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'Priced out of Northwest Indiana': Rents outpacing salaries; low-income Hoosiers hardest hit
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'Priced out of Northwest Indiana': Rents outpacing salaries; low-income Hoosiers hardest hit

Born in Valparaiso and raised in Portage, 21-year-old Ethyl Ruehman said she had every intention of staying in the Region and giving back to the community.

She began studying environmental management at Indiana University Northwest in Gary and engaged in a lot of public service, all while working numerous jobs. But after a relationship fell apart, she was unable to find an affordable place to stay and after several tough months of transient living, Ruehman said she made the painful decision to move away to Bloomington, Indiana, where housing was available as part of her studies.

"I was priced out of Northwest Indiana," she said by phone last week.

While Saturday's expiration of the federal eviction moratorium has shed new light on housing struggles, a recently released study shows that there was already plenty of reason for concern in the Region and elsewhere around Indiana.

"Indiana has not prioritized creating affordable housing," said Andrew Bradley, policy director for Prosperity Indiana, which shared details of a recently released report under the headline, "Affordable Housing is Out of Reach in Indiana for Low-Wage Hoosier Workers."

"The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a pre-existing housing stability crisis in Indiana, with effects particularly concentrated among renter households, families with children, Black and brown Hoosiers, and low-income households," Prosperity Indiana said in a shared statement with the Indiana Institute for Working Families and Indiana Youth Institute.

"Throughout the first year of the pandemic, these Hoosier households were most likely to be affected by job and income loss and least likely to be able to stay current on housing payments. Therefore, they were most at risk of eviction or foreclosure."

Wages not keeping up with rents

Hoosiers must now earn $13.43 per hour to afford a modest one-bedroom rental home or $16.57 per hour for two bedrooms without spending more than 30% of their income on housing costs, according to a summation of the new report provided by Prosperity Indiana. The typical Hoosier renter earns $14.58 per hour, which is $1.99 less than the hourly wage needed to afford a modest, two-bedroom unit.

A Hoosier being paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour — where it has remained stagnant since 2009 — must work nearly two full-time jobs or 74 hours a week to afford a modest, one-bedroom apartment or 91 hours per week for a two bedroom unit, the group says.

"The cost of housing in Indiana just keeps rising, which means the state Housing Wage — what you really need to earn for your home to be affordable to you — keeps going up," Prosperity Indiana Executive Director Jessica Love said.

"Unfortunately, the average renter's wage hasn't risen much for Hoosiers, especially when compared to our Midwestern peers," she said. "And this only serves to widen the disparities experienced by the lowest income renters."

The report found that the median wage for 10 of the state's top 20 largest occupations is below the stated two-bedroom housing wage, with six of those jobs paying less than what is needed for a one-bedroom unit, Prosperity Indiana said.

"Despite Indiana’s reputation for having a low cost of living, working full time does not guarantee affordable housing for many Hoosiers in Indiana’s largest occupations," the group said.

Valparaiso resident Jonathan Heins works as a mechanical designer and remained employed over the last year while COVID left others out of work, but the 30-year-old said he has temporarily put a hold on his search for affordable housing in the wider Region.

"The buying power is not there anymore," he said.

While it would be easier to rent a place closer to his workplace in Michigan City, Heins said the cost is just too high these days. This has left him with no other real choice than to continue living with family and saving money until the market becomes more buyer friendly.

"I don't have all the things in line anymore to pull the trigger," he said.

Join Tristan DeFord, Jami Rieck, and Nancy Zakutanksky on a shift working for Superior Ambulance in Merrillville.

Not much help available

The situation is far more dire for extremely low income Porter County residents, 85% of whom are considered to be facing a "severe cost burden" as compared to 27% when all income levels are figured in, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The government defines housing cost-burdened households as those paying more than 50% of their income on housing.

LaPorte County is in a similar situation with 81% of its extremely poor facing a "severe cost burden," followed by Lake County at 74%.

Jordan Stanfill, CEO at Housing Opportunities, which combats homelessness in Porter and LaPorte counties, said he does not see a lot of options for help in the area.

His nonprofit offers 186 affordable ($500 per month) rental units in Valparaiso, Portage, Michigan City and LaPorte, with most tenants paying rent on time and staying put.

While rents are high in Porter County and have been going up in neighboring LaPorte County, he said there has not been a lot of turnover.

"The rental market is super tight," he said.

Eviction crisis looming

This was among the findings of a housing study released earlier this year by the city of Valparaiso, which reported just a 2% vacancy rate among rentals in the city, which consultant Christopher Lankenau said "is extremely low, so there’s very much a shortage of rental housing in the area."

The study recommended increasing the housing stock at all price points, though found Valparaiso already has more than half of the county’s subsidized low-income housing.

The issue of affordable housing needs to be taken up at the county or regional level, the consultants said.

A further housing crisis looms with the federal eviction moratorium allowed to expire on Saturday.

Lake County has seen 4,025 evictions filed since March 16, 2020, followed by Porter County at 620 and LaPorte County at 595, according to an online tracking provided by Legal Services Corporation, which bills itself as the largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the nation.

Valparaiso resident Michelle Guardiola said she, her two children, her fiance and her fiance's mother had to be out of her rental home of 10 years on Saturday and she has been unable over the past six months to find an affordable alternative.

Part of the challenge are the credit problems she developed from falling behind in paying back loans she had to take out to make ends meet as a single mom of two. But she has also found rental costs out of reach in Porter County, even with the assistance she receives from others.

"I have nothing right now," she said late last week. "The amount of hoops that people make you jump through to get a place."

As part of its shared statement on the issue, Prosperity Indiana said, "After a year of economic disruptions, Indiana has experienced over 41,000 eviction filings at an average rate over 750 per week, despite two eviction moratoria and two rounds of federally-funded emergency rental assistance.

"With the addition of a new state law that increases eviction powers and reduces local control over landlord-tenant relations, nearly one-third of the state’s counties are now above pre-pandemic eviction filing rates, with the highest increases concentrated in Indiana’s smaller and more rural counties."


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Porter/LaPorte County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Bob is a 23-year veteran of The Times. He covers county government and courts in Porter County, federal courts, police news and regional issues. He also created the Vegan in the Region blog, is an Indiana University grad and lifelong region resident.

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