A lifetime of limited housing choice
North Stonington – Mary Mace can’t remember a time she hasn’t been on the run from rising rent.
“We move every couple of years because the rents go too high and we can’t afford to stay there,” she said from the cramped but tidy trailer in Northstone Gardens mobile home park where she pays $1,050 per month.
Mace, 65, receives Social Security disability benefits of about $1,400 per month. She has short-term memory loss from a head injury related to what she described as a childhood of abuse.
Her recall of those days is spotty.
“I don’t remember being a very young child, but I remember bits and pieces of being a teenager,” she said. “Then all of a sudden I woke up and I was an adult.”
A life-long search for affordability has pushed her further and further from where she first moved with her husband and young children in 1984. Since divorced, she now lives with her partner, Charles Dignazio.
“I’ve been on my soapbox on Facebook and Twitter and whatnot, screaming how we need rent control,” she said. It’s the only option she sees outside the limited number of subsidized housing vouchers reserved for those in the lowest income brackets.
Housing Choice Vouchers subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cover the difference between the cost of rent and the amount a household can afford. The vouchers have largely replaced the public housing projects of the past. Waiting lists can be years or decades long.
She said she is on waiting lists for housing vouchers in numerous cities and towns. She signs up each time she is alerted by email that another housing authority is accepting applications.
Her short-term memory loss doesn’t affect her ability to navigate the bureaucratic process of applying for vouchers, she said: “All the answers are the same, and they’re pretty much instilled in my long-term memory. Answering the same questions over and over again.”
The state legislature this year expanded a statute on the books regarding Fair Rent Commissions. Previously, the law simply allowed cities and towns to create commissions to investigate rent complaints, hold hearings and order landlords to reduce rents for specific reasons. Now, fair rent commissions are a requirement in any municipality with more than 25,000 people.
The Connecticut Fair Housing Center has emphasized the measure doesn’t limit rent rates, but puts decisions in the control of volunteers empowered to determine if an increase is excessively “harsh and unconscionable.”
On the move
“We started out in Manchester,” Mace said of her arrival in in the north central part of the state. “And here we are, all the way in North Stonington. We’re eventually going to keep going; if we have to, we’ll move out of state. We don’t have much of a choice.”
Two of her children and a granddaughter are staying with them because there’s nowhere else for them to go, she said. Her other son lives in a hotel.
Mace, who has a history of head trauma, diabetes and strokes, said their current rural location leaves her far removed from medical specialists with offices in more populated areas. She put the cost of driving to and from medical appointments in her 2015 Chevy Malibu at roughly $300 a month.
The lease on their three-bedroom, two-bathroom trailer is up in January, leaving Mace fearful of a price hike that will send her packing again. That’s what drove the family out of the New London apartment they rented before ending up in North Stonington two years ago. Staying in the small city would have meant paying $1,600 a month for rent, an amount that exceeds her monthly income.
Mace started out with her then-husband in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where they lived in four different apartments before following his job prospects to Connecticut. She’s made a home in rentals throughout South Windsor, Andover, East Hartford and New London since then.
In the wake of her divorce, she tried to make ends meet as a certified nursing assistant despite her memory condition. She said other nursing assistants complained she couldn’t tell one patient from another and she always had to write everything down.
“So I would switch jobs like I switch everything else,” she said.
It wasn’t until she met Dignazio through a personals message on Craigslist.com about 13 years ago that she had the cushion she needed to apply for disability benefits. She said she wasn’t eligible while working, yet couldn’t afford to forgo a paycheck long enough to apply. She credited Dignazio’s support with allowing her to get by until she was approved for benefits in 2010.
Her income and Dignazio’s Social Security benefits bring their household monthly income to more than $3,000, she said.
Mace said they’ve been able to find rentals they can afford until now, but she’s worried what will happen in the current economy. Her electrical bill alone has gone up $100, to $367 a month.
“I can’t afford to pay it,” she said. “I’m paying what I can.”
She pointed to the canister she uses for oxygen as the reason why the electrical company can’t shut off her power.
State protections prevent utility companies from immediately terminating service to seriously ill people if doing so could lead to a life-threatening situation.
“It’s taking advantage,” she acknowledged. “I never took advantage of it before and I feel bad that I’m doing that.”
Real estate agents and rental managers who spoke to The Day’s Housing Solutions Lab over the past six months have emphasized that a housing market already characterized by low supply and high demand got even tighter in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Many landlords now have stricter income requirements, demand higher credit scores and won’t accept anyone with a history of evictions.
“You’ve got to have perfect credit now to rent an apartment, and nobody has frickin’ perfect credit,” Mace said.
Mace pays her rent first because keeping a roof over her head is the priority, she said. Then she pays as much as she can of her utility bills.
“After that, if there’s money for the credit card payment or the car payment or the car insurance, they’ll get paid. So my credit sucks and I’m sure I’m not the only one that has to make that decision,” she said.