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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.

High Rents Can Mean Less Money For Food

High rent prices in Reno are placing many people in financially dire situations. With more of their income going to housing, families may have less to spend on essentials, like food. Our reporter Anh Gray visits a local food pantry to find out how the housing crunch is affecting people in the community.

St. Francis of Assisi Food Pantryis just a stone’s throw from the Peppermill Resort Hotel in Reno. Cindy Becher opened the pantry about two years ago. An hour before the door opens, there’s already a dozen or so people milling outside with shopping carts and backpacks.

Prior to opening the doors, Becher gathers a group of about 10 volunteers in a circle to pray. As a line stretches out the door, people are invited in small groups to come in and collect food.

At first, the pantry served more than 100 families, but now it’s up to 900 families, many of them seniors, veterans and young parents with children. “They grab a basket and they just pick items that are beneficial to them,” Becher explains. “So we go according to their size family, so when they finish with the canned goods, they go into the bread room. And the bread room has some breads, cereals and snacks for them and then the perishables. Today we have an abundance of perishables. Ooh, I have leeks, I’ve got carrots.”

Volunteers at St. Francis of Assisi Food Pantry gather to say a prayer prior to opening the doors.

A recent study from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that in 2015, nearly 40 percent of renters spent nearly a third of their gross income on housing. Those spending a 30% or more of their income on housing are referred to as ‘rent burdened’ individuals who have less disposable income for other essentials like food or health care.

Becher says she hears from her clients about the financial constraints that prevent them from finding a suitable home. “We’re noticing, too, that their income rates are not going up, but their housing is raising and their food cost is raising,” Becher says. “So, like the produce that we have outside, I had one client say, ‘I could never buy that. This is so cool that you have this here.’”

Jesse who asked to be identified only by her first name is a volunteer at the pantry and is concerned that while the growing tech industry is good for Reno’s economy, it’s driving up the cost of housing. “A lot of the folks that come in here are actually homeless,” Jesse says. “It’s sad what the community has come to. I’m from Silicon Valley, I was in that industry and now that they have come and moved in here, they are pushing all of the residents out.”

The difficulty of putting food on the table is something Jesse can relate to. She first started at the pantry as a client. “Nobody can afford to rent homes, and like my whole life, from 13 to fifty-something, I only ever spent one-third of my revenue on rent,” Jesse says. “Now I’m at three-quarters. And that’s just unacceptable.”

Jesse says she’s happy to get the chance to assist people like senior Dennis Leblanc. A retired meat cutter, he’s now legally blind, and lives on a fixed income of about $800 a month. He rents a room in a house that goes for $700 a month with $50 more for utilities. Not much is left over for food, and it’s not easy for him to admit he needs the help. “I’m not use to going to these food pantries…but they’re nice; they’re very nice,” Leblanc says. “But I don’t make a bit of coming here.”

Douglas Gates and Sheila Claughton are also finding it tough. They’re a young couple in their mid-twenties and stopped by the pantry with their nearly six-year-old son. After about a month-long stay at a Reno motel, they moved in with family. “Weeklies is not the best place that I would want my kid,” Gates says. “I wouldn’t want anybody’s kid there.”

Douglas Gates and Sheila Claughton pick out items at St. Francis of Assisi Food Pantry.

Gates admits it’s been tough trying to get on their feet financially. “We have to go without a lot of things,” Gates explains. “We have a vehicle that’s barely running that we’re trying to keep maintained so that we can go from Plan A to Plan B. It’s been hard; it’s been really hard.”

Gates is looking towards the future. He recently landed a temp job that could lead to something full-time. He’ll make a little over $11 an hour and hopes that’ll be enough. “I’m worried about, you know, feeding my son, and rent,” Gates says, “and having clothes on my back and other bills.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts study mentioned earlier also found that for a family with two earners making minimum wage, and with one child to support, they would have just 250 in pretax dollars each week to cover necessities like child care, food, and transportation. This means that as more families are rent-burdened, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

Anh Gray is a former contributing editor at KUNR Public Radio.
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