With rents soaring, low-income renters face harsher struggles in their efforts to find a place to live. In its recently released report, Out of Reach 2002, the National Low Income Housing Coalition compares wages and rents throughout the country. Among its findings: at the fair market rate, the national median hourly wage needed to afford a two-bedroom residence is $14.66. For many low-income workers, such a wage exists only in their dreams. And with the Census Bureau reporting in late September that the poverty rate in the United States rose last year, those dreams have been pushed even farther into the realm of the unattainable.
The struggle for affordable housing is more severe in some parts of the country than others. California and Massachusetts stand out as the least affordable states for low-income renters, and two of their major cities—San Francisco and Boston—emerge as the least affordable cities in the United States. The report notes, for example, that in San Francisco a worker has to earn an hourly wage of $37.31 to be able to rent a two-bedroom home. The generally accepted standard for affordability states that not more than 30 percent of a person’s income should go for housing. But another recent report, by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, has concluded that seven million people pay at least 50 percent of their income for housing. This imbalance means that families in such a situation have much less for food and other necessities.
Part of the problem lies with the low federal minimum wage, which has remained unchanged since 1997 at $5.15 an hour. Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, has proposed that the minimum wage be raised by $1.50 an hour. This would add $3,000 to the annual income of a full-time minimum-wage worker—an amount that might help some to compete more successfully in the housing market. Still, raising the minimum wage would not in itself be enough to resolve the affordability crisis.
Compounding the low minimum-wage difficulty is the ongoing demolition of public housing in areas where local housing authorities have deemed units too deteriorated to be usable. But as Sheila Crowley, the N.L.I.H.C.’s president, told America, public housing is being demolished at a faster rate than it is being replaced. When rebuilding does occur, moreover, it is often inaccessible to the people who were displaced, because the new housing is based on a mixed income model, and generally the displaced are very poor people.
Yet another problem stems from the insufficient number of Section 8 vouchers—a form of subsidy that allows low-income recipients to rent housing in the private market. Although Congress authorizes more vouchers each year, the number falls far short of meeting the need. Even when an applicant is lucky enough to obtain a voucher—the waiting lists are long—there is no assurance that the recipient will find a landlord willing to accept it. In many localities the market is so tight that landlords, realizing that they can charge rents greater than what the government allows, opt out of the Section 8 program. Nevertheless, for those who are able to use them to move to better neighborhoods, the beneficial effects can be life-altering in terms of better job opportunities, schools and transportation.
Beginning with the Reagan administration in the 1980’s, the federal government has increasingly abandoned its commitment to affordable housing, a situation now aggravated by the present state of the economy. Solutions to the problem do exist. Besides raising the minimum wage, Ms. Crowley suggests other steps. First, expand the number of Section 8 vouchers authorized annually. Second, preserve the housing we have by investing in bringing it back to decent condition. And finally, build more housing for very low-income people.
An important movement regarding the latter two initiatives is the current campaign for a National Housing Trust Fund—a campaign supported not only by advocacy groups like the N.L.I.H.C., but also by Catholic Charities USA, the domestic policy committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Conference of Mayors and a wide spectrum of other endorsers across the country. Initial sources of funding would be excess F.H.A. and Ginnie Mae revenue, above what is needed to maintain these programs. The Housing Trust Fund already has considerable bipartisan support in Congress, and advocates hope that it can be attached as an amendment to the omnibus housing bill. It should be.
No one expects that the goal of the Federal Housing Act of 1949—“a decent home...for every American family”—can be met anytime soon. But much could be done to reduce the damage caused by a lack of affordable housing so severe that even low-paid working people find themselves driven into shelters for the homeless.