Despite an increase last year in the federal minimum wage and the majority of states that offer a higher minimum wage, the rise of rental rates has outpaced the earnings of low-wage and moderate-wage workers, according to a report released today by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a national group that advocates for affordable housing.
"The current mortgage crisis has awakened everyone to what low-income renters have known for a long time: Even modest homes are too costly for most low-income families," said Sheila Crowley, NLIHC president, in a statement.
Crowley suggested that the affordability problem "will only get worse as the rental market is flooded with families displaced by foreclosure."
The group’s "Out of Reach" report, which compares wages and rents in county, metro areas and states, calculates the amount of money a household must earn in order to afford a rental unit ranging in size from a studio to a four-bedroom unit at the area’s fair market rental rate, based on an affordability standard of paying no more than 30 percent of income for housing costs.
From these calculations, the report suggests an hourly wage — dubbed a "housing wage" — that a worker must earn to afford the fair market rental price for a two-bedroom home in a given market area.
Roughly one-third of U.S. households rent, or about 36.5 million households, and about 18.5 million of them do not earn enough to afford the average fair market rental rate for an appropriately sized rental unit in their state, the report concludes.
The U.S. median hourly wage is about $16. The federal minimum wage increased from $5.15 to $5.85 in July 2007 and additional increases planned this year and next will bring that wage up to $7.25.
In 2006, an estimated 9 million renter households across the country paid more than half of their income for housing, with 98 percent of these households considered low income.
"In no community in the U.S. today can someone who gets a full-time job at the minimum wage reasonably expect to find a modest rental unit he or she can afford," the report states.
While low-cost rental housing is available through subsidy programs and the private market, the report suggests that "in the private market these units are frequently occupied by higher income households or are deteriorating and unsafe, sometimes lacking complete facilities." Also, the report states that the number of private and subsidized low-cost rental units shrinks each year "from neglect, gentrification and conversion to condominiums."
The Stamford-Norwalk, Conn., metro area led the country for its high rental rate compared to wages — it had an estimated $31.58 per hour housing wage for a two-bedroom rental unit at a fair market rate. Next on the list was Honolulu, with a $31.35 housing wage; the Orange County, Calif., metro area at $30.67; the San Francisco metro area, at $30.62; and Nassau-Suffolk, N.Y., at $29.40. The report states that the gap between what low-income workers earn and what they can afford is "most pronounced in the highest-cost metropolitan areas."
Honolulu County led U.S. counties for its high housing wage; followed by Nantucket County, Mass.; Orange County, Calif.; Marin County, Calif.; and San Francisco, Calif.
Hawaii had a housing wage of $29.02 for a two-bedroom rental unit at a fair market rate, which was the highest among states. California had a $24.01 housing wage, followed by New York at $23.03, Massachusetts at $22.94 and New Jersey at $22.25.
North Dakota had the lowest two-bedroom housing wage among states, at $10.40; West Virginia had a $10.85 housing wage; followed by South Dakota, $11.19; Arkansas, $11.35; and Alabama, $11.44.
The housing wage grew 71.4 percent in Hawaii, 61.6 percent in Rhode Island, 55.2 percent in Louisiana, 52.9 percent in New York and 47 percent in New Hampshire from 2000-08, the report states. At the county level, the housing wage rose most in Starr County, Texas, from 2000-08, followed by seven Louisiana parishes. Henry County, Ala., had the lowest housing wage among all U.S. counties, at $9.25.
The New Orleans metro area had the highest growth in the two-bedroom housing wage from 2000-08 among U.S. metro areas, up 81.7 percent; Honolulu was up 74.9 percent; Riverside, Calif., was up 69.2 percent; Brockton, Mass., rose 66.9 percent; and Providence-Fall River, R.I.-Mass., was up 62.9 percent.
State legislation increasing the minimum wage has benefited renters, according to the report, and the minimum wage in 11 states is over 20 percent higher now than it was in the fall of 2006, according to the report. The number of hours that a household must work each week to afford a two-bedroom rental unit at fair market value dropped by more than 20 hours in Ohio, New Hampshire, Arizona, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Colorado, the report states.
But despite this trend, "there is no county in the country where an individual can work 40 hours per week at the minimum wage and afford even a one-bedroom apartment at the local fair market rent," the report states. "Only a household that averages 50 hours per week year-round — with no unpaid time off — can afford the national average fair market rent for a two-bedroom unit at the national mean renter wage."