The Rental Trap: ‘I will do things like, Let me feed my son the protein, and I’ll eat rice and beans.’ This single mom spends 50% of her monthly income on rent. Here’s how she survives.
With rental prices rising nationwide, there has never been a better time to examine how high housing costs impact everyday Americans. The Rental Trap is a new MarketWatch column profiling tenants who are considered severely rent-burdened, meaning they spend half or more of their income on housing. The general rule of thumb is to spend no more than 30%.
Denise Garcia, a 48-year-old mother and bank worker living in the San Antonio area, puts just about half of her income toward rent.
After getting her biweekly take-home pay, which averages between $1,291 and $1,375, she pays $1,300 each month for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment — the cheapest place she could find in Leon Valley, a suburb in Bexar County, Texas, she said. The other half of her income goes toward gas, car insurance, electricity, internet service, a cellphone plan, and groceries for herself and her 14-year-old son, leaving her with nothing left over. She has no savings.
“I oftentimes find myself short and just trying to scrape by,” said Garcia, who became involved with the Tenants Union of San Antonio this past March and recently helped to organize her 453-unit complex, the Vista del Rey Apartments. “I will do things like, ‘Let me feed my son the protein, and I’ll eat rice and beans.’”
To borrow a term used by policy wonks and economists to describe the huge share of her earnings that she spends on shelter, Garcia finds herself among America’s “severely rent-burdened” tenants. And she’s got company: Between 2001 and 2015, the share of severely rent-burdened households grew by 42%, making them 17% of all renters, according to research from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Black tenants were more likely than white ones to fall into the severely rent-burdened category.
The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, meanwhile, said in a report this year that as of 2019, 24% of renters were severely rent-burdened. Overall, about 46% of renters were considered simply rent-burdened, meaning they put at least 30% of their income toward rent.
This was all, of course, before rents soared nationwide, helping fuel the worst inflation in 41 years.
“It has been studied since the 1970s, and it has also gotten a lot worse in the last 15 years, especially in places like California, where I live,” said Gary Painter, a professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California and the director of the school’s Homelessness Policy Research Institute. “It’s long been recognized that when people who have low and moderate incomes have less and less income left over to pay for other things, they would experience material hardship and perhaps face choices that could lead to long-term harm for themselves and/or their family.”
Metropolitan areas where an increasing number of people are rent-burdened also become more susceptible to economic shocks and grow more slowly, Painter said. Adding to the problem is the fact that the people who would typically qualify for federal housing assistance are often unable to receive it because there’s not enough funding to go around, he said.
“If there has been policy action, it’s been far too slow to address increases in rent relative to people’s incomes,” Painter said.
If Garcia were able to spend just a little bit less on housing, she could worry less about paying for food, going to the doctor, or back-to-school costs, she said. Maybe she could even save for a home of her own one day — a milestone that’s crucial for wealth-building in the U.S., though increasingly difficult for working-class people to accomplish.
She wishes policymakers recognized that people like her are still taxpayers who don’t deserve to be pushed “to the brink of homelessness” by high rent.
“I honestly felt a great sense of shame for a long time before I got involved in this community-building with my tenants union and my neighbors,” Garcia said. “I felt like I was the only person that was dealing with these circumstances.”
The apartment complex where Garcia has lived for three years is largely made up of immigrant and working-class renters, she said. It has changed management three times since she moved in in 2019, while her rent, which was originally $975, has marched upward.
She anticipates her rent will rise again when she faces her lease renewal this August. She could potentially swing the increase by working overtime at her job, though she already takes overtime whenever it’s available.
Still, she doesn’t feel like she’s getting what she pays for at Vista del Rey. She called her experience at the complex “demoralizing,” saying that between November and mid-February, she faced intermittent water shutoffs and had “maybe 10 hot showers” due to a lack of hot water. On Friday, she told MarketWatch she’d been without hot water since July 1.
At this point, though, it’s likely too expensive to move out, and she wants to stick around due to her involvement in the complex’s tenants union, which she thinks could drive positive change.
Shippy Properties, a local management company that has overseen Vista del Rey since April 2021, told MarketWatch it has invested $1.3 million in improving the property since it took over. Asked about Garcia’s history of lacking hot water access, Roberto Bernal, the company’s vice president of asset management, said Shippy Properties “identified and completed repairs to the community’s main water line.”
“We anticipate that this repair will provide a more permanent solution to historical water concerns in the community,” Bernal said. “Repairing water lines in a timely manner is and will continue to be a top priority for our teams.”
Bernal said Shippy Properties was not aware of the most recent issues Garcia noted with her hot water and saw no service requests via its online resident portal, but would “make it a priority to check her home immediately for any necessary repairs.”
He stressed the company’s aim to “exceed the needs and expectations of our residents” by addressing issues as quickly as possible, including by hiring a vendor or contractor when the company is unable to resolve a water repair quickly.
As far as rent increases go, the company is “actively monitoring” the local market, Bernal said. The rental market around Vista del Rey has been stable, with “no market rent price increases since April 2022,” he added.
At any rate, all new applicants to live at the complex are supposed to have a verifiable monthly income of at least three times their monthly rent, ensuring that tenants put no more than a third of their income toward housing, Bernal said. Tenants who moved in before Shippy Properties took over, like Garcia, qualified under different income measures, he said.
Even so, “in our efforts to support our residents in times of hardship, we have been able to work with residents experiencing financial hardship on a case-by-case basis and respond to any formal tenant union inquiries,” Bernal said. The company has also encouraged its tenants to apply for rental relief while offering both short- and long-term leases for greater flexibility.
To truly help renters like herself, though, Garcia believes there has to be a “total overhaul of tenants’ rights” in Texas.
“We pay rent every month and we don’t have our basic needs met,” Garcia said.
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