Stretched thin: Renting two-bedroom units requires $16.73 an hour for 40-hour week in Grand Forks
GRAND FORKS — There was a point in Pam Whaley's life when she didn't have to worry about where she lived.
Then her husband lost his job and the once-stay-at-home mom had to start working 50 hours a week to make ends meet.
"We went from having housing and retirement to, Now what do we do?" she said. "All of a sudden, I need a career."
Now a divorced single mother, she said she lives paycheck to paycheck as she goes to school for a nursing degree, and without housing assistance—she pays $543 for a $995 unit—she believes she would never be able to afford the apartment she has.
It's an increasing concern among housing experts as the amount renters need to afford apartments increases. There are only 12 counties in the U.S. where people can work 40 hours or fewer while making minimum wage and afford a one-bedroom apartment, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition's Out of Reach report released earlier this year.
In the Grand Forks area, residents must make $12.88 an hour to afford a one-bedroom unit if they work 40 hours a week, according to the Minnesota Housing Partnership. For a two-bedroom apartment, a renter needs $16.73 an hour.
For families like Whaley's, knowing you may never save up money unless something changes can make a person feel hopeless, she said.
"When I was looking at leaving (my old apartment), I ran my budget and I was initially going to come up short $300 every month," she said.
'Paycheck to paycheck'
North Dakota residents on average need to make $16.36 per hour to afford a two-bedroom while Minnesotans must make $18.60, or one could work 90 hours a week at minimum wage in North Dakota and 78 hours in Minnesota, according to the Out of Reach report.
Minnesota has a minimum wage of $9.50 while North Dakota follows the federal standard of $7.25. Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom apartment in North Dakota is $851 and $967 in Minnesota, according to the report.
The report considers a full budget, said Carolyn Szczepanski, a Minnesota Housing Partnership spokeswoman. That includes health care, food, day care and basics for families.
The basics are what single mother Jessica Voglewede of Grand Forks budgets for herself and her two sons: 4-year-old Easton and 7-year-old Evan. The 32-year-old qualified for income-based housing, paying $795 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.
"It's paycheck to paycheck," she said. "No matter how much I budget it's always upside-down and backward at the end of the month."
The Altru audiology assistant makes $16 an hour and works 32 hours a week—she would work 40 if she didn't have to schedule weekly medical appointments for herself and her children.
She said she makes too much to apply for assistance.
When she moved into her apartment five years ago, she was making just below the benchmark to qualify for income-based units, but now she makes too much and will be moving in August. When she moves, she figures she'll add $100 to her rent.
It worries her, but until then, she tries her best to budget properly, she said.
"There are some weeks that are good and there are some weeks that are crappy," she said.
Going in the hole
Polk County has some of the largest gaps between the cost of two-bedroom apartments and what median-income renters in Minnesota can afford, according to the Out of Reach report. In Grand Forks, rental prices tend to be higher than in other cities in North Dakota, said Pat Berger, president and CEO of United Way of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Area. The Grand Forks area had the second highest wage needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment, falling 10 cents behind Bismarck, according to the report.
Reasons range from a loss in affordable housing after the flood and the cost to build on valuable farm land, Berger said. United Way put together research several years ago reflecting an average family's budget without additional debt but with an income of roughly $56,000.
"We could not get it (balanced)," she said. "They were going into debt about $2,000 a month."
She noted rent can take up as much as 40 percent of a person's income.
Hopelessness in poverty
Whaley, who has a bachelor's degree in music, said her family had financial troubles from when her husband lost his job in 2012 to when they were divorced in 2014. Despite the two working the equivalent of three full-time jobs and having little debt, they couldn't seem to make money.
"I looked at what I was doing for three years and realized nothing was going to change," she said.
She said things are better for her family of four, who live in a three-bedroom apartment. She goes to school 30 hours a week and works 20 hours a week as a nursing aide at Altru Hospital for $13 an hour, hoping a nursing degree she'll receive in December will boost her pay.
Splitting 50 hours a week between school and work can be hard, Whaley said, but she wants to better herself to make a better life for herself and children.
"It's a lot to juggle, but it's important," she said. "I am determined to have a better life.
"If there was a problem, it is my problem," she said of financing now that she gets assistance. "There wasn't someone creating it for me."
Those who criticize assistance may not consider the basics, Voglewede said, such as trying to make sure children eat healthy, paying for gas and health care bills. She wants to get out of the cycle, adding she is working toward a finance degree through online classes.
She said it is not as easy as some think to get a better job, make more money or better oneself. And most people with assistance aren't lazy, she added.
"People don't take into account all of the little things," she said. "There are some people who (use the system), but ... I don't want to be on assistance," she added. "I would rather make enough money to take care of my family."
Whaley agreed, saying it is hard to recover from a loss like hers. Both said they gladly would have their taxes to go toward help others.
"There is hopelessness in poverty, because it takes money to get out of poverty," she said. "I can't better myself if I'm working 50 hours a week because I don't have the energy or the money to go to school."