As the deluge of distressed properties pushes more and more Americans out of their homes and into rental housing, the cost of renting is rising at the same time that the economic downturn has pushed wages down, according to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The housing coalition is calling on Congress to fund the National Housing Trust Fund, created in 2008. Ninety percent of the fund’s monies would go to the building, rehabilitation and preservation of low-income rental housing, and 10 percent would go to assist first-time homebuyers, including providing downpayment, closing cost, and interest-rate buydown assistance.

"A housing policy that embraces affordable rental housing along with affordable homeownership is one that will help the recovery of the housing market overall and lead to a more financially healthy population, one that will have a better chance of entering the homeownership market in a sustainable way in the future," said Megan DeCrappeo, the report’s research analyst.

In addition, the coalition said the funding would help stabilize neighborhoods and create jobs.

"Every $1 billion provided to the Trust Fund will support the immediate construction of 10,000 rental homes, creating 15,100 new construction jobs and 3,800 new jobs in ongoing operations," said Sheila Crowley, the coalition’s president.

Nationwide, the minimum income a family needs to afford a two-bedroom rental home is $18.44 an hour, or nearly $38,360 per year, the report said. That’s for a $959 per month unit at fair market rent.

This fair market rental rate is set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development every year to determine eligibility for Section 8 housing vouchers. It is not based on an average or median rent that people actually pay, but on what a family moving in today can expect to pay in rent and utilities. New and rehabbed construction for the past two years is not included in the calculation.

The report calculated the "housing wage" — what a full-time worker must earn to afford the FMR on a two-bedroom unit — for every county, state, metropolitan area and non-metropolitan area in the country. To compare wages and housing costs in your local area, see Out of Reach 2010 online.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25, meaning that in order to afford to rent that two-bedroom home at that wage, a household would have to work 102 hours a week, the report said.

With the exception of 32 counties in Puerto Rico, "there is no county in the United States in which a full-time minimum wage worker can afford even a one-bedroom apartment at the FMR," the report said.

A staggering 74 percent of renters in metro areas cannot afford a two-bedroom unit on incomes from two full-time minimum-wage jobs. The five most expensive metro areas in the country are Stamford-Norwalk, Conn. (with a $34.62 housing wage needed); San Francisco ($33.85); Honolulu ($32.77); Santa Cruz-Watsonville, Calif. ($31.85); and Westchester County, N.Y. ($31.17). …CONTINUED

In nine states — Hawaii, California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Alaska, Florida — and the District of Columbia, the housing wage needed exceeded $20 an hour, according to the report.

The estimated average wage this year for renters is $14.44 compared with $14.69 last year, the report said.

"The persistence of high rates of unemployment and under-employment is making it ever more difficult for families to secure decent housing. Unfortunately, the situation is not likely to improve any time soon," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research, in a statement.

According to the housing coalition, 71 percent of extremely low-income households (those that make 30 percent or less of their local area’s median family income) pay more than half of their income for housing. This excludes seniors and those on disability income.

"It means that they have to do tradeoffs between paying the rent and paying for food. It means you don’t take your kids to a really good daycare center; you have a neighbor that watches them while you’re at work. Some have multiple jobs," Crowley said.

"There’s been a big increase (25 percent between 2005 and 2009) in doubling up in the recession. People are moving in with family or friends. That adds to overcrowding and it adds to stress. We have not seen an increase in the number of chronically homeless people, but there has been an increased demand for shelter for families," she added.

According to the coalition, most of the government’s housing policy efforts — Baker cited the mortgage-interest tax deduction as an example — have focused on subsidizing higher-end housing for higher-income Americans.

Because of the housing downturn, in some markets buying is now cheaper than renting, according to the New York Times. Still, about one-third of Americans rent rather than own a home. That share is expected to rise as millions of homeowners are foreclosed upon or sell via short sales, leaving them unable to buy a home for at least two years.

Even before the recession, there was a shortage of affordable housing, the coalition said, and since 2008 there’s been a shortage of 3.1 million affordable units.

"We are still woefully underfunding programs to support low-income rental housing," Baker said.

"There has been very little effort on how to get housing prices, including rent, to what they need to be: what Americans can afford. Until we come up with policies that focus on overcoming that problem, we have this mismatch of having water, water everywhere and not enough to drink."


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