Typical Pennsylvania wage is too little to pay the average rent

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When a basic two-bedroom apartment in Pennsylvania costs an average $895 a month, renters must earn at least $17.21 an hour -- 2.4 times the state minimum wage -- to afford a decent roof over their heads.

Although the cost of renting a two-bedroom unit in the Pittsburgh region is lower at $772 a month, Pittsburgh households still must earn about $14.85 an hour to afford the apartment, which amounts to more than twice the state minimum wage and 117 percent of what the average city renter earns.

An estimated 56 percent of Pittsburgh-area renters cannot afford to meet the expenses for a two-bedroom apartment.

"The [typical] renter's hourly wage in Pittsburgh is $12.70. That means the most they could afford to pay is $660 a month in rent," said Liz Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania. Her estimate is based on renters paying no more than one-third of their income on rent and utilities.

PG graphic: Rent cost, by state: Most and least expensive
(Click image for larger version)

There are 295,731 renter households in the Pittsburgh area, where the region's median income is $64,900, according to 2011 Census figures.

Ms. Hersh said she fears the housing affordability problem will only get worse as effects of the federal sequestration process are felt and agencies that help provide housing for low-income people face the prospect of being required to trim their budgets.

According to a March 1 letter from Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan to Gov. Tom Corbett, Pennsylvania should expect a reduction of about $37.5 million in funding for rental assistance provided through the Tenant Based Rental Assistance program -- formerly known as Section 8 Housing. Other programs that support affordable housing, homelessness intervention and special needs assistance likely will experience similar cutbacks, according to Mr. Donovan's letter.

The Housing Alliance and the National Low Income Housing Coalition's annual "Out of Reach" report released Tuesday examines every county in America, comparing the wages and housing costs.

This year, Pennsylvania was the 19th most expensive state in which to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Hawaii is the nation's most expensive, requiring an hourly wage of $32.14 to cover a month's rent of $1,671. West Virginia, on the other hand, is ranked 50th, requiring only $12.35 to cover a month's rent of $642.

"These figures highlight a dire problem in Pittsburgh and throughout Pennsylvania," Ms. Hersh said. "The price of affordable housing far too often exceeds the actual wages that renters are bringing home. And worse, it's an issue that disproportionately affects the injured or disabled, low-income families and seniors."

She said people who struggle to pay rent often move from place to place when they fall behind, which is why schools serving low- to moderate-income families have so much student turnover. Low-income families also cope by doubling up in apartments with other family members and friends or by living in undesirable neighborhoods.

Or they could have no place to live at all.

"We always think of homelessness as a moral failure, but it is really a market failure," Ms. Hersh said. "There's not enough supply of rental units to match the income of the workforce."

One example she referred to is Wal-Mart, the state's largest employer, which provides about 40,000 jobs in Pennsylvania that pay an average wage between $11 and $12 an hour, less than what is needed to afford a standard two-bedroom apartment in the state.

"You have a situation where people are working hard and playing by the rules but still can't afford a decent place to live," Ms. Hersh said.

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Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591


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