Rising rents, lack of affordable child care and flexible work schedules, and rental discrimination leads millions of single moms and their kids jumping from home to home—if they even have a place to go.
My daughter and I stayed at a friend’s lake house for several days in August. The digs were fancier than we were used to, and the house even had a security system. One day, as we headed out the door, I fumbled with figuring out how to set the alarm.
“Can we get one of those for our house?” my daughter Mia, age 11, asked me.
“A security system?” I punched in the code again, but forgot to close the door first, and had to start over. “Honey, we rent. We don’t own the house we live in. Besides, that’s what the dog’s for.” I pushed her out the door, sure the alarm was going to go off.
“But Bodhi can’t call the police or anything, she just barks.”
Last summer, when we’d moved into the house we currently live in, Mia wanted me to close all the curtains at night. She didn’t like that it was so dark she couldn’t see outside. “Someone could be out there and we wouldn’t know,” she had said. “What if they’re watching us?”
For me, the house was the safest, albeit biggest place we’d ever lived in. It had three bedrooms, a garage, and fenced-in yard big enough to play a game of catch in. A place so nice and so big, I’d lost hope in ever living in one like it. My American Dream had changed years ago, from longing for a house with a nice yard to wanting something my two girls and I didn’t have to share with a roommate. I’d dreamed of moving into a house since my oldest daughter and I lived in a homeless shelter nearly ten years earlier.
In the report offered by the Census Bureau for 2017, about 12 million households had one adult with one or more children under 18 in the home. Of those, 80 percent of those adults were single mothers. That’s roughly 9.6 million single women who are expected to provide a home while caring for their children on a single income. According to the National Women’s Law Center, more than one in three single mother families lived in poverty in 2015—31 percent are white; 40 percent, black; 42 percent, Hispanic; and 48 percent, Native American. More than half of the children who live in poverty sleep in these homes.
Recent estimates, using the standard rent-to-income ratio of 28 percent, state that in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, you’d need to bring in a whopping $216,129 annual income. For Detroit, that amount is just $37,971, which is about $18 an hour at full-time employment, almost triple the national minimum wage of $7.25
Finding stable and affordable housing had always been a struggle for me. A relationship would end, and we’d suddenly have to move. It was difficult to find landlords who would accept housing vouchers. We lived in places that made us sick with mold, places that were one room big, places we couldn’t afford but I somehow scrambled to find the money to cover the rent anyway. My dreams drifted from a white-picket fence to a place that looked clean inside or could be cleaned with a good dose of elbow grease.
The three of us moved to our new house from a 667-square-foot apartment in a building labeled as “Low-Income Housing.” It was a place where people yelled in the hallways at night. Your possessions were nicked from porches. Police showed up every few months, once for a shooting in the parking lot—an uncommon occurrence in Missoula, Montana.
The kicker is that the chance to live in that tiny apartment with two bedrooms, a washer and dryer, and ample parking surrounding a playground out front had been a huge relief. I was thankful to be sitting down when I got the call to tell me we could move in. I had a 3-month-old infant in my lap who’d succumbed to sleep but wouldn’t release my nipple from her mouth. We’d been sitting there like that for a blessed hour while I caught up on work. Her older sister, 7 at the time, was at school. We shared a bedroom in a house that would be too cold, and too expensive to heat that winter.
The threat of homelessness wasn’t new to me. Since living in a shelter when my oldest was barely able to walk, housing insecurity was a flashing sign on the horizon. Of the 34 percent of homeless families in the United States, an estimated 84 percent of these are female-headed. Each year, 2.5 million children are homeless, a number that is increasing at alarming rates. That’s one in 30 children. One child in every classroom.
For two months, I’d been searching for a new place to live. I learned quickly to not bring both of the girls with me, but I didn’t have a choice most of the time. We looked at one studio after the next, each prospective landlord telling us, while his hand reached up to rub the back of his neck in shame or discomfort, that the place just didn’t seem right for three people. One said, his eyes looking at the floor, that he preferred to rent out to students. Another I stared down, physically pressing my heel into the floor, telling him I’d take it.
“I have a few others who are interested,” he said. “I’ll show it to everyone and make my decision after that.”
I walked over to the window, peering out at Mia playing on the swing set someone had left in the backyard—there was another park across the street. The studio was located in one of the best school districts in town. But I knew he’d never call, even though a mutual friend of ours had given me a good recommendation. My struggle showed in my face, in the way I kept shifting the baby’s weight on my hip, the way I kept pacing to the window to keep an eye on Mia. Choosing a student whose parents paid their rent over me seemed like a no-brainer to him.
When Ben Carson, our current Housing Secretary, toured low-income housing units in the spring of 2017, he remarked how important it is that people don’t get too comfortable because comfort would cause people to think, “I’ll just stay here. They will take care of me.” By the spring of 2018, Carson wanted to pass what he calls “rent reform,” and Congress calls the “Making Affordable Housing Work” Act. Even though a little over a third of the one million low-income housing units in the United States house a single adult with children, Carson wants to strike the clause that counts child care as a household expense, and impute income at minimum wage for 15 hours a week, whether the parent is working or not.
Between a landlord’s reluctance in renting to a single parent based on preconceived notions that they will be unreliable, or that the space is too small for their family, and the government making it even more difficult to afford low-income housing, many single parents living at or under the poverty level will be left with nowhere to go.
My daughters and I have been at our house now for just over a year, and I feel safe allowing both of them, the youngest now 4, to run around the cul-de-sac with the neighbor kids. Our neighbors watch out for my kids, just like I do their sons and daughters, and the ones on the corner without kids let them put up a lemonade stand this summer. But the countdown has begun on the time we’ll be able to stay in our home. The owner, who rented us this house at a screaming deal, wants to move in next summer, and we’ll have to find another place to live. One hopefully in the same school district, or, if we’re lucky, in the same neighborhood.
Our financial situation has improved immensely since I scoured online ads for a studio apartment we could barely afford. Every time I check for a house similar to ours, rent is at least $1,500 a month by default. My debt is still overwhelming from student loans, and I’m not sure there’s a way I’ll be able to save up enough to put 20 percent down to purchase our own home. It seems to be that way wherever I look, even in different cities across the northwest. At rent that high, our living expenses would shoot up to nearly $4,000 a month, meaning I, a single parent, will have to maintain an income of at least $50,000 to $60,000 a year. Luckily, as a freelance writer, author, and instructor, I can swing this. Most freelancers in the United States are able to with an estimated annual income of $64,000. It’s notable, though, that in a recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual income for female workers in the U.S. was just $40,560.
I keep thinking back to my oldest daughter wanting that alarm. A lack of housing security is no stranger to me. My feet have walked on floors that have metaphorically dropped out from under me for over a decade. But I never thought the places we lived would cause my kids to feel unsafe. I’ve thought back to the people who have tried to break in, the police shining their flashlights in the windows at night, me waking up at the slightest sound, and I have started to wonder if my daughters have had similar restless nights. I never experienced that as a kid. Even though we moved around a lot, I never wished for an alarm system to feel safer.
I still long for security in housing. As a mother, it has always been the one thing I’ve wanted to provide: a place to live, a community to be surrounded by, and one we would never move from. I’m still in search, still reaching for that dream.
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