New census data shows that many renters in Minnesota are paying more for housing than they can afford.
The U.S. Census Bureau's five-year American Community Survey shows that one in four renters in 84 of 87 Minnesota counties pay 30 percent or more of their income for housing.
Experts say that's a big cost burden for many low income families. The problem is worse in greater Minnesota.
Bemidji State University students Jonathan and April Gustafson have been married a year and a half. The couple struggles to pay their rent each month, so they're filling out an application for the Section 8 rental assistance program.
April used to work full time in early childhood education, but she had to quit her job because of a prolonged illness. Jonathan has a part-time job on campus, but that income doesn't cover the $610 they pay for rent each month.
April says even when she counts food stamps and their student loans, they're still paying more than 30 percent of their monthly income toward housing. The Gustafsons' finances will get more complicated this spring, when the student loans run out -- and when April is due to have the couple's first child.
"I figured out we can get through until May, until the baby is born, and then at that point? I'm not sure," she said. "We'll have to see what happens."
The Gustafsons are among around 300 Bemidji area families who filled out rental assistance applications this week. Because program funds are limited, applications are accepted only for a couple of days once every 18 months or so.
The applications are thrown into a random lottery. April Gustafson said she realizes that means if their application is among the last to be drawn, the couple could wait up to two years for help.
"Realistically, I'm not counting on it. I'm still going to keep trying to budget and figure out what we can afford and maybe skimp in other areas," she said. "Without the degree, how do you get a good enough job? But if you're going to school, how do you afford to live?"
Census data shows it's getting more expensive to be a renter these days. In 2002, about a quarter of Minnesota rental households paid more than 30 percent of their income for housing. By 2009, that figure climbed to about one in three households.
The new data show there are a dozen counties throughout Minnesota where at least one in four renters households saw half their income go toward housing. All but one of those counties is outside the seven-county metro area.
Laura Straw, director of the Housing and Redevelopment Authority in Bemidji, said in many of the state's rural counties there's even greater pressure on renters, because there are fewer living wage jobs.
Most who are seeking help in the Bemidji area only make $7-8 an hour, she said.
"A lot of single parents, they're paying $600, $700 in rent if they've got one child, and usually utilities are tacked onto that, and those get quite high," Straw said. "What generally happens is they're usually in jeopardy of losing their housing because of non-payment of rent. We see that a lot, and that's how they end up homeless."
The recession has put added pressure on the rental market. More than 100,000 homeowners in Minnesota have faced foreclosure since 2005. That's moved homeowners into rental homes, increasing the demand.
Leigh Rosenberg, with the Twin Cities-based Minnesota Housing Partnership, said the latest data shows a worrisome trend. Rosenberg's analysis shows that between 2000 and 2009, after adjusting for inflation, the average cost of rent in Minnesota increased by 7 percent, while average household income for renters fell 21 percent.
And the numbers show things are getting worse for many renters.
"When the option is: 'Do I pay my rent this month or do I pay for my prescriptions this month, or do I have enough food for my children this month?' I mean, these are really serious issues that get right to the heart of what it means to have well being," Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg and other advocates say the solution should include ways to encourage construction of more rental housing, as well as more dollars to subsidize rent for low income people.
But with huge budget deficits and a still-timid economy, neither appears likely.