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“Imagine having to buy food after all of that.” Why rent burdened families are often foo

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Why are families in Northwest North Carolina food insecure? To understand food insecurity and where it comes from, it is helpful to look at other issues that we know are also impacting already tight family budgets.

We reached out to Brett Byerly, the Executive Director of Greensboro Housing Coalition (GHC), a referral, informational and advocacy non profit organization in Guilford County to dive deeper into issues related to local family’s budgets and bottom lines. The following is what he had to say:

The Department of Housing and Urban Development says that a household should spend no more than 30% of their income on housing. This 30% is supposed to include not only your rent, but also your utilities. Households that pay more than this are considered “rent burdened.”

In Guilford County, nearly half of all renter households are rent burdened.

These families need help. But only one in four qualifying low income households actually receive a housing subsidy of some sort, so most low to moderate income families rent from private landlords/ owners in the private market without a rental subsidy. At Greensboro Housing Coalition (GHC) this “slip through” population represents the majority of the households that we serve.

In fact, almost 80% of the people that come to see us are below 30% of the area median income.

What does below 30% area median income mean? Well, this is the category that is referred to as ‘extremely low income.’ This means that for a single person household, they take home about $11,770 per year. A four person household takes home about $24,250 a year at the 30% rate.

Imagine having to pay rent or your mortgage, buy water and electricity, medicine and all your other expenses on this little amount of money.

Imagine having to buy food after all of that.

Looking at housing is a great way to demonstrate how expensive it can be to be poor in North Carolina.

Having to live in the housing stock available to low income families typically means having extremely high utility bills and other costs. Typically, the houses available are very hard to heat and cool because they are frequently both poorly maintained and poorly weatherized. My staff and I often ask ourselves: on any given day, how many Greensboro children and families are one $400 electrical bill away from being homeless?

Every winter we have many families that come to our agency seeking help with high utility bills.Their story goes like this: the family moved into a 3 bedroom home for about $600/month because that’s the only thing that they can afford. Perhap they moved in October and the utility costs are relatively low. They get through the early winter months with electric bills averaging around $125 per month. But December in North Carolina is a cold month. So,come January, the utility bill arrives and it’s now $400. It’s a cold winter so they can expect to get this bill for three straight months.

They know that if the power gets cut off and the landlord or the city finds out the house could get condemned. They also worry that they might get evicted because not having the utilities on violates the lease.

So, the family tries but can’t keep up so they start going around the community looking for help. They can’t stop paying the rent, they can’t stop paying the utilities. They look for other places to save money.

One of the budget lines they cut is ultimately going to be food.

Here’s another very common scenario that we see at Greensboro Housing Coalition: some of the most vulnerable people in our community receive around $733 per month in disability income while the median rent for our county is $742 (source 2013 American Community Survey).

Let’s put this into perspective. You are a single person with a disability and the Social Security Administration has ruled that you are disabled. Based on the HUD formula for being rent burdened you would spend no more than 30% of your income on housing which would be approximately $220. If you open up a newspaper or go online and look for an apartment or even just a room in a boarding house you will find few–if any places–in Guilford County that rent for less than $500 per month.

These individuals find themselves in substandard housing at best, homeless at worst.

Households like the ones described above are more common that most people would expect. They often fall into bad housing which leads to worse housing through moves and evictions. Many families like this end up living in several locations during one year.

These impossible situations lead to instability. Family instability has tremendous personal and community impacts. Frequent moves and food insecurity make it hard for the children to focus in school, for the family to create neighborhood ties, and for the family to access available resources. When your basic needs aren’t being met you cannot move on to higher level stuff. Most people have been exposed to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and know this to be true. We understand how this works on a gut level.

What I think that more people need to know is that there are fewer and fewer safety nets. By safety nets I mean food pantries, emergency funds to prevent eviction and utility cut offs, child care, emergency shelters for homeless individuals and families. The safety nets are overburdened and sagging under the weight of tremendous demand. This is true in housing advocacy: as much as we want to, we can not help everyone who contacts us. This is also true in food programs, as evidenced by the recent food shortages at the pantries and soup kitchens in Guilford County.

Food insecurity and housing are intimately tied together.

To those of us advocating for decent and fair housing, it is not a surprise that Greensboro/High Point ranks among the most food insecure regions in the country. Because of the work we do as we seek adequate, safe and affordable housing for local families, we become intimately acquainted with their budgets and expenses. We know that rent and utilities are often taking up an exorbitant amount of a family’s income. We know these expenditures are eating away at their food.

When obtaining indisputable basic needs such as food and housing puts families beyond their means, the impact is great on not only those families, but on our schools, neighborhoods, and cities. To address food insecurity, housing absolutely matters. To address housing, food insecurity absolutely matters.

Brett Byerly is the Executive Director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition. You can learn more about their work here.

1 in 6 people using Feeding America’s network of food banks (of which Second Harvest is a part) reported facing an eviction or foreclosure in the past 5 years. More than half, 57%, reported having to choose between paying for housing or paying for food within the last year. Find the report here.

To learn more about the connections between housing and other costs that are eating into family budgets, check out the fact sheet for the county you live in here. Second Harvest Food Bank is working to tie together issues of food, housing, transportation, wages, and health care through a new initiative currently piloting in Forsyth County. Learn more here.

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$1 provides 7 meals.


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Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC

3655 Reed St. 

Winston-Salem, NC 27107

Tel: 336-784-5770

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