Growing gap between wages, rents means healthy housing is increasingly out of reach

by Kim Krisberg

In California, a minimum wage worker has to work at least 98 hours in a week to afford a two-bedroom unit at fair market rental prices. In Texas, that worker would have to work between 81 and 97 hours in a week, and in North Carolina it's upward of 80 hours per week. In fact, in no state can minimum wage workers afford a two-bedroom apartment working a standard 40-hour week without spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent — the percentage historically used to determine fair rental prices.

"What we've been witnessing is basically exactly what we've been expecting to see — that consistently the cost of rent is increasing whereas salaries and hourly wages are stagnating," said Elina Bravve, research analyst at the National Low Income Housing Coalition and a co-author of the coalition's recently released report, "Out of Reach 2013." "The primary problem is that there's just not enough affordable housing across the board."

During the last decade, and increasingly in the previous eight years, a larger proportion of U.S. residents have chosen to rent instead of buy. The competition is good news for landlords, but bad news for those earning low incomes, Bravve told me. She noted that according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) most recent Worst Case Housing Needs assessment, the number of families with very low incomes who either paid more than half their incomes on rent, lived in severely substandard housing or faced both situations rose from about 7 million in 2009 to 8.5 million in 2011 — that's an increase of nearly 20 percent. Between 2001 and 2003, that statistic only increased by 3 percent, Bravve said.

"Folks who are paying 50 percent of their income toward rent and aren't making a lot to begin with...they have very little left over and start cutting down on food, health care, other necessities," she said. "If one thing goes wrong, it's just like a domino effect."

According to the "Out of Reach" report, renter households rose by one million in 2011, the single largest one-year increase since the early 1980s. But with increasing demand is coming scarcer resources and costlier living. Rental vacancy rates fell from 8 percent right after the financial crisis to 4.5 percent in 2012, and rent prices went up by nearly 4 percent from 2011 to 2012. For every 100 extremely low-income renter households, there are only 30 affordable and available rental units, the report found.

And with the nation's overall job growth concentrated heavily within low-wage sectors, the gap between housing affordability and wages is growing wider and wider. Using HUD's Fair Market Rent estimate, the report's authors estimated that the 2013 housing wage exceeds the hourly wage earned by the average renter by nearly $4.50 an hour. Report authors Bravve, Megan Bolton and Sheila Crowley write:

The number of full-time jobs that a household must work at the prevailing state minimum wage to afford the average two-bedroom (at fair market rent) ranges from 1.4 jobs (Puerto Rico) to 4.4 jobs (Hawaii). ...The one-bedroom housing wage also exceeds the federal minimum wage in each state across the country. In fact, with the exception of a handful of counties in Washington and Oregon (where the state minimum wage is $9.19 and $8.95, respectively), there is no county in the U.S. where even a one-bedroom unit at the (fair market rent price) is affordable to someone working full-time at the minimum wage.

Bravve noted that rental affordability isn't only an issue in metropolitan areas but in rural communities as well, where there tends to be fewer affordable housing developers, less access to capital and fewer units being built, which all results in even narrower housing supplies. For those families squeezed out of rental markets, their risk of homelessness begins to rise. They're often forced to bounce around between family and friends or live in substandard and unhealthy housing conditions. And the effects of housing instability can have a pronounced effect on health. For example, according to research from Children's HealthWatch, children in low-income families with subsidized housing had better growth outcomes than children without the housing benefit. Housing instability is also linked to higher rates of food insecurity and poorer child health outcomes, the nonprofit found.

"(Housing instability) is incredibly disruptive," Bravve said. "It affects people's lives, their health, their children's ability to do well in school. Housing is just so basic, it affects everything."

Unfortunately, the numbers of low-income families eligible for housing assistance but unable to receive it due to limited affordable housing resources is on the rise, Bravve said. Right now, there are only enough resources for one out of every four families eligible for housing assistance to actually receive it, she said.

According to Bravve and her colleagues, one of the solutions to the growing problem is to fund the federal National Housing Trust Fund, which was created in 2008 to provide more affordable housing for extremely low-income families. The fund, however, was never financed. (President Obama's fiscal year 2013 budget request provides $1 billion to the fund.) To finance the fund, the National Low Income Housing Coalition is urging lawmakers to place a cap on the maximum mortgage to receive a tax break at $500,000 and convert the current tax deduction to a 15 percent nonrefundable credit. The coalition estimates that such changes will save the federal government about $20 billion, which could then go toward creating additional affordable housing stock.

"(Without access to affordable housing) our economy suffers as a whole — people aren't going shopping, they're not going out to eat, they're not buying new cars," Bravve said. "People really do need to pay attention to this. It affects us all."

To read a copy of the "Out of Reach" report, click here.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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