IT should be possible for working people to afford a home and still have enough left over for the basics like groceries, transportation and child care. But recent reports remind us this is not always the case.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2013 Out of Reach report,
renters in Washington need to earn at least $18.58 per hour to afford a basic two-bedroom apartment. In King County, it takes a full-time wage of $17.25 per hour just to afford the fair-market one-bedroom apartment. The legal minimum wage in Washington is $9.19 per hour.
For families struggling with poverty, finding an affordable place to live is almost impossible. For every 100 extremely low-income families in King County, earning less than $23,400 a year for a family of three, there are only 30 affordable apartments available, according to another report by the coalition.
These numbers add up to hard choices. Juanita Maestas, mother of two, had a minimum-wage job. Even working full time, housing costs ate up most of her paycheck. She relied on food banks and scraped by, until she just couldn’t anymore. Then she and her family found themselves in a shelter.
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Now she has a better job in Seattle that pays a little more than minimum wage. Still, renting an apartment in the city left her with just about $200 a month to pay for groceries, utilities and transportation. To stretch her paycheck a little further, she moved to Pierce County, where she found a place for $700 a month and less expensive utilities.
But now she spends more on transportation to get to work. Juanita says she’s doing better but, “Well … I’m still broke.”
Given the high cost of housing, it’s no wonder the number of homeless children has been rising steadily over the past several years. Last year, the number increased by 5 percent to a total of more than 27,000 homeless students in the state. In Seattle Public Schools, one out of every 26 students experienced homelessness in that year. That’s close to an average of one student in every classroom doing his or her homework under the dome light in the family’s car, sleeping on a different friend’s floor each week or sharing a tiny motel room with his or her family.
There’s no reason for this situation to exist. We got here in large part because of 30-plus years of policy choices that reduced the availability of housing affordable to people with low incomes. We can make choices to turn that around. Lawmakers at every level have solutions right in front of them.
Locally, cities could increase the amount private developers contribute to affordable housing, like what Seattle is doing in South Lake Union. This should be replicated, and even strengthened citywide.
Other cities can also take steps to make private-market homes more accessible to low-income households by following the lead of Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland to outlaw discriminating against renters just because they use a federal housing voucher for part of their rent.
Legislators in Olympia are considering how much to invest in low-income housing through the state’s Housing Trust Fund. This fund is our best tool for increasing the supply of affordable homes across Washington. It helps address the full spectrum of needs, from families leaving homelessness to low-wage workers buying a first home near where they work. The best proposal would create approximately 2,000 affordable homes for struggling families.
Legislators are very aware of the state Supreme Court ruling that we’re not meeting our state’s paramount duty to provide a quality education to every child. Ensuring educational opportunity means more than funding schools though. It also means making sure that children have a safe, stable place to go home to every day.
Congress should direct money to the National Housing Trust Fund. This could reverse the steady decline in our nation’s investment in housing for the poorest families. One possible funding stream is reforming the mortgage-interest deduction. This part of the tax code was intended to make homeownership easier. In 2012, 77 percent of the benefit went to homeowners with incomes greater than $100,000. We can make housing policy work better for middle- and lower-income people by reducing mortgage interest tax breaks and directing the savings to making homes affordable to the lowest-income Americans.
Finally, the state Legislature and Congress should address our budget challenges with a more balanced solution than simply continuing to cut services. In Washington, we have already seen $11 billion in cuts over the past four years.
The state Legislature is considering closing tax loopholes for bottled water and oil refineries. Making a choice between a special-interest tax break and a home for a homeless child doesn’t seem like such a difficult decision to me.
Rachael Myers is executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.