Good economic news is in short supply these days. Even the rather well insulated Portland housing market isn't immune from the forces at work. Renters, as a new report concludes, are getting stuck with a large share of the bill.
According to the nonprofit Portland Housing Alliance, a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, shows that the hourly wage needed to rent a modest two-bedroom apartment in Oregon is $13.87.
That's what you have to earn in order to afford rent and utilities and only spend 30 percent of your income. Financial experts generally agree that people should spend only about that percentage of their income on rent and utilities. So a family with an income equivalent to $13.87 an hour, and 40 hours of work each week, can technically afford $665 a month for the luxury of a home.
What makes this latest report so troubling is that while the 'housing wage' has increased by 18 percent since 2000, incomes have only increased by one third of that amount, according to the Oregon Employment Department. And while this increase probably isn't affecting a family at 100 percent of the median income – anywhere from $47,000 to $67,000, depending on the size of the household – more families are struggling to afford the basics.
"Today's economy is pulling us apart, tearing our social fabric and threatening democracy," says Michael Leachman, author of a study from the Oregon Center for Public Policy on the wage gap in Oregon. "When economic growth bypasses most families, they are more likely to grow cynical, and when the rich get too far out ahead of the rest of us, they tend to accumulate an unhealthy, disproportionate amount of political power and lose touch with the common good."
From 1988 to 2005, average income for the wealthiest 1 percent grew by about $444,000. But for the average person? Just $2,000, according to Leachman.
If residents in the Portland metro region are feeling hard hit by rising rents and stagnant incomes, rural residents aren't faring any better. The Housing Alliance reports rental costs increases in most of Oregon's counties that have driven up the 'housing wage' by about 25 percent in the last 8 years. A two-bedroom apartment is out of reach for more than half of renters.
In fact, many renters cannot afford even a one-bedroom apartment. In Multnomah County, you must make $25,000 a year to afford the average one-bedroom. That's nearly twice as much as the annual income of someone on Social Security, and several thousand too much for most child care workers, janitors or cooks, according to the Housing Alliance.
And if you imagine a traditional middle-class household with two children, one stay at home parent and one working parent can make enough to buy a home, then think again. The median home price is $267,900 in Multnomah County. A teacher cannot afford that. Neither can a nurse. And neither can our city's police officers. So much for that discussion on stay-at-home versus working moms – the economy makes the decision.
In the past the poorest among us – retirees whose fixed incomes lose value each year, disabled people and low-income earners could apply for public housing. But public housing is becoming a scarce, if not nearly impossible to find, resource
"All waiting lists are closed," said Shelley Marchesi, director of policy and public affairs for the Housing Authority of Portland. The last time public housing lists were open was in fall — 2006. Nearly 10,000 people applied for 3,000 openings, Marchesi said. The good news? The waiting list will likely open again, for a brief period, in a couple of months.
Stories about openings in public housing follow the same pattern: a wave of applicants all trying to fit in an 8-oz glass. Marchesi said when HAP's newest project, Humboldt Gardens, opened up, nearly 900 applicants signed up. After a randomized lottery, 850 were sent back to the rental marketplace.
Fortunately the housing authority is only a part of the affordable housing network. Several community development corporations provide affordable housing to lower income people in the Portland area, including: REACH, HOST, Central City Concern, Hacienda, ROSE, and many others. Most of their housing stock, like HAP housing, is open to individuals and families making less than 80 percent of the median family income. But if the income gap keeps growing, wages keep stagnating and housing keeps increasing in price, demand for something affordable will simply keep on rising, Leachman said.
"It's no wonder that so many Oregonians feel that the economy has left them behind, because it largely has."