30-year conventional at 2.875%, a 15-year conventional high-balance at 3%, a 30-year conventional high-balance at 3.5%, and a jumbo 30-year mortgage that’s fixed for five years at 3.125%.

Eye catcher loan of the week: A 30-year high-balance fixed-rate conventional mortgage at 2.375% for one and one-half point cost.

Jeff Lazerson is a mortgage broker. He can be reached at 949-334-2424 or [email protected] His website is www.mortgagegrader.com.

COVID-19 restrictions to boost e-commerce holiday sales

If ever there was a shopping holiday whose time has come, it has to be Cyber Monday.

With COVID-19 cases on the rise and California brick-and-mortar retailers facing stiff restrictions as a result, online buying is expected to get a boost this holiday season. A growing number of consumers have turned to online shopping in recent years, buoyed by deep discounts and the convenience of fast delivery.

Big numbers

BlackFriday.com predicts Cyber Monday e-commerce sales will hit $10 billion this year, up from $9.4 billion in 2019, $7.9 billion in 2018 and $6.59 billion in 2017.

Retailers are bracing for a softer holiday season this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but e-commerce buying is expected to rise 35.8% to $190.47 billion, according to Insider Intelligence.

That’s a $50 billion increase, and it will offset an expected 4.7% decline in in-store holiday sales, boosting overall holiday buying by 0.9% to more than $1 trillion, the analytics firm said.

BlackFriday.com predicts Cyber Monday e-commerce sales will hit $10 billion this year, up from $9.4 billion in 2019, $7.9 billion in 2018 and $6.59 billion in 2017.

The cost of returns

Will all of this online shopping permanently whittle away a sizable chunk of in-store buying? Bob Phibbs, CEO of The Retail Doctor, a New York-based retail consulting firm, doesn’t think so.

“In the short term, yes,” he said. “But the dirty little secret no one wants to talk about is all of the returns. That will be bigger than ever this holiday season and the cost to retailers will be substantial.”

Beyond that, a wide range of consumers still like to see and feel clothing and other merchandise before buying, Phibbs said, and they don’t want to be overwhelmed by an endless online selection of products.

“If I need to buy a new ink cartridge for my printer, sure I’ll buy that online,” he said. “But if I’m outfitting a new home office I don’t want to scroll through 1,800 choices for desks and chairs. I want to see choices that are already curated.”

Deep discounts

Regardless of preference, a broad array of deep discounts will be available come Cyber Monday.

Amazon, Walmart and Best Buy, are previewing some of their Cyber Monday deals this week. Amazon’s bargains include an Echo smart hub that will be selling for $69.99 (30% off), a Fire HD tablet priced at $54.99 (a $35 discount) and Lacoste apparel, shoes and accessories, all selling for up to 30% off.

Walmart will be selling $89.99 IPX7 wireless Bluetooth headphones for $20.99 and Best Buy will feature a Parrot-ANAFI drone with Skycontroller for $599.99, a $300 discount.

Kevin Bourland, a Realtor with the Compass real estate agency in Pasadena, said he’s boosted his online buying as a result of COVID-19 although he’s not necessarily tuned in to Cyber Monday.

“It really doesn’t move me either way,” he said. “I’m usually sparked by something I see on Instagram or Facebook — something that’s in my wheelhouse. But I also try to support local merchants.”

Bourland said his business has managed to successfully navigate COVID-19.

“The way we present and market houses is very different and the process takes a little longer,” he said. “But we’ve been able to pivot, and the market in the Pasadena area is still good.”

The best deals

BlackFriday.com predicts that some of the deepest Cyber Monday discounts will be in clothing:

  • Amazon: 50% off clothing from its in-house brands (including Amazon Essentials, Goodthreads)
  • Ann Taylor: 50% off
  • Banana Republic: 50% off
  • Gap: 60% off
  • Kohl’s: 20% off
  • Old Navy: 60% off
  • Nordstrom: 50% off

“This holiday season will see a continuation of the channel-shift to e-commerce, as shoppers look to avoid crowds and minimize their number of in-person shopping trips,” Insider Intelligence analyst Andrew Lipsman said in a statement.

But there could be a downside, he said.

“With these huge gains expected, there’s growing concern around the potential for ‘shippageddon,’ where high package volumes overwhelm logistics capacity and result in deliveries arriving after Christmas,” Lipsman said.

Phibbs stressed that in-store and online retail are distinctly different experiences.

“We are social animals,” he said. “The reason you go out into the world is to discover something new. We go online to buy … but we go to stores to shop.”

L.A. County takes first steps toward new youth justice department

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has voted to take the first steps in transitioning to a rehabilitative, ‘care-first’ model of juvenile justice, a plan expected to ultimately move funding and responsibility out of the probation department and into a new Department of Youth Development by 2025.

The move was based on a set of recommendations laid out in a report titled Youth Justice Reimagined, produced by the county’s Youth Justice Work Group. It calls for reducing the overall size and scope of the juvenile probation system and investing in community-based resources.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl previewed the plan Monday in a briefing with reporters.

“Honestly our current system really isn’t working. It’s not working for us, it obviously isn’t working for the young people,” Kuehl said then.

“Rather than a punitive system in a prison-like setting with big buildings and barbed wire, far from their communities, what we’re proposing and beginning to explore with this motion is more of a homelike setting in communities, still with public safety in mind.”

Kuehl and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas co-authored a motion calling on the board to adopt the ‘care-first’ values outlined in the report and direct the CEO and the Office of Diversion and Reentry to return in 60 days with a report on establishing a transition-planning team.

It also calls for a legal analysis of responsibilities that could be assumed by the envisioned Department of Youth Development, as well as an analysis of the probation workforce and the staffing needed for the DYD.

Though the number of minors in care of the probation department has declined significantly in recent years, Los Angeles County’s youth justice system remains the largest in the nation with approximately 500 young people in the county’s two juvenile halls and six probation camps.

As with county jails, the juvenile system is characterized by and promotes ongoing racial inequities. Black youth are six times more likely to be arrested and 25 times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. Research shows that a single arrest nearly doubles the likelihood of a young person dropping out of high school.

More than 100 county staffers, community leaders, labor partners and activists, including youth previously in detention or otherwise involved in the justice system, worked over the past year to generate the report.

They imagine something that is bigger than reform and more on the order of transformation.

“Probation is not a system that can simply be reformed,” Milinda Kakani of the Children’s Defense Fund said. “This system of incarceration and punishment is no place to lift up the potential of L.A. County’s youth.”

The work included discussions with probation officers, who reportedly expressed fear about losing their jobs, but also hope about a system that might better serve everyone.

Probation will maintain responsibility for adult probationers and Kuehl said the transition will be gradual.

“The county does not like to let anybody go,” Kuehl said Monday, noting the absence of layoffs even during the pandemic.

“We want to explore sort of redesigning the work so that people who are in our union working in probation have the opportunity to shift to roles in this new department.”

The county is simultaneously making plans to handle the state’s shut down of its juvenile justice system. California will end the transfer of minors to state lockups as of July 1.

A report on the county’s plans to accommodate that change is expected Dec. 15.

Joe Biden appeals for unity in Thanksgiving-eve address

By ALEXANDRA JAFFE | Associated Press

WILMINGTON, Del. — In a time of plague and raw division, President-elect Joe Biden appealed for unity Wednesday in a Thanksgiving-eve address to the nation asking Americans to “steel our spines” for a fight against the coronavirus that he predicted would continue for months.

But even as he implored Americans to join in healing and common purpose, President Donald Trump asserted that the election should be overturned, a futile call but one that stokes the divisions Biden is trying to overcome.

With COVID-19 cases surging nationwide, Biden called on Americans to take precautions to try to stem the tide of the virus, by wearing masks and practicing social distancing. While he said the federal government has “vast powers” to combat the virus, “the federal government can’t do it alone.”

“Each of us has a responsibility in our own lives to do what we can to slow the virus,” he said in remarks in Wilmington.

Biden said that, until there’s a vaccine, wearing masks, social distancing and limiting the size of gatherings “are our most effective tools to combat the virus.” But he pledged that from the start of his presidency, “we will take steps that will change the course of the disease,” including increasing testing, providing more protective gear and clearer guidance for businesses and schools to reopen.

And he said that he himself was taking precautions around Thanksgiving and eschewing his traditional large family gathering, instead spending the holiday with just his wife, daughter and son in law.

“This is the moment when we need to steel our spines, redouble our efforts and recommit ourselves to this fight,” Biden said. “We’re all in this together.”

But Trump stoked the embers of his flailing effort to upend the election results as his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and other members of his legal team met Pennsylvania Republican state senators in Gettysburg. There, they again aired grievances about the election and repeated allegations of Democratic malfeasance that have already disintegrated under examination by courts.

Trump joined the meeting from the Oval Office, asserting: “This was an election that we won easily. We won it by a lot.” In fact the election gave Biden a clear mandate and no systemic fraud has been uncovered.

In his remarks in Wilmington, Biden made passing reference to Trump’s refusal to concede, declaring “our democracy was tested this year” but “the people of this nation are up to the task.”

“In America, we have full and fair and free elections, and then we honor the results,” he said. “The people of this nation and the laws of the land won’t stand for anything else.”

He also offered an optimistic vision, calling on Americans to “dream again” and predicting that “the 21st century is going to be an American century.”

Biden’s remarks came as COVID-19 cases are surging nationwide. Hospitalizations, deaths and the testing positivity rate were also up sharply as the nation approached Thanksgiving, and public health experts have warned that the large family gatherings expected for the holiday are likely to extend and exacerbate the surge.

Biden has said turning the tide of the pandemic will be the top priority of his administration once he takes office in January, and he’s made multiple public remarks urging Americans to embrace mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines to combat the spread. The Democratic president-elect formed a coronavirus advisory board of scientists, doctors and public health experts, and he plans to establish a COVID-19 coordinator in the White House to lead his administration’s response.

This week, however, Biden focused beyond the crisis stateside and unveiled his national security team on Tuesday, including his nominees for secretary of state, director of national intelligence and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Drawing implicit contrasts with President Donald Trump throughout the event, Biden said that the team “reflects the fact that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.” He’s also expected to name Janet Yellen as treasury secretary in the coming weeks.

The president-elect’s team has also begun the next phase of its transition preparations after the Trump-appointed head of the General Services Administration declared Biden the “apparent winner” of the election, removing a major roadblock to cooperation between Biden’s staff and their counterparts in the Trump administration.

Trump has refused to concede the election, and his campaign continues to pursue legal challenges to the vote in some states. But the GSA’s ascertainment of Biden’s win means the transition can proceed regardless of the Republican president’s resistance.

For the next few days, Biden plans to spend some time focused on his family. He’s traveling with his wife, Jill, to Rehoboth Beach, the small Delaware beach town where the two have a vacation home. That’s where they’ll host their daughter and son-in-law for Thanksgiving dinner. Biden is expected to stay through the weekend in Rehoboth, before returning to Wilmington for further work on the transition.


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