In many major cities, a higher minimum wage could tip the scales in workers’ ability to comfortably afford rent.
It’s beginning to look like Seattle will be to the $15 minimum wage what Massachusetts is to same-sex marriage: the place that got the ball rolling.
In June 2014, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to pass legislation that will lead to a $15-per-hour wage. In November, San Francisco followed suit. Now Los Angeles has joined in. As The Washington Post observed, the $15 minimum wage has become a national issue.
The cost of rent is at the crux of the fight for a much higher minimum wage. Across the country, rents keep going up. In Seattle and many other cities, the increases have been astronomical. The minimum wage has not kept up with the rising rents.
I looked at data for Seattle and a selection of 14 other cities around the U.S. Based on my analysis, in 14 of the cities — including Seattle — full-time, minimum-wage workers don’t earn enough to rent even a modest apartment.
But the data also show how the impact of raising the minimum to $15 in cities across the country would be profound. It could mean the difference in being able to comfortably afford what is easily the single biggest expense for minimum-wage workers: rent.
Before I get into the data, let me tell you about someone who understands this issue first hand.
Ben Kubilus, 31, is a minimum-wage worker in Seattle. A little more than a year ago, Kubilus took a $9.50-per-hour part-time job at a corner market on Capitol Hill. It was only supposed to be temporary. The recent University of Washington grad was just trying to earn a little extra income while he was looking for something better.
Sometimes, though, things don’t go according to plan.
Shortly after he took the job, Kubilus and his wife split up. He found himself needing to pay rent on his own with very little income.
“Job hunting took a back seat,” he says.
His boss let him take on two more part-time shifts. For an entire year, Kubilus worked three shifts per day, seven days per week — that pencils out to 56 hours per week.
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“My sanity really was at stake,” he says, but there was no other way he could keep up with his monthly rent. “I was barely scraping by, paycheck to paycheck — and only with the help of a credit card that I’m constantly catching back up on.”
Then, on April 1, the minimum wage increased to $11 per hour in Seattle, the first phased increase in the plan to eventually reach $15. For Kubilus, the bump in pay allowed him to take one day off per week for the first time in a year. “The pay increase offset the loss of hours,” he says.
A raise to $11 provided a significant benefit to Kubilus. So what would a raise to $15 do?
Let’s get back to the data.
In the chart, I used census data to find the cost of an apartment unit renting at the 25th percentile in each city — in other words, what could be considered a cheap apartment. I used these figures because someone making minimum wage is, for obvious reasons, likely to live in the least-expensive apartment available. For the city of Seattle, rent at the 25th percentile is $804 — significantly lower than what is considered fair-market rent. (In cities with large numbers of rent-regulated units — New York and San Francisco — rent at the 25th percentile is much lower than market rate.)
Among the cities in the group, Birmingham, Ala., is the only one where a full-time worker making the current minimum wage would devote less than 30 percent of income toward rent, which is the commonly accepted threshold for being “rent burdened.” In all the other cities, even a cheap apartment would devour an enormous portion of monthly earnings — 40 percent or higher.
This is the current situation for many low-income workers. It forces them to look for the cheapest apartments, which are typically far away from their jobs. That makes for long commutes and adds more transportation costs.
But with an increase to $15 per hour, an inexpensive apartment becomes affordable in all but five of the cities in this group. Seattle is one of those five — rent would eat up 33 percent of income at a $15 wage. But still, that is a much more reasonable level of rent burden than the 45 percent under the current minimum. Even in the most expensive cities, with a $15 wage, rent for a cheap apartment dips well below 40 percent of income.
And when workers have that extra breathing room, the repercussions can be far-reaching. For Ben Kubilus, that one day off per week that he is now able to take did more than just allow him to relax a little. He used that free time to look for a better job.
“I had an interview two weeks ago,” he tells me. “They’re waiting on references.”