When Michael Maloney was looking to move into an apartment in Highland Park this month, he made a list of must-haves. He wanted to live a short distance from restaurants and coffee shops. He needed an off-street parking spot and affordable rent.
There was just one problem.
“Two of my top choices did not have a refrigerator,” lamented Maloney, 43, who works in marketing for a beverage company. “It’s ridiculous. It’s the most backward thing I’ve ever heard of. I can’t wrap my mind around it.”
Maloney was facing a cold truth common for many renters in Southern California. Apartments here frequently lack refrigerators, pushing many tenants into an underground fridge economy that, for as long as anyone can remember, has chilled the sustenance of generations of Angelenos.
On any given day, hundreds of ads for used fridges fill Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and apps listing items for sale. Tenants pass down old refrigerators to the people moving in after them — a win-win where no one has to lug a 6-foot, 250-pound appliance around the city. Landlords lease models for an extra fee.
Lucky renters with extra cash can opt out of the used-fridge game and go to Best Buy or Home Depot and get a new one delivered.
How L.A. became a fridge-less aberration is one of the region’s more mysterious, least delightful eccentricities, along with absurdly long street parking signs or frigid days at the beach in June.
Longtime renters, landlords, appliance store owners and property managers don’t know exactly how it happened. But it did.
U.S. Census data crunched at The Times’ request by the National Multifamily Housing Council, a Washington, D.C.-based landlord trade group, found that California has more apartments on the market without refrigerators than any other state. And pre-pandemic rental listings provided by Apartments.com showed that L.A. and Orange County offered the fewest number of apartments with refrigerators among nearly two dozen large metropolitan areas nationwide.
“Los Angeles is an amazing, unique place,” said Jim Lapides, a spokesperson for the National Multifamily Housing Council. “For whatever reason, this is one of the personality quirks. Sometimes people have a pink streak in their hair. Maybe someone likes to wear Doc Martens. This is just an extra layer of flair that the market has set up.”
Even those who seem to have successfully maneuvered through the refrigerator economy often end up worse for the wear. Careless delivery workers scuff apartment floors. Door handles open in the wrong direction, blocking entrance to the kitchen. In the most frustrating circumstances, tenants buy a fridge that doesn’t fit the space cut out in the wall, leaving them to start the process over again, only now with an extra appliance to get rid of.
When Josh Steichmann joined his now-wife in Los Angeles 15 years ago from Michigan, it was the first time he had seen apartments without refrigerators. They ended up living in Palms, and spent weeks looking for one. He said the used refrigerators they found at appliance stores all “smelled like death,” and Craigslist searches came up empty. They resorted to filling a cooler with bags of ice until Steichmann’s wife thought to go through the Yellow Pages.
There, they found their fridge dealer: a guy with a truck who happened to be nearby. They bought one off him for a couple hundred dollars.
The Steichmanns’ current two-bedroom apartment in Los Feliz didn’t come with a fridge either. But the idea of moving the one they had in Palms across town when they weren’t sure it would fit in the new place was a nonstarter. They sold that refrigerator on Craigslist to a group of college students and were overjoyed when the prior tenants in Los Feliz left their old one.
Even though the fridge light burns out almost immediately no matter how many times they replace it, the relief of not having to find another appliance outweighs any hassle.
“For what we need, it works fine,” said Steichmann, 42, of the tall, white General Electric model in their kitchen. “It keeps food cold. I don’t need something fancy. I’m not a ‘fridge man.’”
While just over three-quarters of the Southern California listings in the Apartments.com survey did come with refrigerators, that probably overstates the case. The data were limited to complexes with 20 or more units, and property managers say that the most frequent fridge-less apartments are smaller buildings owned by mom-and-pop landlords. One property manager said about half of the 500 units he’s responsible for in L.A. do not provide the appliance.
The simplest answer for why Los Angeles landlords don’t provide refrigerators is that they don’t have to.
California law does not require refrigerators to be included in rental units, instead classifying them as “amenities” that aren’t necessary to meet habitability standards. “It’s like a hot tub,” Maloney said, incredulously.
Buying and maintaining a refrigerator became an extra expense that landlords just didn’t want, said Deena Eberly, managing director of the Eberly Company, which manages 4,200 apartments in L.A. County. When they broke, Eberly said, tenants would complain that they had just gone to the grocery store and demand reimbursement.
“It was always the liability of food,” said Eberly, whose family has owned and operated rentals in L.A. since the 1920s. “That was the thought process behind it.”
It’s a different story in New York. Although refrigerators aren’t explicitly referenced in state law there, multiple appellate court rulings have cited a lack of the appliance when castigating landlords for maintaining unlivable apartments — precedents that strongly encourage owners to pony up for a fridge so as not to be sued.
But legal reasons alone do not explain Southern California’s relative dearth of refrigerators. Other large states like Florida and Texas do not require fridges either, but they come standard with apartments.
Economists expressed befuddlement at L.A.’s comparative lack of complimentary chill. Two interviewed by The Times suggested that the subject was worthy of a graduate school thesis. Ingrid Gould Ellen, faculty director at the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, posited that the economic concept of “multiple equilibria” might be at play.
Basically, the idea is that small things that happen in the early creation of a market proliferate and become entrenched: In the 1950s, say, a few big L.A. landlords don’t provide Frigidaires as the appliances are becoming essential, others follow suit and a trend is born.
“No one is going to want to rent a home without a refrigerator if all other homes have them,” Ellen said. “But if the norm is that rentals don’t offer refrigerators, then a separate market will develop.”
Regardless of the reason, California’s refrigerator custom is well known in the rental industry. Invitation Homes, the largest single-family rental company in the country, with nearly 83,000 properties mostly across the South and West, does not provide refrigerators in the 12,000 homes it owns in California because the market doesn’t demand it, said Kristi DesJarlais, a company spokesperson. Invitation Homes supplies the appliance in all 11 other states where they operate, she said.
Tenants coming from elsewhere in California describe just as much bewilderment over L.A.’s fridge situation as those from out of state.
About five years ago, Reda Sabassi was moving from the Bay Area and found a three-bedroom in Sherman Oaks for $2,000 a month. He took it because a comparable one with a refrigerator cost $500 more.
“At first, I thought [the landlord] might bring it later,” said Sabassi, 33. “But no, he told me it was a common thing in L.A.”
Sabassi rented a U-Haul to do the move in one day. He arranged in advance to buy a used fridge — a wide, stainless-steel Samsung with two doors and a water dispenser — and at first thought he had planned accordingly. He unloaded all his belongings, drove to pick up the fridge from the dealer and had it loaded into the U-Haul.
But when Sabassi arrived back at his apartment, he realized he had a problem. All he had to transport the fridge was a skater dolly, and he was scared that if he tried to roll the fridge down the truck’s ramp with it, he might lose control.
With the truck parked in the middle of the road, Sabassi waited to find a stranger to help. And waited, learning another quirk in parts of Los Angeles, the lack of people on the street. As dusk turned to twilight, he took a photo, with the lights of the U-Haul illuminating the refrigerator, the only thing left to move.
After a couple hours, a neighbor came outside to smoke a cigarette. The man had rebuffed him earlier but now took pity. The neighbor pushed the fridge down the ramp while Sabassi braced the weight against his back.
But his grief did not end there. When he maneuvered the fridge into the building, Sabassi saw it was too big to get from the lobby to his apartment. He called a friend who advised that he’d need to remove the refrigerator’s doors.
“I knew I couldn’t sleep in my apartment without having food in the fridge,” Sabassi said. “I wanted to have breakfast the next day.”
But lacking tools and with the hour getting late, Sabassi gave up and left the fridge in the lobby. The next day his friend came and helped him take off the doors and move it to his new apartment.
When the fridge broke a year later, Sabassi had a new one delivered.
“I said, ‘I’m not dealing with this anymore,’” he said.
There are signs that L.A.’s fridge culture may be changing. Eberly, the longtime property manager, said that more and more landlords are providing refrigerators because tenants want them.
The shift, she said, started in the aftermath of the Great Recession 15 years ago when new higher-end apartment complexes began springing up offering a host of perks. To compete, landlords at older complexes decided to buy fridges — and raise the rent.
“Tenants want to walk into a turnkey unit,” Eberly said. “They don’t want to deal with the hassle of anything. They want their own refrigerator. They want their own washer/dryer. But they’re willing to pay the price.”
As that price climbs higher and higher, some L.A. tenants rue the gnawing realization that they may be forever-fridge owners but may never be homeowners.
“It’s all of the appliance chores of homeownership without any of the reward,” said Steichmann, who works as a freelance writer and coffee roaster.
Maloney, the apartment hunter in Highland Park, was able to find almost all that he wanted in a one-bedroom on the second floor of a two-story courtyard complex with covered parking for $1,700 a month — but with no refrigerator.
To make moving easier, he gave himself a two-week overlap between leaving his old place and moving into the new one.
“I don’t know where to buy a refrigerator,” Maloney said. “You go on Craigslist and you don’t know if the refrigerator was in somebody’s garage. Were they keeping dead animals in there? I don’t know.”
Exasperated, Maloney ended up going to Home Depot on a Sunday afternoon. He dropped $300 on a small, new stainless steel fridge that even came with a warranty. He had it delivered the same day.