ELLSWORTH — Lisa Cary has never been more grateful to have a roof over her head.
Evicted from her River Falls apartment last year, she and her two children found themselves without options.
All but a car to live out of.
“It does get scary out there,” Cary said, recalling how parking lots at rest areas and Walmarts became her temporary home. “And it does get hard.”
Help arrived just before winter when a Wisconsin organization arranged for her to live in a four-bedroom Ellsworth house.
“It was a very big relief for us,” she said, adding that it could become a rent-to-own scenario.
The one-year program allows Cary, who lives on Social Security disability payments stemming from injuries sustained in a car crash, to pay 30% of her income to rent.
Cary’s two months of homelessness were punctuated by turndowns from prospective landlords and a dearth of transitional housing that opened her eyes to the struggles of making rent on a single income.
“A single mom can’t do it,” the 42-year-old said.
Cary’s story isn’t an anomaly across the eastern Twin Cities suburbs and western Wisconsin.
Just as in denser urban areas, people in need of affordable housing in the outer rings of the Twin Cities metro are increasingly faced with out-of-reach rent, landlords who turn them away and a system that’s arduous to navigate.
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The problem stretches nationwide, and RiverTown Multimedia has examined the underlying causes, symptoms and the struggles borne of what experts call a housing crisis in communities stretching from western Wisconsin to the east metro and in southeast Minnesota.
One continual constraint on construction of affordable housing remains the lack of pathways to viability, WestCAP executive director Peter Kilde said at a Conversations of the Valley presentation on affordable housing in May.
WestCAP is a nonprofit that helps connect those in need to various resources, including housing, in a seven-county area that includes Pierce and St. Croix.
People want to build affordable homes, he continued, but without access to finite subsidies it’s all but impossible.
One success story, which Kilde called “his baby,” is a 35-unit project in North Hudson called Abbey Grove. The year Abbey Grove received funding, Kilde said, it was one of two affordable housing projects in Wisconsin to receive all their funding.
Another roadblock, according to Kilde, is the willingness — or lack thereof — in some communities to allow for cheaper housing options.
"You can certainly do things that are less expensive that would be pretty decent housing, but you're not going to get it built in the St. Croix Valley,” Kilde said. “They will not let you build it. There is no cheaper alternative.”
Meanwhile, Goodhue County Habitat for Humanity recently had to start a waiting list to keep up with housing demand in that southeastern Minnesota community. A Red Wing-area housing study released in December 2014 indicated 29 percent of area homeowners are cost-burdened. That jumps to 49 percent for renters.
"I mean, when we say crisis we think it's a crisis,” said Goodhue County Habitat for Humanity executive director John Parkes. “Those of us who are looking into it deeply, we see it as a crisis."
In River Falls, a 25-minute drive from St. Paul, there were 244 names on the waiting list as of May.
River Falls Housing Authority Director Anne McAlpine said annual turnover in River Falls is about 10%. That used to mean a 12- to 18-month wait. But McAlpine said greater demand from senior citizens and families seeking affordable housing has lengthened the wait to 18-24 months.
Data show other vulnerable groups include veterans, single women and unaccompanied youth.
In Kilde’s eyes, the cause of poverty is the social and economic system in the United States.
“In my 50 years working in this population I am convinced that poverty shapes behavior more than behavior causes poverty,” he explained. “The reason this is important is that so many programs and things that go into addressing poverty want to fix the poor people. And that's good work, providing things that help people get on track.”
However, he continued, all that still falls short of addressing the real issue.
"Because poor people are not the cause of poverty, fixing their perceived deficiencies won't reduce poverty," he said.
A 2016 ALICE — asset limited, income constrained, employed — report identified 12 St. Croix County communities with at least one-third of households making it on such survival means.
In New Richmond, that accounts for 45 percent of all households. Further east, the village of Woodville counts 55 percent of its households as ALICE-level.
Robyn Thibado, associate director for WestCAP, said while the struggle’s reasons are complex, there’s a basic theme.
“It’s essentially a math problem,” she said. “Wages don’t support that basic cost of living.”
A United Way report states family costs in Wisconsin rose 18% from 2010-2016. Inflation, however, only climbed 9%.
Across the river in Washington County, the average weekly wage is $850, which translates to roughly $44,000 annually, according to county data.
“That’s barely enough to afford an entry level townhome in Washington County,” said Barbara Dacy, executive director of Washington County’s Community Development Agency.
The county’s retail sector makes up about a quarter of employment opportunities, she said, and she questions whether the majority of these workers can afford to live there.
“Odds are, folks that work at Target probably grew up here,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re creating opportunities for folks that grew up here, and want to make their home here. It’s a workforce issue.”
‘An everyday struggle’
Cary’s experience with the housing market has spanned the spectrum.
“I had everything,” she said. “I had a reliable job — everything — then when I got into this accident it all kind of crumbled down on me.”
She went from being a homeowner in suburban Washington County where, as a registered nurse, Cary said she made about $75 an hour.
Life became tumultuous after the crash. The recovery process left her in a wheelchair for a year.
After leaving an abusive relationship, she moved her children into a River Falls hotel for three months before a three-bedroom apartment opened up. It was rundown, she admitted, but it beat homelessness.
She continued working as a nurse to afford the $740 monthly rent.
She’s since endured nine neck surgeries, with doctors recommending more surgery for her back. Cary eventually regained her ability to walk, but can’t lift five pounds over her head, which precludes her from finding work even in a grocery store. Numbness in her hand prohibits typing.
Then rent jumped from $740 a month to $940 in River Falls. Cary moved from that place to a two-bedroom apartment in the city, where, with a little help from her parents, she paid $1,100 monthly.
Cary said she was evicted from that apartment after her son left a hole in a wall. Then began the struggle with homelessness.
Now she gets about $2,500 a month in Social Security disability to cover all her expenses. Keeping up?
“You can’t,” Cary said. “It’s an everyday struggle.”
Many forces must be brought to bear in finding solutions, Dacy said.
“It would really take all sectors — private, nonprofit and public — to work together to address this issue,” she said. “There’s no one sector that can solve the crisis.”
This story is an overview in a periodic series examining the national crisis in our communities. Please share your experiences with finding — or not finding — affordable housing here: https://bit.ly/3347aJp