Rising rents force some families into homelessness
About nine years ago, Lisa, a single mother in her 30s, showed up at the Oklahoma City factory where she worked part-time.
At the start of her shift, a manager called her and several other employees into a meeting, where Lisa found out the company planned to make her a full-time employee.
It sounded like good news, at first. More hours would mean more money for her and her teenage daughter. But soon afterward, Lisa, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym for this story, found out the change would mean she lost the federal housing subsidies she used to pay her rent.
At first, Lisa thought she could make it without the subsidy. She was glad to be able to stand on her own two feet, she said. The money she made at the factory left her with enough to keep food on the table and cover her rent — but just barely.
“The money I was making was just basically for the rent," she said. "I still didn't have enough for my utilities.”
Lisa worked side jobs to pay for her utilities. But a few months later, when her landlord raised her rent, Lisa couldn't keep up. She tried to make arrangements with her landlord, but she kept falling further and further behind. Eventually, she lost the apartment and she and her daughter moved in with her sister while she tried to save up enough for a new place.
Over the next several years, that pattern would repeat itself. Lisa and her daughter would move into a new apartment, the rent would go up and they would have to move out. Each time, they would move back in with Lisa's sister.
But eventually, domestic violence forced Lisa and her daughter out of the house. They checked into a hotel for a few days and eventually ended up staying at the women's shelter at the City Rescue Mission.
A growing problem
Lisa and her daughter were among hundreds of families with children who experience homelessness each year in Oklahoma City. The number of homeless families with children living in shelters and on Oklahoma City streets has grown steadily since 2014, and advocates expect that trend to continue this year. They point to the rapidly rising cost of rent as one of the key drivers of that trend.
A January 2017 survey of the city's homeless population showed a 10 percent decline from the previous year in homelessness overall, but a 28 percent increase in the number of homeless families with children. That uptick was a continuation of a yearslong trend: between 2014 and 2017, the city's population of homeless families with children grew by 66 percent.
Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance, said the lack of affordable housing in Oklahoma City is the main driver of family homelessness. Working poor families often are living a single paycheck away from homelessness, he said. When a parent loses a job or a family gets evicted, families often can't come up with enough money to pay for the security deposit and first month's rent on another apartment.
Many of those families end up "couch homeless," meaning they sleep on couches or spare beds at the homes of friends and relatives. Others end up in shelters, sleeping in cars or on the street.
The cost of rent in Oklahoma City has climbed relatively quickly over the past decade compared to other non-coastal cities, according to an analysis by The Oklahoman of data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The city's median gross rent climbed 40.7 percent between 2005 and 2016, data show.
The analysis included data for the 100 most populous cities, towns and census-designated places, as ranked by the U.S. Census Bureau. It included data from 2005 to 2016 for all communities except the combined city-county governments of Nashville, Tennessee, and Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky, all of which the census bureau changed the way it tracks beginning in 2007; and Urban Honolulu, a census-designated place the bureau began tracking in 2010, after the Honolulu city and county governments merged.
Among the 100 largest communities in the country, Oklahoma City came in 33rd in terms of average annual increase in median rent during that period, the analysis shows. Of the 32 cities that ranked ahead of Oklahoma City, 21 were coastal cities.
The city with the fastest-growing median rent during that period was Seattle, with an average annual increase in median rent of 5.49 percent. The slowest-growing median rents were in Las Vegas and the adjacent unincorporated community of Paradise, Nevada, both of which had average annual increases of about 1 percent.
Oklahoma City ranked well ahead of most non-coastal cities, including Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and Phoenix, in terms of average annual increase in median gross rent.
Oklahoma City is beginning to see the results of market forces that have been at work in larger metros like the Dallas-Fort Worth area for quite some time, said Mike Buhl, broker-owner of Commercial Realty Resources Co. in Norman.
Over the past decade, nearly all of the new apartments that have been built in Oklahoma City have been high-end, luxury units, Buhl said. That construction pushed the upper limit of the city's cost of rent upward, a trend that allowed owners of older properties to move their rents upward, as well.
At the same time, investors from outside the state have bought up apartment complexes that were built in the 1980s and 1990s, refurbished them, added amenities and raised rents, he said. The same is beginning to happen with even older units, most of them built in the 1970s.
“It's slowly squeezing that affordable side of the market," Buhl said.
That upward trend in the cost of rent affects everyone in the rental housing market, not just low-income renters, said Chris Glynn, a professor at the University of New Hampshire's Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics. But lower-income renters feel the effects more severely than higher earners, he said.
“The consequences are greater, because folks who are sort of middle income will have alternatives, but folks who are lower income don't have those same alternatives," Glynn said.
In August, Glynn and Emily Fox, a professor at the University of Washington, published a study in which they examined the relationship between rising rents and increased homelessness in the largest 25 cities nationwide. The study was published by Zillow Research, the research arm of the real estate website Zillow.
The strength of the relationship between rent and homelessness varied from one city to the next, the study showed: It was strongest in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington, D.C. It was weaker in other cities, including Houston and Tampa, that have services in place to mitigate the impact of rising rents on low-income residents.
In general, though, a lack of affordable housing creates strain across the entire market, Glynn said. Would-be homebuyers become renters, and renters who might otherwise rent a high-end property are forced to settle for something more modest. At the bottom end of the market, low-income families are left with few options, which often leads to homelessness, he said.
“When rents skyrocket, there is a pressure on the entire real estate market," Glynn said. "And that impacts people of all different incomes as it filters down through the system.”
After years of frustration and heartache, Lisa, the single mother, said she's finally found a place she can keep. A case manager with the Homeless Alliance helped her find an apartment with rent she could afford, and the nonprofit paid for the first few months' rent.
As she reflected on her period of homelessness, Lisa said the experience was humbling. While she stayed at the City Rescue Mission, she lost weight and had a hard time sleeping at night. It's changed the way she thinks about the homeless people she sees on the street as she drives around the city.
The hardest thing, she said, was the impact it had on her daughter.