In today’s economically challenging times, families are finding it more difficult than ever to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. A recent article in the Wisconsin State Journal suggested that the average hourly wage for working adults is $11.00 but the hourly wage needed to guarantee a family could access affordable housing is $14.00. That $3.00 an hour differential would amount to $6240 in additional wages per year for a full time worker. But many working poor families are employed in minimum wage jobs. In Wisconsin, minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. That means that affordable housing requires nearly twice the income of a minimum wage worker, so to make ends meet, most employees must work at least two full time jobs. Affordable housing in Dane County is considered to be rent averaging between $650 and $700 per month, but many of these apartments aren’t large enough to accommodate growing families and most are located in poor, crime stricken neighborhoods that are not conducive to raising healthy, well-adjusted children or to a family’s safety. With such bleak statistics, what can a family living in poverty do in order to assure they have the best chance of maintaining a stable residence? Here are a few ideas:
Seek Housing Within Your Price Range
Everyone deserves to live in a clean, safe home in a nice neighborhood, but the best neighborhoods are not priced for those living in or near the poverty level. When seeking housing it is not wise to move into a unit that will exceed 25 – 30% of your income. Remember, you will have many other bills to pay. Rent should not be allowed to consume 50% of more of your income. Most landlords or management companies will not approve applicants whose rent is more than 25-30% of their income, but some will. Therefore, the consumer must be honest with themselves about their ability to afford the housing for which they apply.
Prioritize Rent Payments
Families often get caught in a web of debt and worry about losing utilities, phone service, or cable tv or Internet. They struggle with putting gas in their car, food on the table or paying for school related fees for their children. Even though it is hard to prioritize bills when everything seems important, it is imperative that rent payments take priority over all other bills. For example, it is pointless to worry about keeping on power if you are being evicted. Cable tv and phone service are luxuries, not necessities. Schools have programs for low-income students and will not kick a student out of public school if they can’t pay for their textbooks. There are food pantries that can provide food if you have none. But your landlord will evict you if you don’t pay rent.
Do Not Sign up for Amenities That You Cannot Afford
Having a bundle package with high speed Internet and all the premium cable channels sounds like a great idea. It is more cost effective than ordering the same menu of options separately, but it is also a luxury. Families that know they are going to struggle with paying rent must be realistic about what amenities they order for their home. Giving up comforts and conveniences is never easy, but the ability to do so will increase your chances of paying rent on time and in full.
Do Not Double up on Services
Having both a landline and a cell phone is not uncommon, but it is also not necessary. Cell phones maintain your accessibility to prospective or current employers, health care professionals, social service agencies, and educators, not to mention friends and family. So why also pay to have a landline? In fact, if times are really tight, purchasing a Trac-Fone with prepaid minutes that are used only when necessary is a great option for those living in poverty.
Consider the Budget Plan for Utilities
Many utility companies offer a budget plan. It works by looking at the previous year’s worth of energy usage at your address and calculating an average monthly cost, which is then billed to your account in even installments each month. Your actual usage is reviewed after 11 months and if your usage is below the amount you’ve been billed, you receive a credit. If it is over, you must pay the difference. This plan helps families budget for monthly utilities and provides incentives to conserve energy.
In many states, there is a moratorium on disconnection of utilities during months in which the temperatures are excessively hot or cold. In Wisconsin, those months are November – March. If a family has an unexpected challenge that prevents them from meeting all of their monthly obligations during that time, it may be necessary to skip a payment or to pay less than the billed amount without fear of being disconnected. This cannot become a habit, and the family must then be disciplined enough to make up for the missed payment by adding a certain amount on to future bills until the delinquent portion of the bill has been reconciled. If the household cannot compensate for the missed payment, they may be disconnected when the moratorium is lifted, especially if they have a poor history of payments to the utility provider. It is best to phone the provider to discuss your situation and to negotiate a modified payment plan. If you miss a payment the utility provider has the right to discontinue your budget plan or any other pre-negotiated payment arrangement to which you may have agreed.
Seek Assistance from an Agency in Case of Emergency
If you are not already living in government subsidized housing, you may be eligible for rent assistance through a private or public agency in the event that you fall behind on rent. Many families have extenuating circumstances that prevent them from keeping up with rent payments on a temporary basis. There are often places to turn when this happens. Some agencies require extensive paperwork to qualify and others don’t. Some will require families to have an eviction notice and some may also require that there are minor children in the home as a condition of qualifying for assistance. If you are not aware of where to turn in your area for possible help, you may try calling the United Way Helpline. United Way’s 2-1-1 number offers a full range of suggested resources by county. You may also call the Department of Human Services in your area. Many departments offer Emergency Housing Assistance Grants to families with minor children who have been given an eviction notice. Grants amounts awarded through public or private agencies may vary and landlords are not obligated to accept money from agencies if they are accompanied by conditions.
Work Directly with Landlord or Management Company First
Not all landlords and/ or management companies are concerned with the personal situations of their tenants, but none of them prefers to spend the time or money to battle for rent in court if they and the tenant can work out a reasonable solution privately. Be up front with your landlord about your situation. If you have been laid off, ill, experienced theft, or have any other legitimate reason for being delinquent with a rent payment, it is imperative that you talk to your landlord immediately. In cases where a challenge with payment can be predicted, try negotiating a payment plan in advance. Tenants that do not attempt to do so may find that the landlord is not willing to work with you later.
Planning for a Rainy Day
If you are a seasonal worker or have other reason to suspect that certain months will be harder than others in which to pay rent, you may have to plan ahead. Whether setting aside a little extra money each month or earmarking income from tax returns for future rent, it is imperative that you have the means to pay rent on time and in full from month to month. Landlords and management companies are operating a business by providing shelter in exchange for cash. You signed a legal agreement to pay for that service and you will be held accountable by your landlord and by a court of law if necessary, to uphold your end of that contract. Many landlords can be compassionate and may offer some latitude, but even the most gracious landlords have their limits. If you wish to maintain stable housing, you must plan ahead for foreseeable hard times.
Use a Food Pantry to Stretch Your Household Dollar
If you are a low-income family you may be eligible to use community food pantries to supplement your household budget. Food is expensive and while you cannot obtain everything your family needs from a food pantry, you can reduce your monthly food expenditures by hundreds of dollars by using one. Most pantries have an abundance of canned and dry goods and a limited availability of perishable items such as produce, meats and dairy. There are also programs in many larger counties that provide items not covered by Food Share/ Stamps, such as toiletries and cleaning supplies. In Dane County, the program is called the PEPartnership program.
If your income falls below a certain threshold (varies by state), you may qualify for Food Share/ Stamps. Applications may be completed online and follow up with a caseworker by phone or in person is required. Once filed, the application will be approved within 1-4 weeks and the amount approved will vary based upon individual or household income and other variables. Many food pantries do not disqualify families who also receive Food Share/ Stamps from use of the pantry.
Talk to Your Child’s School Social Worker
School Social Workers advocate for children whose families are living in poverty. They can be instrumental in assisting families to navigate the various assistance programs. This will include determining if a child qualifies for the Free and Reduced lunch program or may be eligible for waiver of other school fees such as those for extracurricular activities like sports, musical instrument rentals, student athletic event passes, text books and more. They can also help families access community agencies that may provide additional financial support and case management.
Maintain Good Standing with Your Landlord
There are many factors involved in being a good tenant. Most have nothing to do with paying your rent. If you are a model tenant in other respects, your landlord may be more willing to work with you when you are struggling financially. Examples of tenants that landlords are NOT willing to accommodate may include:
- Those that generate noise complaints
- Those that generate calls to police
- Those that are suspected of drug use or trafficking or other illegal activities
- Those that have repeatedly violated the rules and regulations stipulated in their lease
- Those that have damaged property or failed to maintain a safe, clean living environment in their unit
- Those that have received domestic violence calls to police
- Those that have had fires
- Those that have been threatening or otherwise unpleasant to neighbors
- Those that have moved in persons not specified on the lease or have exceeded the maximum allowable occupancy for their unit
- Those with unauthorized, noisy or destructive pets
Hopefully these tips will help you avoid eviction. If you are facing eviction and believe that you may have been discriminated against, you may call the Fair Housing Center in your area. If you aren’t sure where it is or if you have one, visit the website for the National Fair Housing Alliance at www.nationalfairhousing.org and click on Find Local Help.
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