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Home and rental prices continue to soar in Northern Nevada and Northeastern California, leaving more working families and individuals on the brink. Seniors, college students, single parents, immigrants, and the working poor are particularly vulnerable. Some must choose to pay rent over buying food or securing healthcare. The lack of affordable housing in urban and rural areas alike is changing the identity of this region. In response, the KUNR newsroom is examining housing through many lenses, including the economic, political, and public health impacts.You can also subscribe to the Priced Out Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

The Intersection Of Mental Illness And Unaffordable Housing: One Reno Family's Struggle

Bree Zender
Erika Toth holds a picture of her son, Cornel, in her Reno apartment.

Our reporter Bree Zender has been talking to various everyday people in the region affected by rising house costs. Today, she talks with one mom whose adult son has a mental illness about her efforts to keep him off the streets.

I met Erika Toth at her apartment in Reno, near the Truckee River. She spent her childhood in Hungary, and has lived in California for the past several decades before moving to Reno in 2012 to be near her son, Cornel. She shows me a picture of him.

“So this is Cornel when he was on medication. He was clean-cut. He’s a handsome person, I think. Of course, I’m his mother,” Toth said. “He was a very intelligent child. He was always in gifted children’s programs. He was very artistic.”

Cornel has bipolar disorder along with schizoaffective disorder. He lived with his mother in South Lake Tahoe until he was in his mid-40s, before moving to his own apartment in Reno.

“He was 29 before I could get him on medications. He just didn’t have the ability… the consistency… ability to prioritize. He wasn’t able to work and he wasn’t able to really go to school,” Toth said.

Cornel was living on social security disability checks… Erika said he received $1,085 dollars a month, with $500 dollar a month from that check going towards his rent.

“And he was doing really well on his medication. I was very pleasantly surprised,” Toth said. “And we both agreed that moving out on his own at age 46 was really a good thing because now we both know that he could survive after I died.”

Erika said Cornel lived in Reno for several years. Then his rent jumped to $550 dollars a month in 2016. That may not seem like much, but it further limits his tight social security budget for food and other supplies. And then, Cornel decided to stop taking his medication.

“And without the medication, he turned very hostile toward me. When I called him, he wouldn’t talk to me,” Toth said. “I went there on his birthday, to his apartment. Because I kept trying to open up the door to communicate and get him back into treatment. And so I go to his door, and there is the eviction notice on the door.”

Cornel had been evicted for nonpayment of rent.

“He didn’t keep track of the days and he probably didn’t keep track of his money very well, either,” Toth said.

Despite her months of searching, Erika hasn’t seen him since last year. She thinks he’s living on the streets unmedicated, where she said he puts himself and others at a safety risk. She still keeps the door open for him to come back.

“All I have to do is just think of… ‘What would we do if he showed up?’” Toth said. “There are several areas where I could have bought a place for him if I was willing to give up all my savings. And over time, I simply got priced out of the market.”

Erika is a retired medical social worker. She knows, firsthand, that other people in the area are getting priced out of the market, too.

“And some of these people who are homeless are elderly, disabled. There is no way all these people… hundreds of people would be able to find something affordable,” Toth said. “And I love my son deeply, you know? God gave me a challenge and I will not disappoint God. I will always do the very best I can.”

In the weeks that have passed since Erika and I spoke, she still hasn’t heard from Cornel.


If you want to hear more stories like Erika’s about those who are impacted by a lack of affordable housing, check out KUNR's podcast, Priced Out. Find it on Apple Podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

Bree Zender is a former host and reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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