Economy leaves more Champaign families in need

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Leodegario Olea discusses his family's economic hardship in his home in Champaign.

Editor’s note: This series is funded by the Marguarite Casey Foundation.

By Pam G. Dempsey —  Leodegario Olea and his wife, Rosa, sit inside the dining room of their six-bedroom house in west Champaign talking money.

“To be honest, I have always had problems with bills even before a family. A home is very expensive, I’m not gonna lie. You’ve got to pay gas, lights, food,” Olea  said through  a translator.

The family is one of thousands in Champaign struggling through the economy.

Since 2006, families in Champaign County have felt the strong, negative effects of rising housing and food costs.

U.S. Census Bureau estimates released late last month show that one in four Champaign County residents are now considered to be living in “poverty” – up from one in five residents just six years ago.

This means that a household of four with two children and an income of no more than $22,811 annually would qualify as living in poverty.

It’s just as hard for others whose income levels may not have dipped below the threshold of poverty or who, like the Oleas, may be sharing costs with family members.

Olea first came to the states from Mexico City in 1980, initially undocumented and then worked to establish residency in 1986.

Eventually his family followed and 10 years ago, the couple and seven of their children moved to Champaign from Chicago to seek a calmer atmosphere.

Because he suffered an injury to his hand in Chicago, Olea was no longer able to work. He filed for disability once they settled into Champaign and eventually qualified for it.

The family first moved to a two-bedroom house in a residential area near Sam’s Club in the northwest side of Champaign.  Although less expensive than the house they live in now, it was too small for nine people.

In 2004, the family bought a home in the Sawgrass neighborhood.

At six-bedrooms, there was more room for the family, but at twice the cost.

Olea’s  disability payments top out at just over $900 each month. His wife is not working. So Olea’s four oldest children help out, splitting the nearly $2,000 a month mortgage.

Housing experts agree that for any home to be affordable, a resident must not pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income to housing costs.

Yet, of the nearly 28,000 households in Champaign County who owe a mortgage on their homes – one in four pay more than that, according to 2011 Census Bureau estimates.

Housing advocate Esther Patt, director of the Champaign-Urbana Tenant Union, said that housing needs for the area’s low-income families are most often overlooked.

“When people talk about poverty, they don’t talk about housing; it’s like they assume that that’s taken care of,” Patt said.

Renters in the community have more problems.

The demand for quality rental housing by university students has overshadowed the market for affordable housing. It’s also inflated rent prices.

And over the past six years, rents in Champaign County have increased about 30 percent.

The fair market rate for a two-bedroom home in Champaign County in 2006 was just over $614.  That rate is now $785 a month.

Patt estimates families need to make at least $26,000  to be able to afford rent for a two-bedroom home.

“Rents are higher now than they were six years ago, 10 years ago, and incomes are not … so it’s harder to find cheaper places,” Patt said.

The latest Census estimates show that 64 percent of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing.

Patt said the need for shelter outranks a person’s ability to pay.

Too often, she said, families will rent above their means and then face eviction when it becomes too difficult to continue to pay.

If evicted, then families are forced into places that may be more affordable, but also may be substandard.

“Housing is the biggest expense and it’s a top priority of people to have shelter; mostly food, shelter and clothing,” Patt said.

The high housing costs and lower incomes have pushed Olea and his family to visit food pantries twice a month to supplement their food budget.

It was never easy to do, but feeding the family now has become much more difficult.

“We keep ourselves busy. The truth is we go to shelters and pantries where they offer food and other things. That’s how we go by surviving. The money that my kids make is just to pay the bills and everything, so we’re left with little more than nothing,” Olea said.

Yet, the family is happy in their home, he said, because it is their own.

And their struggles have yet to outweigh their achievements.

“T he best for me that we’ve seen, the best that’s happened to me is that my children have learned the English language and that they are studying. They develop with what I could not have,” Olea said.

This story was funded by the Marguarite Casey Foundation.

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