Renters squeezed by lack of affordable housing


Richard Moore

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Renters squeezed by lack of affordable housing

Shortage of affordable rentals in cities dwarfs issue of rising foreclosures

The Associated Press
Updated: 10:14 a.m. HT Sept 14, 2007

STAMFORD, Conn. - This isn't how Simon and Jennifer Morris envisioned married 
life ‹ sharing a charity-subsidized suite with four other hard-up families, 
abiding by a curfew and other rules that make them feel they are back in high 

But for a working-class couple with two small children, trying to stick it out 
in their pricey hometown, housing options are few.

They abandoned their previous one-bedroom apartment when the rent rose from 
$1,200 to $1,425. Public housing has long waiting lists, so they moved into a 
shelter for dislocated families in a converted YMCA. The goal: Save enough money
to move south and buy a home where costs are lower.

Around them, southwestern Connecticut's Fairfield County is booming, due partly 
to an influx of investment banks. New housing projects routinely cater to the 

"But everybody forgets the poor guy ‹ the one who pumps your gas, who builds 
your hotel, who bags your groceries," said Simon Morris, a 35-year-old 
carpenter. "The cost of living is driving us out."

On both coasts of the United States, and many cities in between, hundreds of 
thousands of renters face comparable plights. The home mortgage crisis has 
received far more notice, but experts say the ranks of renters with dire housing
problems are growing faster than the ranks of defaulting homeowners.

The Center for Housing Policy reports that the number of working-family renters 
paying more than half their income for housing has soared from 1 million to 2.1 
million since 1997. Overall, advocacy groups say there are 9 million low-income 
renter households and only 6.2 million units they can reasonably afford.

"These people spend huge portions of their income on their housing," said Sheila
Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "They don't do 
things that we all would like to do ‹ save money to buy a house, or for college 
or retirement. It's a very day-to-day existence."

In the Stamford area, a breadwinner needs to earn more than $30 an hour to 
afford the rent of a typical two-bedroom apartment, the highest figure in the 
nation. San Francisco ranks a close second ‹ placing immense burdens on 
residents such as schoolteacher Meagan Devine and retiree Jose Morales.

Devine, 30, lives with her sister, who is eight months pregnant, and 
brother-in-law in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco's Sunset district. 
She sleeps on the couch and spends weekends at her parents' house in a distant 
suburb, where she keeps her clothes and books.

In October, she'll begin housesitting for family friends in Berkeley, who will 
be on sabbatical until Jan. 1. After that? She isn't sure.

Devine isn't an itinerant hippie or recent college grad trying to map a career 
path. She's a professional with a master's degree in math, and could likely 
command a six-figure salary at a Silicon Valley engineering firm.

But since college, she has yearned to be a teacher. After getting her master's, 
she taught the children of crop pickers.

Since 2002, she's been a math instructor at Balboa High School, once a 
hardscrabble school on the city's south side. Test scores and morale are on the 
rise, and Devine feels she's making a big difference by teaching pre-calculus 
and algebra to the diverse student body.

"I don't ever want to leave Balboa ‹ I'd love to retire from here," Devine said 
as she stacked papers following the afternoon bell. "The only problem is I can't
afford to live here on a teacher's salary."

After taxes and a $350 deposit into a retirement fund, she takes home about 
$2,500 per month. One-bedroom apartments in desirable neighborhoods ‹ near 
friends and public transit ‹ start around $2,000 per month. Studios start around

Devine said she'll likely settle for roommates ‹ a fate she didn't envision for 
herself after college, and a far cry from her dream of home ownership.

Technically, she could afford her own modest apartment ‹ but she wants to heed 
the standard advice and not spend more than a third of her income on housing. 
That's not easy; experts say nearly a quarter of San Francisco renters spend 
more than 50 percent of their household earnings on rent, and the market has 
grown tighter as the mortgage crisis deters some young adults from home-buying.

Devine rarely goes out to eat or buys new clothes, but despite a frugal 
lifestyle has been unable to whittle down $3,000 in credit card debt.

"You have to make big sacrifices ‹ not just whether to buy a house or not," said
Devine. "I want to have kids ‹ but what would I do with them? I can't even 
afford my own place."

Devine works at least 50 hours a week, including several hours each weekend 
grading quizzes. Some of her colleagues moonlight as waitresses, bartenders and 
weekend nannies.

One option would be moving to a suburban school district, where pay scales range
up to $10,000 higher than in San Francisco. A public school teacher in the city 
starts at $43,000.

Losing teachers like Devine should be a top concern for residents, said Matthew 
Hardy of the United Educators San Francisco. Teachers who stay have to be either
"crazy or dedicated," he said.

Jose Morales, now 78, moved into a modest Victorian house in San Francisco's 
working-class Mission District in 1965, shortly after emigrating from Peru. The 
rent was $80 a month, and he used leftover earnings to travel, buy nice clothes 
and eat well.

The rent is now $864 ‹ a bargain by local standards but an unmanageable fortune 
for Morales. A former tennis instructor, he hurt his back last year and now 
relies entirely on a Social Security payment of $900 per month.

After paying the rent, he has $36 a month for expenses, including food and 
medications. He eats at city-sponsored senior centers, which charge $1.50 per 
meal, buys cut-rate produce from local bodegas and takes freebies from friends.

He never travels. He doesn't own a television or radio. Among his few new 
clothes are tennis sweat shirts that pro shops sell him at a discount.

"I'm skin and bones ‹ it's a miracle I'm still here," said Morales, who's lost 
20 pounds since last year and developed osteoporosis.

Stooped but sinewy, with wavy white hair and vintage Wilson sneakers, Morales 
has received numerous eviction notices from a landlord hoping to convert the 
two-unit flat into a luxury house. Morales refuses to leave; a court showdown is

"If more people don't try to fight for their rights, then only rich people would
live in this city," he says.

Morales' apartment is ramshackle. Door frames lean at improbable angles. Paint 
peels from walls, and a gaping crack splits the kitchen ceiling.

But the beautifully restored Victorian next door has golden cornices and fresh 
paint, and other nearby homes are getting high-end renovations. The neighborhood
is rife with homeless people and illegal immigrants, but white-collar workers 
are moving in to commute to lucrative jobs in Silicon Valley or downtown.

Morales knows he might live better in Peru, where relatives could help and the 
cost of living is a fraction of California's. But that would end his quest for 
American citizenship.

"I came here because the U.S. was a great country," Morales said. "But housing 
has become a big injustice. ... The story of my apartment is the story of my 
block and the story of my city and the story of all of California and the United
States. You have to fight for it, and that's what I will do ‹ all the way to the

Back in Stamford, Simon and Jennifer Morris have seen the city's economic boom 
firsthand but, like many working-class families, haven't shared its fruits.

Simon has irregular earnings as a carpenter; he can make $1,000 in a good week 
but often has no work at all. Jennifer, 27, worked in the past at local pet 
stores, but took time off this year following the birth of Layla, who's now 7 
months old. Their other child, Ethan, is 3.

Since February, they've been living in a "family emergency" shelter on the edge 
of downtown, part of a multipurpose social-service center run by St. Luke's 

They have two bedrooms of their own, but share bathrooms and a combination 
kitchen-common room with four other families in a setup resembling a college 
dorm. There's an 11 p.m. curfew on weeknights, no drinking or smoking in the 
unit, and a rotation of chores for each family.

"After living on your own, where you can come and go, you can feel a little 
claustrophobic," Jennifer said. "You've got to coexist with everyone. Sometimes 
I feel like I'm back in high school."

For Simon, the biggest downside is lack of privacy.

"There's good days and bad days," he said. "People notice when I'm grumpy, and 
sometimes I just want to be left alone."

But overall, the Morrises are grateful. They can stay up to two years at the 
shelter, far longer than at many similar facilities, and they expect to be able 
to save money ‹ for the first time in their married life ‹ due to a cost-sharing
formula which leaves them paying St. Luke's about $250 a month.

If the savings materialize, they plan to head south, seeking a community where 
homes are within reach of a family like theirs.

"Stamford forgot about the poor people," said Simon, who, like his wife, grew up
here. "All these new apartments are great for the city, but some of the 
one-bedrooms are $3,000 a month. ... It's a businessman's town now."

The executive director of St. Luke's LifeWorks, the Rev. Dick Schuster, says 
Stamford and boomtowns like it should tackle the housing crisis out of 

"The people who are working in your restaurants, your fire and police 
departments, are all of a sudden finding they can no longer afford to live in 
the community where they work," he said. "And those who do choose to live in the
community become the true working poor, hanging on by their thumbs."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not 
be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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