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Even in affordable Pittsburgh, still living at home — struggling with debt, limited options

Tim Grant, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Home and Consumer News

PITTSBURGH -- After living in Atlanta for 10 years and managing the struggle to keep up with rising expenses and student loan debt, 34-year-old Kara Steiner decided to move back to her parents' house in suburban Pittsburgh last year hoping to re-establish her life in a more affordable city.

She landed a job within a week of coming home. The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh hired her to teach full-time at St. Silvester Elementary School. But the $30,000 salary was just half of what she earned as a teacher in Georgia, which put a damper on her plans to move out of the family home -- at least for a while.

Things went from bad to worse when the teaching job ended in August. The diocese had to cut back its staff because of low enrollment. She spent the summer interviewing for job after job to no avail.

"I wasn't even getting phone calls back from the schools I interviewed with, saying 'thanks for your time,'" Steiner said.

She never expected to still be living with her parents more than a year after she came back. But she has begun to accept the fact that moving out will not happen as fast as she thought.

An increasing number of grown children -- also known as "boomerang kids" -- are moving into their old bedrooms, usually because of financial challenges caused by a life crisis such as divorce or job loss or the high cost of living independently in an age when young adults are confronting record levels of college debt and a tough job market.

The Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center found young adults driving the steady rise in multi-generational households. A record 57 million Americans, or 18.1 percent of the U.S. population in 2014, lived in households with more than two generations of adults -- double the number in 1980.

The Pew study attributed the trend to a large loss of employment for young adults during the Great Recession.

Fresh out of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania at age 22, Steiner -- with a degree in speech communications and television production -- headed to Atlanta with no job and $200 in the bank to live with her older sister.

She initially worked in the ad industry, but transitioned to a career in teaching. Her sister worked as a teacher and would often invite Steiner to the classroom to read books to the kids.

"That's what's so hard for me being at home is that I love being a teacher," she said. "I'm so passionate about it. I love making learning fun. But I can't find a job and I don't want to be a substitute. You don't have that same relationship with the students as you do in your own classes."

Three years ago, her sister got married and moved back to Pittsburgh to start a family. Steiner began to grow homesick. The mortgage on her condo cost $1,050 a month, plus a $250 monthly homeowners association fee.

She earned $55,000 a year as a teacher, but still needed to work an occasional babysitting job to meet all of her housing expenses, a car note and student loan payments.

Jim Meredith, executive vice president at the Hefren-Tillotson financial services firm in Pittsburgh, said boomerang kids may not be just a temporary phenomenon. They could be part of a new and permanent life stage.

"The trend is very strong because of the incredible burden of school debt," Meredith said. "If you graduate with $140,000 in debt for a liberal arts degree and end up working a job that does not require a degree, you have wasted your money.

"Unfortunately, more people with a liberal arts degree or humanities degree do not have an employable skill in today's job market," he said. "When the student loan payments hit, it's a crushing burden."

Paul Brahim, CEO of BPU Investment Management, said there is a legitimate argument that young adults from the millennial generation have a difficult time finding meaningful work with reasonable compensation here in Pittsburgh and across the nation.

"Baby boomers are delaying retirement largely due to the financial crisis they weren't prepared for and they have to work longer," Brahim said.

The year 2014, according to the most recent Pew study on boomerang kids, was a high-water mark in the unfolding living arrangements of young adults in America. For the first time since 1880, adults age 18 to 34 became more likely to be living with a parent than to be living on their own or with a romantic partner in their own household.

In 2014, about 32.1 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds lived in their parents' home, with 31.6 percent married or cohabiting and living in their own separate dwelling. Before that, the most common living arrangement for young adults was to be in a romantic coupling (either married or cohabiting) in their own household.

According to a 2016 study by Zillow, almost 9 percent of millennials across the U.S. live alone, but that number has been declining since 2005 -- likely because of rising rents and home prices.

There are still places throughout the U.S. where it's easier for young adults to live independently, Pittsburgh being one of them. In this region, 14.3 percent of millennials live alone and their median income is $40,000 a year. At this income, they can afford to live in 17.2 percent of homes in the region alone.

Pittsburgh's median two-bedroom rent of $920 is below the national average of $1,160. However, slower than average job growth has been a hinderance. The Pittsburgh area gained 17,200 jobs between September 2016 and September 2017, a 1.5 percent increase.

Steiner works part-time as a group fitness instructor for a company called Innovative Wellness. She teaches a few days a week for corporate clients, making just enough to keep her car loan and student loans current.

Meanwhile, she has begun to move some of her furniture out of storage to set up a room in the basement of her parents' four-bedroom home.

"I'm going to try to stick it out," she said. "I want to be here. But I would take a job outside of Pittsburgh that would pay me enough to live the quality of life I had in Atlanta."

If she's going to stay in her hometown, she doesn't want to stay where she is for much longer.

"In order for me to stay here I don't want to keep living in my parents' basement. I want to live on my own."

(c)2017 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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