Congratulations: You paid your rent!

Sunday, October 11, 2020 - 8:02pm

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Illustration by Maggie Wiebe

Rich students don’t like to talk about money. It can be embarrassing to express the amount of money in your bank account, especially when it’s money your parents wire to you. And it’s easy to avoid conversation about something you don’t think of much. 

But as a lower-income student, I think about money during almost all of my daily actions. When I wake up in the morning, I eat one egg instead of two to save on groceries. I rummage through Goodwill, searching for knockoffs of the fashions I see on Instagram, a practice I have perfected since middle school. My friends ask me if I want to go out to eat and I triple check my funds, indulging in some quick budgeting to see if I can afford dinner at a restaurant. 

I’m tired of not talking about money to make my wealthier friends more comfortable. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel resentment towards them, as they tiptoe around the topic due to a lack of urgency. I’ve had a job for the last nine years of my life — since I was 12 years old — and I can’t fathom how some of them still don’t have jobs now. I need to work to pay my rent and quite honestly, it makes me angry that they don’t have to as well. 

Why does no one else talk about this?

I’m starting to realize that it’s because most of the people at this university come from financially affluent households. And for the most part, rich people don’t like to talk about how rich they are. 

Worrying about how to pay my rent has been an issue since I moved out of my parents’ house in 2017. My parents no longer subsidized my living costs, and housing in Ann Arbor is notoriously expensive. As a full-time yet financially independent college student, I often face difficulty in figuring out how to afford it. Without friends around me who deal with the same obstacles, I often feel like I’m alone in my struggles. I’ve been feeling it a lot recently after early-voting "yes" on Proposal C , which is on the November 2020 Ballot. This proposal is asking voters to approve a new $1 million tax to fund construction, maintenance and acquisition of affordable housing units for low-income individuals.

When talking about this proposal with my rich friends, I can tell they don’t quite realize just how dire the approval of this proposal is for low-income individuals like myself. When I asked my friend and fellow low-income student Amaya Farrell, a junior in the School of Kinesiology, if she was familiar with the proposal she said, “My whole life is my familiarity with the proposal.”

Farrell is registered to vote in Wyandotte County, which subsequently means she can’t vote ‘yes’ on this Washtenaw County approval. However, she said that if she could she “would vote yes because of the segregation that income creates in Washtenaw County, specifically in the Ann Arbor area. Having affordable and equitable housing to individuals that can otherwise not afford their rent is crucial to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts made by the city.”

Talking about our shared low-income familial upbringings is what has bonded me with Amaya since I met her in the summer of 2020. As with most of my low-income friends, lamenting about our frustrations with money is what has brought us closer together. 

Farrell was raised by her grandparents because her mother was in the military and her father was out of the picture. “I try not to ask (my grandparents) for anything now because I feel like I took a huge burden off of them by moving out,” Farrell said. 

This is not the first time Farrell has felt a sense of economic instability — it’s a feeling she’s experienced since she was young.

“We were living paycheck to paycheck,” she explained about her upbringing. “We were evicted once. There were just a lot of hardships.”

I felt a sense of myself when listening to her words. I rarely meet people at the University of Michigan with a similar familial experience as my own, and it was comforting to know that I wasn’t entirely alone. Relying on my low-income friends for support in the many challenges we face regarding the economic disadvantage between us and our high-income peers has been incredibly helpful. And though there are a significant number of studies regarding this topic, there is not a lot of action being taken to prevent this, despite our knowledge that this is a problem.

The facets of this reality far surpass solely the economic implications. Hours other students may spend studying are the hours I spend working tirelessly to pay my rent, yet I still beat myself up when I don’t perform as well as my wealthier peers in school. This was an issue I knew I’d face going into my freshman year of college, yet there were few resources to help me prepare for what would become a major stressor in my college life. 

To afford the University of Michigan I applied for over 30 different scholarships. I was granted 20 of them, including the Michigan Competitive Grant. I reapply to some of these scholarships each year and some extend through all four years of schooling. It is through these scholarships that I was able to afford my spot in Bursley Residence Hall my freshman year. For sophomore year, I applied to live in the Inter-Cooperative Council (ICC) because it was the cheapest housing option I was aware of at the time. It certainly wasn’t my first housing choice. 

I had a few friends offer for me to live at their house, but most of the prices they were mentioning were $850 or more a month, not including utilities, in the Kerrytown area of Ann Arbor. It agitated me that they could mention rent so casually. It was almost as if they didn’t have to think twice about it — probably because they didn't. 

There was absolutely no way I could afford the price of rent they were offering me, so I settled for the slightly-messy, overly populated cooperative house on South Campus. I loved living there, but I felt a sense of shame when I’d bring my upper-class friends over because my house wasn’t as nice as their high-rise apartments. 

I distinctly remember one of them commenting on how dirty my house was compared to theirs. We were walking to my bedroom when they passed my kitchen, rife with unwashed dishes and leftover food on the counters. “Wow, I can’t believe you live like this,” they had said. I couldn’t help but think: Well, if I could afford to live in a cleaner environment, I would. I hated this feeling of embarrassment, but it’s something I have grown all too accustomed to as a lower-income student. Farrell explained experiencing the same feeling here on campus. 

“It wasn’t until my second semester freshman year until I started to really see it (the income disparity on campus),” Farrell said. “I was surrounded by people who could afford so many things on the drop of a hat.” 

This year, with the thoughtful maneuvering of my friends, I am paying incredibly cheap rent in a house in Kerrytown. Yet, I still have to work at least 15 hours a week to pay my rent, which is minor compared to the three jobs I worked my sophomore year. Then, there were weeks when I was clocking in 40 hours between jobs in order to afford rent as well as groceries, phone bills and school supplies. Now, I babysit two kids for $20 an hour, but the frustration toward my peers who don’t work at all still persists. Every time I pay my rent for the month, I feel like I should get some type of award, or at least a congratulations.

I don’t think I’ve ever not thought twice about any purchase I’ve made. Nor do I think I ever will. And as difficult as it is, I do take an immense amount of pride in the fact that I am entirely independent of my parents, much like Farrell and other low-income students. This is a huge feat, one that I will never let anyone or myself diminish. It’s a significant obstacle and it’s not something we get praised for enough. So, if you’re like me and the struggle to pay your rent is consistent, then I offer you this: Congratulations. You did it. Affordable housing is a fight that I and many other low-income people have been grappling with our entire lives. I feel a sense of hope with proposals like Proposal C surfacing on our ballots: hope for a future when paying my rent isn’t a tireless battle, a future when a call from my landlord isn’t something to fear and a future when all low-income people do not feel the overwhelming burden of finding a safe, supported home.


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