In The Lead: Infrastructure / Despite affordable housing in Allegheny County, rent gap remains

Across the nation, the gap is growing between what the lowest-income households can afford and what is affordable and available to rent.

But among the largest 100 U.S. counties, Allegheny County has the 12th smallest gap between the number of extremely low-income renters and the supply of housing that is affordable and available for this group, according to a recent study by the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

"Just because Pittsburgh is more affordable than others, it still has a large gap," said Erika Poethig, director of the Urban Institute's urban policy initiative. "That means low-income households are less vulnerable than in other places. But many people in Pittsburgh are still challenged to find a decent place to live."

The Urban Institute tracked 3,143 counties or county-equivalent jurisdictions in the U.S.

Top counties in U.S. for affordable rental housing
(Click image for larger version)

Like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Urban Institute defines low income as an income that is 30 percent or less than an area's median income. The figure changes with geography. Depending on the area of the country, for a family of four that translates into incomes ranging from less than $7,450 to $33,300.

For Allegheny County, the threshold for a very low-income household for a family of four is below $31,500.

There's a growing need for more affordable housing because the number of low-income housing families is growing.

"Across the country, the gap between what the lowest-income households can afford and what is affordable and available to rent is growing," Ms. Poethig said. "Over the next 10 years, this trend will only get worse. But without federal assistance, this gap would be even larger.

"The budget for housing assistance can barely keep pace with current need, let alone meet new demands from increasing numbers of low-wage workers and low-income older adults."

Although Allegheny County is relatively more affordable than most U.S. counties, a recent report by the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania and the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows a significant disparity between wages that Pittsburgh residents are earning and the cost of renting a standard two-bedroom housing unit in the area.

In Pittsburgh, renters must earn an hourly wage of $15.17 — more than twice as much as the state's minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and 1.2 times the area's average renter wage of $12.78 per hour — in order to afford rent on a two-bedroom housing unit, according to the 2014 edition of "Out of Reach," jointly produced by the two organizations.

Given those statistics, Pittsburgh's minimum wage earners would have to work 84 hours a week — the equivalent of 2.1 minimum wage employees working a full 40 hours per week, 52 weeks a year — to afford a standard two-bedroom unit, the report found.

By comparison, Pennsylvania's statewide housing wage — the pay level that the National Low Income Housing Coalition believes someone should earn to afford a standard two-bedroom apartment — is $17.33 per hour, which is 2.4 times higher than the minimum wage and 1.3 times higher than the state's average renter wage of $13.23 per hour. As a result, the state's minimum wage earners must work 96 hours per week — or the equivalent of 2.4 full-time jobs — to keep up with the cost of affordable rental housing.

"The 'Out of Reach' report reminds us of the disheartening disparity between wages that Pennsylvania workers are earning and the cost of keeping a decent, affordable roof over their heads," said Liz Hersh, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit network of policymakers and service providers who advocate for affordable housing for vulnerable people.

"Our elected officials are aware of this increasingly harmful reality and have recently taken several important steps towards reversing it," Ms. Hersh said. "But there's more work to do, and following through on a commitment to enhance funding for the state housing trust fund is a great place to start."

Pennsylvania's state housing trust fund, established in 2010, receives nearly $7 million a year from the commonwealth's Marcellus Shale impact fee.

The Housing Alliance — along with a statewide network of service providers, developers, elected officials and others — is advocating for an expansion of this investment so its impact can be felt in areas outside of Pennsylvania's shale region. At this time, the funds only apply to 37 counties in the state that are considered shale counties. Allegheny County is one of them.

The trust fund provides Pennsylvania municipalities with revenue to invest in quality affordable rental properties, most significantly by preserving and rehabilitating existing structures rather than simply building new units. The state has 100,000 more homes than households and roughly 300,000 empty structures.

The fund also provides rental assistance to families in danger of falling into homelessness and supports the demolition of blighted properties.

Ms. Hersh said 1,700 homes are currently under construction, and they will be used as low-income rentals, rehabs, rental assistance housing, master leasing and owner-occupied housing.

— Tim Grant: or 412-263-1591.

First Published May 13, 2014 11:26 AM

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