Unaffordable rents, says a new national report, keep many Americans homeless. Some who are living in their cars at a rest stop off a major highway attest to the challenges.
Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut will revisit two top stories from the last year in a specific category. Today's focus is Social Services. This article was originally published April 3, 2012.
Lisa lived in her car at a rest stop beside a highway near Seattle from May through early December of last year. With her was her 15-year-old son, a newbie among the more than 21,000 Washington state students who were homeless at that time. The boy and his mother would move into a motel room for two weeks to get clean and well-slept and recover some optimism, then return to the rest stop for two weeks to save money for gas and other necessities. “If I talk about it I get emotional,” she said. “My apologies if I start to cry. It was hard. It was scary. It was sad.”
Lisa had lost a job she loved, as manager of a 7-11 store in nearby Sea-Tac, when she was disabled by multiple sclerosis. After her landlord died and his heirs sold the home that she and her son had rented with housemates, she “fell short,” she said. She had no savings to cover what it would take to rent a new place: the background screening fees landlords demand, plus first-and-last months’ rent if her application was accepted, plus any deposit for cleaning or security. These requirements add up to a daunting total for poor people, even when they have jobs and the rent won’t gobble up well over half their income.
To pay for a modest, affordable two-bedroom apartment at fair market rental rates in an American city — “affordable” defined as costing no more than 30 percent of one’s income — a worker must earn what NLIHC calls a Housing Wage of $18.25 per hour. But wage-earners in urban areas average only $14.15 per hour. Outside metropolitan areas, where affordable rental units require an hourly Housing Wage of $12.21, wages average only $9.97.
Rising demand for rental housing pushed rents higher when the recession depressed homeownership rates across the U.S., according to Out of Reach 2012. And the supply of low-cost rental units shrank, with landlords either remodeling them into higher-priced units or letting properties decay. The most serious shortages of affordable, decent rental units confront the poorest of the working poor — those earning 30 percent or less of area median income. For every 100 workers in this category seeking to rent a home, only 30 units that they can afford are available, according to the report.
Washington is the 16th most expensive state in the nation in terms of the Housing Wage required to pay for an affordable two-bedroom apartment, says NLIHC. A renter working here at the minimum wage of $9.04 per hour would have to put in 80 hours, 52 weeks a year, and a renter earning the average Washington state wage of $14.62 would have to work 50 hours per week all year.