A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Gena Bigler: Low-wage workers can’t afford housing anywhere, especially not in Lexington

Indentured servitude is supposed to be a relic of our country’s past, but a version of it is alive and well in the east end neighborhood of Lexington where tenants are working for $20 a day and paying hundreds of dollars to their employers for one-room apartments without air conditioning.

   (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Some tenants have reported to authors of a new city report on housing and homelessness that they are charged as much as $600 rent for these one-room apartments with no air conditioning. One talked about suffering heat stroke in her home. These tenants report that their work for the landlord nets about $20 a day or $60 for a weekend of work. That works out to be about $640 per month if they work every single day.
There is no health insurance, no worker’s compensation, no safety net. Because of age, criminal record and lack of marketable skills, most of the tenants are trapped in a cycle of servitude they have no hope of escaping. If they report the poor living conditions, they fear losing their housing to either the building being condemned or unaffordable increases in the rent they can barely afford. If they report the pay structure and lack of workers’ compensation, they fear losing employment completely and being evicted.
According to the Lexington Mayor’s Housing and Homelessness report, over 33,000 households (not individuals, but households) cannot afford to maintain a stable home for their families. For renters, 12,000 households pay half of their income for housing. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Lexington is $700, and it would take a minimum wage earner 74 hours a week to make it affordable.
Thanks to Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and local activists Tanya and Christian Torp, these previously unheard stories were told to about 60 citizens and elected officials including Sen. Reggie Thomas and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. According to U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, affordable housing is defined as housing costing no more than 30 percent of income. HUD also estimates that 12 million renters and homeowners pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing. Nowhere in the U.S. can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a two-bedroom apartment on their own.
One of the stories told was by a young woman. She talked about “life before” when she had a townhouse, a car and a normal life. Her voice cracked with emotion when she shared the shame she felt at finding herself homeless. “Not having a home breaks you as a person … A home is the center of life, everything stems from a home, it improves everything.”
She spoke of her gratitude for the stranger that hands out sack lunches and Gatorade at the local library. She told about the worry she felt for her baby when she worked as a day laborer while six months pregnant. She recently moved into an apartment, but then the building suddenly sold. Now nine months pregnant, she must find a new affordable place to live. Understandably, she is terrified about being homeless with a newborn.
Another story was told by a Berea college graduate. She is not “technically” homeless because she has lived with a friend for three years, all the while seeking a home of her own. Her employer restructured and her job was eliminated. She currently works three jobs and says she’s never been able to rely on only one job.
She will finish a master’s degree next year. Over the years, she has applied for the Habitat for Humanity’s program twice and once was told she made too much and the next she made too little to qualify. She is hopeful that the additional degree will help her find a job that will make a home of her own a reality.
A 66-year-old woman who should be enjoying her golden years relies on her children’s help and works as much as she can. Her rent takes 83 percent of her social security income. Her landlord has told her if she is a day late with her rent to expect the eviction process to start.
These people, all formerly homeless and nearly homeless, are all working. Many of them work multiple jobs. The theme running through all of the stories told can be summed up with one quote: “Help us be self sufficient.”
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Gena Bigler is passionate about public service and credits her time serving nonprofits in AmeriCorps and Volunteers in Service to America (V.I.S.T.A.) with teaching her extreme budgeting and bargain shopping. Gena is now CFO of McNay Settlement Group and serves on the board of the Lactation Improvement Network of Kentucky (L.I.N.K.). Gena would be happy to hear from you at lgbigler@gmail.com.


Click here to read more columns from Gena Bigler.

You might also be interested in reading Richard McQuady tapped as first director of Lexington’s affordable housing agency on KyForward.

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