Ungodly Rent

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In mid-September, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders got together to issue a declaration that housing should be considered a “sacred right.” That same day, the National Low Income Housing Coalition released data showing just how far tenants across the United States are from that holy grail.

In their latest annual report on housing affordability, Coalition researchers found dismal news: The gap between what tenants earn and what they must pay in rent is glaring. Nowhere in the U.S. can a full-time minimum wage job pay for a market rate one-bedroom apartment.

And for poor tenants, New York is one of the toughest cities in the country. The city’s “housing wage”–or what a household must make per hour to afford a modest place to live–is $17.13. That’s 293 percent of the minimum wage. According to the most recent census estimates, New York’s median annual income is just $22,902, or $11 an hour based on a 40-hour work-week. A minimum wage worker would have to work for more than 130 hours a week to pay the going rent.

It’s not just in New York. Nationwide, 43 percent of renting households can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment, and even in the 10 most affordable parts of the country, about a third of all households can’t afford two-bedroom digs. Welfare benefits cover the cost of a one-bedroom apartment only in Wisconsin, Vermont and Alaska.

The report used the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “fair market rent” for New York City, pegged at $785 for a one-bedroom apartment and $891 for a two bedroom; in many parts of the city, of course, actual rents are a lot higher.

According to the report, which is accessible online at www.nlihc.org, New York City ranks 10th worst in the country for affordability. An estimated 51 percent of Queens renters cannot afford market rent; in the Bronx and Manhattan, 48 percent of renters don’t make enough money; and in Staten Island, a whopping 63 percent of households can’t afford the going rate.

But our bridge-and-tunnel neighbors offer no refuge. Southwest Connecticut, Long Island, Westchester and central New Jersey are third, fourth, fifth and sixth least affordable, just behind silicon-gilded San Francisco and San Jose.

“What’s disturbing–and not surprising–is that New York’s [affordability] rank doesn’t change from year to year,” says Joe Heaphy, executive director of the New York State Tenants & Neighbors Coalition. “I think it’s just going to get worse with the weakening of rent regulations…[W]e allow our affordable housing stock to be lost, which is mind-blowing.”