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Even when employed, housing in Utah isn’t a sure thing

Melissa Rudderham and her dog Toby pose for a photo at her son’s house while they wait to move into their new townhouse in mid-June.
Ivana Martinez
Melissa Rudderham and her dog Toby pose for a photo at her son’s house while they wait to move into their new townhouse in mid-June.

After packing all of their belongings in a storage unit last November, Melissa Rudderham and her husband Charles joined a growing group called the “working homeless.”

For the past four years, Melissa had been working for an elderly woman who’d asked the couple to move into the basement as her health was declining.

Facing a $300 rent increase at the apartment they were living in Salt Lake City, they decided to accept the offer. At least until they found a cheaper alternative.

“We were desperately trying to find something under $1,000 a month,” she said.

But a few days later her employer passed away from COVID.

With only her husband's income as a full-time custodian, Melissa’s disability and their two pets — they were left with few affordable options to rent.

Despite a Salt Lake County apartment boom, rents have skyrocketed over the past two years, according to a Kem C. Gardner report. The average rent increased from $720 per month in 2010 to $1,301 in 2021. A one-bedroom apartment is now about $1,190.

“We just didn't want to do another year at that higher price for such a tiny space,” Rudderham said. “Oh, my gosh. [I’ve] spent too much on the phone, pretty much calling everybody and looking at every dump we could think of and we just hadn't found anything. So here we [were], off to Motel 6.”

They bounced around from place to place for about six months, while trying to find a stable solution and reaching out to resources like the Salt Lake Housing Authority, and local homeless shelters but they didn’t have much luck. And the longer they stayed the more strained their finances became.

It’s a situation that’s prevalent among those who find themselves without a stable home.

“There are more of us out there,” Rudderham said. “We just don’t talk about it. It’s an embarrassing situation for us over 50.”

According to a University of Chicago study, “40.4% percent of the unsheltered population had at least some formal employment in the year they were observed as homeless.”

Melissa Broderick, director of supportive housing services at the Road Home, said most people who come in are working multiple jobs and aren’t able to afford housing.

“I've personally worked with folks who have lost their job because they couldn't get there because it was overnight or it was just really far away,” she said. “Or the bus, even though it wasn't far, took an hour to get there. So even our folks that are really, really trying, sometimes it takes multiple jobs just to get enough money.”

There are several other barriers to getting affordable housing, she said, like expensive housing applications, minimum wages and limited time off and availability. And that doesn’t take into account other factors like transportation, work-related expenses and other costs of living.

“There's a lot that goes into trying to get an apartment, even if you qualify, if you do get approved, there's large deposits. You often pay the first month [and] last month's rent,” she said. “If you have a little bit of a history that's troublesome to a landlord, they may raise the deposit even more… You probably need a couple thousand dollars upfront. And that's really tough when you're not making a lot. When you're just trying to survive — [when] you're spending that money trying to survive to buy food.”

There’s a common misconception, she said, that if you are employed that finding housing should be the next easy step and that’s just not true.

Overall she said there needs to be more affordable housing in the state.

“We need rent that is subsidized for folks that are like 40% [area median income] or lower for people that have really low wages,” Broderick said. “We need maybe some mixed housing with some low income and some just other housing [options.] We don't have enough of that. It's really, really tough to find affordable housing.”

As for Melissa and Charles Rudderham, they were finally able to get some help. They’re staying with their son while they wait to move into a new townhouse in mid-June.

Ivana is a general assignment reporter
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