Many Minnesotans spend too much income on housingby Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — For Minnesota's many unemployed, making monthly rent or mortgage payments is a constant challenge. The latest census numbers from 2008 show the recession is making that struggle even tougher for many Minnesotans.
Housing is often the biggest expense in anyone's budget, even in good times. For someone collecting unemployment and living on a fraction of what they used to make, that expense is even bigger.
It's something Craig Benson, 49, tries not to dwell on. Sitting at the dining room table in his east St. Paul apartment, he says he's trying to stay positive.
"I don't even want to use the word, but it's denial about the reality of it," he said.
It's been more than four months since Benson was laid off from his job as a salesman. Now, he's getting by on at least $600 less each month in unemployment checks.
Half his income goes to rent. The rest he divides between his other bills -- and after that, his pockets are empty. Benson says even he's not entirely sure how he's staying afloat.
"I don't know where I'll be at the end of this month. I just sent off my checks and I know they are covered by a combination of my savings and my overdraft protection," Benson said. "I just talked to the owner of the house and he said, 'Tell me what you can afford and that will be your rent,' so he's very flexible."
Benson has some promising job leads but nothing solid yet. He's hoping that, with his years of sales experience, he'll be working full time again by the holidays.
More people are finding themselves in Craig Benson's situation, as they lose their jobs and find it difficult to get new ones quickly.
According to the latest census data, more than 692,000 of the state's approximately 2 million households paid more than one-third of their income toward housing last year. That's one in three homeowners paying what the federal government considers too much.
Federal guidelines say a household is cost-burdened when 30 percent or more of its monthly gross income goes to housing.
Craig Helmstetter from the Wilder Foundation said when housing is more expensive than that, a family has less money for basic needs.
"If people are paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing, it doesn't leave a whole lot more for paying other expenses that the household might have, like child care, like food, like transportation," Helmstetter said. "The vast, vast majority of folks who are experiencing housing cost burdens are lower-income folks."
The recession has hit the state's renters even harder than homeowners. The census shows that half of all renters paid more than one-third of their income towards housing last year.
Housing costs were already on the rise in the state even before the recession hit. But now, said Cheryl Peterson from Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, high unemployment is to blame.
"Especially with the economy the way it is, I think job loss ... then drives up the total percentage that that household is paying for housing," Peterson said.
Minnesota's unemployment rate was at 8 percent in August. Many analysts predict the nation's jobless rate will top 10 percent by the middle of next year.
Despite a recent uptick in job listings in Minnesota, Department of Employment and Economic Development officials say there is still a long way to go before things turn around.
The numbers mean little to Craig Benson. Back in St. Paul, he said he tries to keep his situation in perspective. It's not as bad as it was for his mother, who grew up during the Great Depression.
"I remember the story that she told in the midst of an argument with my sister one time, 'We used to buy two-ply toilet paper and separate it into two rolls.' That is poverty, that is extreme," said Benson. "I'm not separating two-ply toilet paper, but I'm aware of frugality and the value that has, in a way that I've never been aware of it personally before."
Benson said he's trying to see unemployment as an opportunity to consider a possible career change. He is also looking at new ways to trim his household budget and cut his expenses even more.
- Morning Edition, 10/14/2009, 7:20 a.m.