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Research shows high-rent burden negatively impacts mental health

 Isabelle Shroeder Le Bourlegat greets her black cat, Francisco, after her remote workday. She pays rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seminole Heights.
Gabriella Paul
WUSF Public Media
Isabelle Shroeder Le Bourlegat greets her black cat, Francisco, after her remote workday. She pays rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seminole Heights.

Isabelle Schroeder Le Bourlegat has moved four times in four years.

She started therapy while living at her last apartment, a roughly 300-square-foot studio with no windows and bare amenities.

At $700 a month, it was the most she could afford while earning just above minimum wage. She had moved from Brazil in 2019 with a college degree but was unable to use it in the U.S.

At the time, Schroeder Le Bourlegat said her living situation was the biggest factor affecting her mental health.

“I was in a very dark place. I needed help. It took me almost a year for me to reach out for help,” she said.

Research shows a lack of access to affordable housing forces people to choose between paying for rent and other necessities like utilities, groceries and health care.

Whitney Denary, a PhD student at the Yale School of Public Health, researched the relationship between rental stability and mental health in a report that she co-authored in 2021.

The study, which was published in the National Library of Medicine, followed 400 renters in New Haven, Connecticut, over the course of three years. Every six months, participants were surveyed on their housing situation and their mental health.

The findings show that renters who are cost-burdened, or those who spend more than 30 percent of their paycheck on housing costs, are more likely to experience anxiety and depression.

Though the research was confined to Connecticut, Denary said that nearly half of all renters nationwide are burdened by housing costs.

Denary added that federal rental assistance, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is a proven solution for relieving psychological distress of cost-burdened renters despite being historically underfunded.

"When folks have to make these difficult decisions — of having to pay for rent versus their food, utilities [or] childcare — those types of mental burdens can result in people feeling more stressed, getting less sleep, and having to rely on social networks more than they might prefer,” Denary said.

For Shroeder Le Bourlegat, she had to sacrifice her mental health treatment to afford a better living situation.

Last summer when she heard about a vacant apartment in Seminole Heights, she jumped on the opportunity despite it costing $500 more a month than her current place.

“It was a no-brainer,” she said. “And I knew that I would have to cut therapy … It’s not going to be a forever thing. It’s just until I can gain a little bit more money because right now, the rent is half of my paycheck.”

To make ends meet, Schroeder Le Bourlegat pockets the $30 weekly copay she used to put toward therapy. She also downgraded her health and auto insurance plans for cheaper rates and halved the amount of money she puts toward savings every month.

For now, she said it’s well-worth the sacrifice for a stable place to call home.

Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.

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Gabriella Paul