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Working Hard, Yet Living in a Hovel

Unaffordable prices exclude working families from decent housing

July 30, 2006 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Despite her full-time job, Heidi Lindemen, seen here in a gray coat at the dedication of her Habitat for Humanity home, couldn't find decent, affordable housing for her family .

It wasn’t until after she had moved into her modest, attractive Habitat for Humanity home in Cedar, Mich., four and a-halfyears ago that Heidi Lindeman realized just how difficult her previous living situation was.

She and her two children had shared a basement apartment with two small, windowless bedrooms and mold and mildew in the walls. If there had been a fire, it could have trapped them because the apartment didn’t meet the fire code’s requirement for egress windows.

Before that, they rented a drafty trailer from a landlord who failed to fix a leaking hot water faucet—leading to a $900 electricity bill one month.

Ms. Lindeman is quick to point out that situations like these aren’t unusual. Many of her friends and coworkers, especially single parents, are struggling with high rents, skyrocketing heating bills, and gas prices on service-economy wages.

“Our economy has really gone down and it’s hard to find a job that pays more than $7.50 an hour,” she says. “And it’s not just a problem for young people—there are a lot of older people who need help too.”

Ms. Lindeman, who works full-time managing a restaurant, considers herself lucky to work for good bosses and to earn $13 an hour.

Still, housing costs have risen faster than wages for all but the wealthiest of Americans, leading to a nationwide affordable housing crisis for working families: One-third of all U.S. households spend over 30 percent of their gross income on housing and utilities, which jeopardizes the rest of the family budget.

“People have to reduce their spending on vital areas like health care, transportation and food because they’re spending so much on the rent,” said Mike Green, executive director for Habitat for Humanity in Benton Harbor, Mich.

In northwest Lower Michigan, renters and homeowners alike have a hard time finding housing they can afford. One-third of the households who rent, and one-fourth of the households who own a home, spend over 30 percent of their income on housing and utilities, according to the 2003 Housing Needs Assessment, conducted by the Community Research Group, which was based in Okemos.

Nonprofit organizations like Habitat for Humanity don’t have the financial resources to solve the problem single-handedly: Today, hundreds of families apply for a Habitat house each year, but between the group’s Grand Traverse and Antrim affiliates, the Benzie Housing Council, and HomeStretch—all local affordable housing builders and providers—the region sees at most just 30 or 35 new dwellings a year. Yet the 2003 Housing Needs Assessment called for an 6,500 additional affordable homes by 2010.

A Moving Odyssey
The chronic shortage of decent, affordable housing pushes many working families from one unsatisfactory situation to another.

Corinna Bilicki, a certified nursing assistant and mother of five, calculates that she has moved 15 times in the 18 years since her first child was born and five times since her youngest child’s birth.

When she moved to northern Lower Michigan to raise her children in a safe, healthy place near their grandparents, they stayed at her parents’ modest home while she searched for a place that would accept a large family. The only place she could afford to rent was a century-old house with a crumbling ceiling, uninhabitable upper floors, and a leaking fuel tank that drove up the heating bills and made everything in the house reek.

“When you first walk inside,” said Ms. Bilicki, who has five children and works as a nursing assistant at the Maples, “you smell fuel oil. We didn’t go upstairs because of all the paint and plaster falling down—the ceiling’s all duct-taped up. Boards were falling from some parts of the ceiling—sometimes I would just reach up and pull them down before they fell on us.”

When Ms. Bilicki successfully applied to Habitat for Humanity, she worked until nine or ten o’clock at night on her house—after a full day of caring for sick and elderly people—alongside Habitat volunteers and contractors so that her children would have a clean, safe place to live. She doesn’t intend to move again.

“No more moving, no more getting rid of stuff, no more switching schools,” she said firmly, just before moving into her new house in Benzonia last December.

The Rent Runaround
Finding an affordable apartment to rent can be equally difficult. It’s not uncommon for families to wait a year for a Section 8 voucher, a certificate from a federal program that is redeemed to make up the difference between 30 percent of a low-income household’s gross income and the cost of rent and utilities.

Lynn Huncke, for example, waited 11 months for her voucher. At 58, Ms. Huncke has worked all of her life, but arthritis, a series of layoffs and cutbacks in her work hours, and a 1994 divorce made her financial situation more difficult, particularly since her medical problems prevent her from doing physically demanding work or highly repetitive tasks on a factory assembly line. She now works for the minimum wage at the Michigan Department of Human Services, through the Experience Works program, where her hours have been cut from 30 hours to 20 hours per week. Even with reduced rent—a little over $100 per month—for her Section 8 apartment in Frankfort, Ms. Huncke still can’t afford all of her medication for blood pressure and arthritis, seldom buys clothing, and drives her mother’s car.

John O’Neill, director of the Benzie Housing Council, which builds affordable homes and helps clients negotiate the Byzantine Section 8 system, reports that a virtual freeze in the supply of Section 8 vouchers has hurt workers. In a region where thousands of cashiers, food service workers and housekeepers people earn less than nine dollars per hour, or $18,000 per year (assuming full time employment), there are less than 500 Section 8 vouchers for the five-county Grand Traverse Region. Worse, he says, some of the people who do manage to obtain a Section 8 voucher cannot find a place to live that passes the government’s inspection and does not cost too much.

“Section 8 will not pay rent on a place that’s really crappy, so they do an inspection,” he said. “However, because Section 8 has limits as to the amount that they’ll pay, Sally could be approved for Section 8 but find that she can’t find in the open market rentals that meet her needs and are affordable.”

Portrait of a Crisis
The affordable housing shortage doesn’t just manifest itself in hundreds of applicants for Habitat homes or long lines for Section 8 vouchers. Local social service agencies and charities report that increasing numbers of working people are asking for emergency rent or mortgage payment assistance, vouchers to fill their propane tanks, and gas vouchers to get to their jobs.

Kris Brady, the director of community services at Northwest Michigan Human Services Agency reports that funds for Emergency Shelter Grants, which offers one-time assistance to prevent foreclosures and evictions, run out three months early each year.

David Gibbons, of the Salvation Army, reports that, out of the 10,000 clients the charity serves last year, 51 percent were new. The trend, he says, is that younger, working families are increasingly distressed. Mr. Gibbons emphasizes that, whether families are seeking a bag of groceries or utilities assistance, it is all ultimately about preventing homelessness. A bag of groceries, a package of diapers, and a check for the heating bill can make the difference between getting by and getting evicted, especially if one parent’s working hours are cut during the winter.

Father Edwin A. Thome, who has directed the Father Fred Foundation for the past five years, reports that the number of clients his organization services has doubled during his time there. People approach the Father Fred Foundation, Father Thome says, when they have exhausted other sources of aid and still can’t keep food on the table, gas in the car, or shoes on their kids. The fact that the foundation’s client list has doubled, he says, indicates tremendous stress throughout the housing system.

Randy Ward, who works with homeless students in the Traverse City area public schools, reports that about 400 students each year are at least temporarily homeless. He’s quick to remind us that the average age of a homeless person is nine.

The Goodwill Inn, a homeless shelter in Traverse City, is responding to a 55 percent increase in the number of individuals and families served over the past five years by building a larger shelter. The new shelter will have enough room for 77 people, with the capacity to accommodate up to 40 percent more people than that when necessary. The new shelter will also include classrooms, childcare facilities, training areas, and space for social workers to meet with clients privately.

Area social workers report that hundreds of young people “couch surf,” moving from one friend’s house to the next, because they can’t find an apartment they can afford or don’t have the cash for a security deposit. And it’s not because they don’t have a job—it’s because there is a big gap between how much money they make and how much it takes to live in the area.

Other charitable agencies are dealing with the increased strain by carefully rationing services. Benzie Area Christian Neighbors, for example, finds that demands for rental assistance is so high that they have had to limit that service to people who have already gotten an eviction notice.

This article is part of a series about affordable housing in the Grand Traverse region commissioned by Rotary Charities of Traverse City. Carolyn Kelly is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org.

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