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Working hard, but still out of reach: One couple's story of struggle to find affordable local housing

Affordable housing is still difficult to find in Kendall County, even as the real estate market recovers from the housing crash. A recent report found that in order to rent a two-bedroom apartment in the county, a household must earn $23.56 an hour – the highest in the state.

“Out of Reach 2018: The High Cost of Housing,” a national report jointly released in Illinois by Housing Action Illinois and the National Low Income Housing Coalition studied the amount that young renters would need to earn in order to afford their housing. The report found that in order to afford the fair market rent of $1,058 for a two-bedroom apartment without paying more than 30 percent of income on housing, the household must earn $3,525 monthly, or $42,304 annually – a statewide housing wage of $20.34.

To afford a two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent, an individual would have to work 99 hours a week at minimum wage, about 2.5 full-time jobs, earning $49,000 a year.

To afford a one-bedroom rental property at fair market rent – $887 – an individual would need to work 83 hours a week at a minimum wage position, about 2.1 full-time jobs.

This is the reality for many young people, including recently-married couple Kristin and Steve Robinson. The two currently live in downtown Aurora in a one-bedroom rental apartment. Steve works in telecommunications in Chicago, where he makes $60,000 a year. Kristin, who previously worked in Oswego for several years, took time off due to several medical issues, recently re-entered the workforce and now works full-time at a factory where she makes $12 an hour.

Their rent is $1,045 a month, with water included. The rest of their utilities are $180 a month combined. In addition to their rent and utilities, Kristin, age 29, and Steve, age 30, pay student loans, credit card debt and medical bills.

“Your garden variety young adult money sinks,” Kristin called them. One of the biggest financial “sinks” for the two is health insurance premiums – $850 a month for the two of them combined, with a $1,000 ER copay. Because the two have had to visit the ER three times in the last month, Kristin expects the two to be another $7,000 to $12,000 in medical debt.

“In over 11 years of living together, we have probably had less than 11 months where every single bill could be paid and there was a little bit left over,” Kristin said. “We’ve never been able to start a savings account, and still live paycheck to paycheck.”

“I actually make one-and-a-half times the minimum wage, and it still doesn’t feel like anything, because I can’t think of just about anything I can afford by myself,” she said. “The only places that I know I could afford a place by myself are locations where I don’t feel safe as much as I would want to for it to be my home.”

“We have that talk every year – is it possible for us to buy a house this year because the lease is coming up in a couple of months? No, not this year, maybe next year,” Steve said.

Out of Reach placed the Housing Wage for Kane County, where the Robinsons live, at $22.69 – a difference from Kendall County of only of 87 cents. According to the Economic Policy Institute, in Kane County the average amount of monthly costs for two adults is $4,537; taking into account housing, food, health care, transportation, taxes, and other necessities.

“It’s frustrating, because we were told growing up, ‘Go to college, get a good job, keep working, and pull yourselves up by your bootstraps, and you’ll be fine,” Kristin said. “And don’t forget to live your dreams,” Steve added.

“I did as many of those things as I could, and I’m not fine,” Kristin said, “And it’s embarrassing.”

The two encountered difficulty when searching for housing, with several properties telling them that they didn’t make enough, even though they had never been late on rent, Kristin said. Due to Steve’s job in Chicago, and only having one car between them, the two also needed to find housing close enough to the train station in Aurora.

Since moving in, their status “changes practically monthly,” she said. “I was unable to work for over a month after I developed debilitating joint pain and muscle spasms, which are still present and unexplained by doctors, and my husband’s income was almost enough to get by – but we had to borrow $3,000 from family, which we have no idea when we will be able to pay back.”

“I always feel like financial stability is just around this next corner,” Steve said. “And it never is.”

The two have taken steps to solve their financial problems through cutting back on entertainment, eating out, and other solutions, including reaching out to a financial planner through the city of Aurora, who was supposed to provide a free analytical service to those who met a certain financial criteria.

According to the pair, the planner asked them questions like “How many times a month do you go to the movies?” to which their response was that they split the cost of Netflix with friends. Eventually, the planner told them he had no advice to give, that they were doing everything correctly – and then tried to charge them, even though they met the necessary criteria to avoid paying.

While the two would readily move to another location, they’ve found themselves hamstrung by a variety of factors.

“We would definitely move if possible,” Kristin said. “Rent keeps getting raised on us. We are currently battling the property manager, who wants to raise our rent another $50 a month after the end of our six-month lease. ... We have no idea where we would move, because we can’t find anywhere else that is close enough to a train station without being either much more expensive, or much more unsafe.”

The two did agree that if the long-planned Metra station came to Oswego, they would readily move into town – if the housing was affordable.

Though the two are making headway on their bills, paying off credit card debt, working towards paying off family, paying medical debt, Kristin said she has concerns sometimes, when thinking about their situation.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “I don’t understand how two people, making $70,000 a year combined, still struggle so much. ... It’s demeaning, demoralizing and unfathomable – and it starts over again each month.”

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