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Working poor are struggling to pay rent

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 21 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

WASHINGTON — Utah's working poor are finding it increasingly difficult to afford rental housing throughout the state, according to a new study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

In fact, a Utah worker earning minimum wage would have to work 104 hours every week to afford a fair-market rent of $694 for a two-bedroom apartment and still have enough left over for other necessities, the study found.

And there are plenty of Utah families in that situation. The study estimated 27,469 households earn less than 30 percent of the annual median income, and another 24,199 earn between 30 and 50 percent. Neither group could afford the fair-market rent, based on the 30 percent standard set by federal Housing and Urban Development.

A low-income family earning 30 percent of the state's median income could afford a rent of no more than $433, according to the study, called Out of Reach.

To pay the fair market rent in Utah, workers would need to earn $13.36 an hour, based on a 40-hour week. That is better than the national rate of $15.37, and it is only 2 cents an hour more than what it was in the same study last year.

Based on that "housing wage," Utah ranked as the 27th out of 52, compared to 28th a year ago. The District of Columbia ranked first with a housing wage of $22.83 an hour and Puerto Rico ranked 52nd at $7.22 an hour, according to the state-by-state analysis.

The study's findings are nothing new to George Neckel, director of Utah Jobs with Justice, which has pushed for nearly three years for companies and cities to adopt "living wage" policies.

"The No. 1 cause of poverty in Utah is low wages," he said. "Our cost of living is close to the national average, but our wages are well below average."

Neckel, who has worked with homeless programs for years, recalled the situation of one family of four in which the husband was working a 40-hour week, bringing home $250 a week, but paying out $200 a week for the family to live in a motel.

"So often, these people may have a full-time job, but the car breaks down or a kid gets sick, and it is this one thing that bumps them into homelessness," he said.

The coalition's analysis examined the total number of households that rent in relation to the annual median income and a sliding scale of affordability. (A unit was considered affordable if it costs no more than 30 percent of the renter's income.)

The study, which utilized federal statistics from a variety of government sources, including the 2000 U.S. Census, examined the data statewide, by county and by metropolitan statistical area.

Of Utah's 701,000 households, 28 percent, or slightly less than 200,000, are renter households.

"Out of Reach shows both the depth and breadth of the housing shortage in our country," said Sheila Crowley, NLIHC president. "For one-third of the nation paying too much for their homes, the consequences of ends that do not meet are all too real."

The study itself was more blunt.

"The stark dichotomy in every community between those whose home is a given and those for whom having a home is a struggle is a national scandal," it stated. "Nevertheless, it remains an issue that public policymakers have yet to prioritize as worthy of serious attention."

The study reinforces conclusions released last week in an analysis performed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Sodexho USA, which said Salt Lake City's hunger problem is felt mostly by people who don't earn enough money to meet basic living expenses.

Some 88 percent of those requesting assistance for food are employed, the highest percentage of all the cities surveyed in the mayors' report.

In Salt Lake City, low-paying employment was cited as the primary cause.

The details of the Utah data from the coalition are available at www.nlihc.org.


E-mail: spang@desnews.com; amyjoi@desnews.com

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