I walked into the apartment with my father’s urn, a trash bag with some toys and clothing, a suitcase with my belongings, no furniture, no savings and two kids.

I didn’t expect the divorce papers. I had been a stay-at-home mom for seven years and only just started a full-time job as a journalist, when I toured the apartment complex off Chimney Rock where the sunshine was scorching the aging brick. It was the starting line for a new life. 

The 30-year-old tan building looks like a small cottage. I’ll call it our “bungalow.” The leasing specialist said many tenants had lived here since they were kids and now live here as adults. The mortar between the bricks on the building appears slapped together to create a texture that reminds me of peanut butter spitting out of two smashed pieces of bread. It doesn’t have to be perfect or remodeled. I kept telling myself, “This isn’t forever.”

It was a couple months before the pandemic, and it was the cheapest apartment I could find in my kids’ school zone in Spring Branch ISD. I signed the lease for a two-bedroom on the second level with a balcony that would cost almost half my paycheck, and I planned to give the kids bunk beds and the master bedroom to share. 

I was reflecting on these cost-of-living challenges recently when I read the new Kinder Institute for Urban Research housing report that analyzes the apartment rental landscape in Houston and Harris County. The truth strikes when I read that more than half of renters in the region are housing cost-burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent. It resonates and stings.

My desire to give my kids more made my heart plummet, with the cost of rent and other bills piling up, I knew I couldn’t. The two-bedroom apartment would be my children’s primary residence while they go back and forth in the aftermath of now sharing time while the divorce was in process. Inside, I place the urn on the kitchen counter. Dad, this is it, home sweet home.

After buying furniture, basic kitchenware, paying for wifi, the phone bill, groceries, car payment, added in some child support to help with childcare expenses, I could cover the rent somehow. I hadn’t protected myself financially in my marriage, and I couldn’t splurge on a bench for the balcony.

The next year when I started a job in communications, when my kids were asleep, I would step out onto the balcony and imagine a little garden and the bench. I made a budget and started to set some goals. 

The following year I was expecting that rent would go up as it does, and I was negotiating a raise at work. I was proud when the balcony got that bench, a cactus and some lanterns, but most nights, when I looked up, it felt impossible to make ends meet with savings. I never felt like I was free from economic instability. 

When Isobella Jade moved into an apartment in the Spring Branch ISD school zone she was juggling the pressures of a single income and what she wanted to provide for her family. She envisioned a small bench on her patio something that was challenging given the high cost of rent in Houston. (Photo courtesy of Isobella Jade)

Rapid rent increases

One of my goals was to get my kids their own rooms this summer. I mean who really wants to share a room with a brother or sister. I searched online for other apartment rentals, I scrolled and dreamed of a three-bedroom for under $2,000 in my kid’s school zone, only to find it was a pipedream. 

We ended up staying right where we are. When I called the leasing office out of the blue, they had a three-bedroom apartment coming up on the other side of the complex. I guess I can’t get rid of this place. I’m still looking at weeping mortar at our “new bungalow.” It’s $500 more a month for that third bedroom. I’ll admit, rent is now again close to half my paycheck, but I took it. 

I got what I wished for, I told myself. Sort of. The kids are obsessed with their bedrooms and school starts this month. 

In 2021, about 51 percent of renters in Harris County and the city of Houston were housing cost-burdened, and 1 in 5 adults cited housing costs as the biggest problem they face.

Increases in rent prices outpaced increases in median household income from 2015 to 2021. I can relate, as my raise in salary didn’t really make a dent against my other expenses when adding in costs for transportation, childcare, insurance and more. 

When I signed my two kids up for an after-care program at their school last year, it was over $6,500, a chunk of my income withdrawn for those crucial hours after school so I could finish my workday. 

“Renting families and particularly single-parent renting families in Harris County are cost-burdened at an alarming rate,” wrote Stephen Sherman, a research scientist with the Kinder Institute, in an email. “The fact is, not only have rents gone up but so have costs for food, transportation, and medical care,” he explained.

But the reality is, rent eats first: It’s a fixed monthly payment, Sherman says, and if you don’t pay on time you risk homelessness. “That means that high rent costs squeeze other aspects of the budget, and can cause people to delay preventative medical care or seek low-cost yet high-stress childcare arrangements,” Sherman added.

Sherman explained that this year’s State of Housing research found 73 percent of two-parent households with kids and 88 percent of single-parent households were cost-burdened.

My pocket feels every word, “households with kids have higher food, medical, and transportation bills to pay with money leftover after making rent, and with increasing rent costs some ostensibly crucial item needs to be trimmed from the budget.”

My salary means I make too much for state benefits for my kids, which means after rent and my car payment, health coverage for my kids is the next highest expense. My budget means it’s not the gold plan, it’s more like the bronze, which I have unfortunately considered canceling because of the rising cost of living. 

Renters have been struggling with housing costs for the last decade, and it has only become worse, according to Understanding Houston, which provides community leaders and residents access to data-driven information they can use to positively impact their communities. The organization shared with me that when families are forced to make “choices” between paying for electricity or health care, the ability to save– for a deposit to a safer or bigger place or for a down payment on a house – is not possible. 

Feeling apartment-bound

When I was looking for a three-bedroom I wondered about purchasing a condo. But there were not any homes in my children’s school zone that I could afford. It feels out of reach, especially against the daily expenses of raising kids on a single income. 

I don’t think I want to live past Katy or in Sealy or Fulshear. Data from the Houston Association of Realtors explains why I feel apartment-bound forever. Sixty percent of households in Houston can’t afford to purchase a median-priced home. 

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    My search leaves me worn out but I will consider applying for some home loan assistance maybe in a couple years and try again. 

    In an email I told Sherman about being discouraged from my search for an affordable condo. “Besides the immediate post-pandemic spike in home purchases, the share of county and city households that rents continues to increase. Home prices have gone up, as have interest rates, so this trend seems likely to continue,” he replied.

    “We’re a city of renters,” Sherman says.

    Nadia Valliani, director of community philanthropy at the Greater Houston Community Foundation, had a similar outlook when it comes to housing costs holding families back from becoming homeowners. “If nothing changes, I don’t predict a much better future based on the data: Housing costs are increasing faster than incomes, eviction filings are higher than ever, and an increasing share of our population is experiencing economic insecurity despite working full-time, a group also known as ALICE – Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed,” said Valliani.

    Valliani further explained that essentially, we do not have enough affordable housing – to rent or own – and not enough is in the pipeline. “We need to act with creative Houston-centric solutions that not only increase affordable housing units, but also provide safe housing that is accessible to job centers, resources, and opportunities,” Valliani says. “Building a vibrant, thriving region requires inclusive and shared prosperity, which is especially important for us given the levels of diversity Houston has and prides itself on.”

    I can’t help but worry about the cost of simply having a comfortable life. I wonder how the cost of rent could impact future generations, like my kids.

    I surrender on the balcony. I know this very well may be as good as it gets. I take a breather on the cozy bench, the cactus garden has grown, and I look up to the tall pines in the distance and notice the view of the sky has changed. 

    Until we switched to this side of the apartment complex, I never noticed we may be below a flightpath. At dusk, the birds, hawks and bats fly across the sky vigorously, maybe going to and from the bayou nearby, or preparing for a mission south bound toward the cityscape. I fluff the bench pillows and watch the birds with my daughter while adding her ceramic owl to our sweet little garden. 

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    Isobella Jade is an essayist and writer living in Houston, find her on Twitter @IsobellaJade or email her at isobellajade@gmail.com