Grassroots/Hank Kalet

Housing Costs Remain Too High

The movement to increase the minimum wage gained its largest victory to date in May, when the Los Angeles City Council voted to raise the city’s wage floor to $15 an hour by 2020.

The 14-1 vote adds Los Angeles to a list of cities that includes Seattle, Oakland and San Francisco that have agreed to raise their wages to $15 either immediately or over several years.

While the Los Angeles vote is good news – L.A. is the nation’s second largest city and the wage hike is expected to help as many as 40% of the city’s workers, according to the New York Times (May 20) – it comes as the National Low Income Housing Coalition issued a report showing that the $15 an hour minimum fall short of what is needed just to provide decent housing.

According to the report, titled Out of Reach 2015 (, a “tightening rental market is making it increasingly difficult for low income renters to find decent, affordable apartments all across the country.” According to the report the 2015 National Housing Wage – or what a full-time worker would need to earn per hour to cover the cost of a “modest two-bedroom rental unit while spending no more than 30% of household income on housing costs” – is $19.35. In 13 states, including California, the wage is more than $20.

National Low-Income Housing Coalition President and CEO Sheila Crowley said in a press release that the rental-market data demonstrates the importance – if inadequacy – of raising low-end wages.

“Raising the minimum wage is a critical step to improving the lives of low income households, but it is not enough,” she said. “The data in Out of Reach make it clear that investing in affordable housing is essential to reducing poverty and housing instability in this country.”

The numbers bear this out. The NLHIC housing wage is more than two and a half times the national minimum of $7.25 and more than double the highest state minimum ($9.32 in Washington state). In fact, the minimum wage would not allow a worker to afford a one-bedroom unit at the US Housing and Urban Development Fair Market Rent. FMR, according to HUD, is the 40-percentile rent in a market – meaning that 60% of the rents in that area would be higher than the FMR. “In fact,” the NLHIC press release said, “a minimum wage earner would need to work 86 hours per week to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment and 107 hours per week to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment.”

Even the local $15 minimums do not come close to covering housing costs. In Los Angeles, according to the NLHIC report, the housing wage is $27.38 for a two-bedroom unit; in San Francisco, the housing wage is $39.65, the highest in the country.

This is absurd. A little less than one in three households are renters – about 42 million, according to the NLHIC. Of them, one in four are living below 30% of their region’s median income and earning barely enough to cover half the two-bedroom rental rate nationally.

“These households experience the greatest housing instability and risk of homelessness,” the NLHIC says.

As I’ve written before, I spent a year visiting and interviewing the homeless in central New Jersey, in a tent encampment near the Jersey Shore. There were about 100 people in the camp – which was just a fraction of the number of homeless statewide. Estimates place the homeless population in the country as high as 3.5 million, though it is difficult to know how reliable the numbers are given the transient and guarded nature of the population (

What we do know, however, is that the high costs of rents and the stagnation and decline of wages at the lower end of the income spectrum have created a perfect storm that has expanded the demographics of those who find themselves out on the street.

The point is that we need to raise low-end wages. We need to provide lower-cost housing. And we need to ensure that everyone has access to services – health care, mental health services, job counseling, etc.

More to the point, we need to rethink our approach to the economy and move toward a more sustainable model that does not require the creation of waste product (both environmental and human) to make money.

Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is a good start, but it is not enough.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in central New Jersey. He writes frequently for NJ Spotlight. Email,; blog,

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2015

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