Keeping a roof over your head can be a difficult task in Hall County.
The cost of housing is making life harder for many, but especially poor residents who feel the brunt of rising costs in food, utilities and other bills because so much of their income is dedicated to holding onto their homes and apartments.
Average local rent cuts the monthly income of a poor family of three in half; $1,701 a month doesn’t go far when you have a check for $850 to cut in the first five days of the month and two other mouths to feed.
A renter or homeowner who pays more than 50 percent of their income on housing is considered severely cost-burdened. Harvard University publishes an annual report on housing, including an interactive map of cost-burdened housing by area.
In Hall County, 21 percent of renters are severely cost-burdened, according to the Harvard report, and 44 percent are cost-burdened.
The cost of housing is proving too steep for Taylor and Michael, a wife and husband who moved to Hall County in May from Worth County in South Georgia. They preferred not to include their last names.
The couple were looking for a fresh start in a more prosperous part of the state, but haven’t found much of one in the area.
They make almost double the poverty level for a family of two, but that hasn’t kept them from homelessness.
Taylor works as a server and Michael works in a wood shop in Gainesville. Together, they make roughly $2,600 each month, assuming Taylor has good weekends for tips and Michael is able to land some overtime.
They have temporary shelter in Auburn but have an ailing vehicle and not enough money to both keep it running and put down money for an apartment.
“My husband makes all right (money) if it weren’t for us having to find a place to live and a vehicle,” Taylor said. “If we already had one or the other it would be easier to get the other and afford to maintain with his income and mine.”
The couple had been in Hall County a few months staying with a high school friend of Michael’s when their trouble started.
“My husband got pulled over one day on his way to work, found out his license was suspended and he went to jail,” Taylor told The Times. “It took me three days to get the money to get him out, most of which was the money we had saved to move into our own place.”
While Taylor was able to pay her husband’s bond, their car was towed and they were unable to pay the $600 in wracked-up fees to get it back. Instead, they turned over the title and bought a 2002 Ford Escape in poor condition.
Shortly afterward, Michael’s friend moved out of his apartment with a promise to pay half of the next month’s rent. It never happened, and Taylor and her husband were evicted.
They’ve been sleeping on a co-worker’s couch for the past few weeks, but come Monday they’ll lose that shelter as well. They’ve tried to get into shelters in the area, but haven’t been able to access a family shelter because they don’t have children. They feel like the only option to stay in a shelter would be to split up and check into two facilities, one for men and one for women.
“Where we’re from, the cost of a one bedroom apartment is $450 at most, or a little singlewide trailer $350-$400,” Taylor said. “The rent at the trailer we were staying at with my husband’s friend was nearly $600, and I haven’t found an apartment around here for less than that either.”
Tommy Howard, a vice president at The Norton Agency and its market researcher, said prices of rental property are increasing.
“It’s escalated well above even some of the mortgages that people are paying when they own their home,” he said.
Howard was talking to a meeting of the Kiwanis Club in September when he addressed the issue of housing and poverty. He went on to say that the actual average rent in the Gainesville area is close to $1,000 a month.
Taylor, 23, has two associate degrees. She’s trying to work her way into a better-paying job but has been frustrated by rejections for positions in her area of study.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” she said. “... If I could get out of the food industry and get a decent-paying office job, coming close to matching what my husband makes, I don’t think homelessness would be an issue for us.”
Poverty is creating huge costs for the community as a whole, both through taxes, donations to nonprofits and human suffering.
With rent taking up such a large portion of the budget, more and more people are turning to local food pantries to make ends meet. It’s part of why almost 16,000 people in the county are considered “food insecure.”
The trend is leading to a surge in volume for pantries, which are feeding more people and handling more food than ever before.
The Georgia Mountain Food Bank saw 152,996 pounds of food leave its facility bound for people in need in July 2016. In June, less than one year later, it distributed 279,124 pounds of food — an increase of more than 126,000 pounds.
The nonprofit partners with more than 60 agencies and organizations to distribute food throughout Hall, Dawson, Forsyth, Lumpkin and Union counties
The same is true for the food pantry at Good Samaritan Ministries of Northeast Georgia on McEver Road, which served about 65,000 people last year, up from 15,000 five years ago.
“As the economy is improving, that has a positive impact on some of us, but not all of us,” said Kay Blackstock, executive director of the food bank.
Blackstock said the increases at her facility are being primarily driven by two things: greater awareness that the resource is available and additional need in the community.
In Hall County alone, federally funded food stamp spending came in at $41.6 million in fiscal year 2016. The program is open to residents earning 130 percent of the federal poverty level.
These services and entitlements are aimed at eliminating “food insecurity,” which is tracked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Feeding America.
Food insecurity means there is not a “consistent source or access to the proper food in the quantity and quality that a person needs to stay as healthy as possible,” Blackstock said.
Often, food-insecure homes have to make decisions between nutritious food and paying bills, like rent.
“People need a place to live, regardless of the price point, regardless of how much they can spend — people need a place to live,” Howard told the Kiwanis Club. “We have to figure out: What is that solution? It’s something that’s going to take many years to figure out.”
Taylor and Michael have to figure it out by Monday.