April 25, 2016

Affordable Housing: An Oxymoron?

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

A few years ago, I had a student who was extremely anxious as the summer approached. While most of her classmates couldn't wait for graduation or summer break, she was scared. She had no family and had no place to live. Her worry about finding short-term housing was preventing her from sleeping at night and she began having difficulty in her coursework.

This is just one example of one of the challenges many people face—and not just students or low-income people. The cost of housing has priced many people out of the rental market, even people with steady incomes. The rental website Zumper lists the average rents in the 50 largest cities in the U.S. In nearly half (22) of these cities, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is over $1,000. That's about what a minimum wage earner makes in a month before taxes, assuming they earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and work 40 hours a week.

Four of the top-ten most expensive cities are in California, with a higher minimum wage of $10 (and San Francisco's is currently $12.25). But according to Zumper, San Francisco's median one bedroom costs $3,460, nearly double what a minimum wage earner would earn. Likewise, New York's median one bedroom apartment is $3,000, and with a $9.00 an hour minimum wage such a worker would only earn half of what they might need in rent.

While the median rent means that half of all rentals cost below that amount, cheaper apartments might still be out of reach for many workers. Let's say a worker earns $15 an hour on a full time basis. They might gross around $2,400 a month, but taxes and health insurance co-payments might bring them down to around $1,700. If they spend half of that on rent (and financial advisers generally suggest spending no more than 30% on rent) that means they can pay $850 a month. Typically, they would also have to put down a deposit of a month or even two months in rent.

So getting a roommate seems like an obvious choice in the priciest rental markets. This makes sense, particularly if you are young and starting out in an expensive city. The Los Angeles Times reported on a startup company that places housemates together in well-appointed homes for those looking for a "co-living" experience, complete with someone who makes sure the toilet paper is always stocked and other amenities.

This might be a lifestyle choice for some, but for others there are few options, especially for those with children. Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer authors of, $2 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America studied people living below the poverty line, and found that one of the biggest challenges families face is finding housing.

Many people turn to living with extended family members if they can. But this can lead to other problems, particularly if family members are also struggling financially. Tensions can arise between relatives over how much they should each contribute to the household. For some families, the struggle to find safe housing can mean moving to new locations and leaving behind a decent paying job. In some cases, the price of staying with family means turning over their food stamps, for instance.

Limited housing options might mean that people who are enduring domestic violence or other forms of abuse might have few options to leave abusive situations. Edin and Shaefer detail one example where an uncle sexually abused a young girl, after her struggling mother moved in with him in desperation. They quickly left when the mother discovered the abuse, and they became homeless. Edin and Shaefer devote an entire chapter to the challenges of finding a place to live, particularly since waiting lists for subsidized housing can be years long, and homeless shelters that accept families typically have time limits that might not be long enough for some families to get back on their feet.

Expensive cities like New York and San Francisco may be out of reach for low-wage workers, but even these cities rely on the work of janitors, maids, fast food workers and the like, many of whom don't have cars. If they take public transportation over long distances, delays beyond their control might lead to getting fired.

So what is being done to address the mismatch between the high costs of housing and low wages? NPR recently reported that homelessness among 18-24-year-olds has been rising across the country. In San Francisco, a subsidized housing program created by a nonprofit organization has helped some young adults get on their feet, and encourages them to enroll part-time in community college.

What other solutions do you propose to address the affordable housing oxymoron?


In the collage town that I live, we have an extreme housing problem. As you mentioned in your article, the ratio between the wages and the cost of housing is not proportional at all.
I our study, we figured it out, since our town is a collage town the source of the income for nearly 30% of the people who are students is from outside of the town and the parents of the students who do not live in the town provide the money, so the ration does not follow a right pattern.
At the end of our study we decided that out town needs an "affordable trust found" with the incoming source of money, which can be provide by extra taxing the hotel rooms or....
We have been very successful so far. We have not reached our goal, but we have not stopped our work.

To answer your question “What other solutions do you propose to address the affordable housing oxymoron?” I would propose limiting the amount of vacation rentals and airbnb’s. Since there is a scarcity of rentals and places to live, the cost goes up drastically. The amount of vacation rentals means leaving houses and studios unattended and empty for most of the year depleting a possible home for others. Other’s rent out cottages and spaces in their homes as a temporary bed and breakfast through the popular online marketplace airbnb which also adds to the problem. Thank you for the wonderful article! We experience this a lot in Hawaii, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.

I can relate to this article because I live in an area where housing is very expensive and can not afford to move out. It is very hard to balance a minimum wage job with harsh hours and being a full time student at the same time. I am slowly saving money to move out but it is talking quite a while. I am currently living at home with my father to save money. However my parents are divorced and I am expected to spend nights at my mothers house a couple times a month, which makes me uncomfortable because we have never gotten along and she was abusive as a child. Also when I move out it is hard to consider location because the best option would be to move close to school causing me to need to drive less, however the housing is extremly expensive. I have another option to move to a college town about 15 miles away form school, but it would be expensisve with gas and also I would not be as comfortable living there because it has a big party scene. Thank you for this article.

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