The News: Stimulus or No, Workers Challenged by Affordability

A major part of the federal government’s $800 billion economic stimulus package will be devoted to construction projects to improve the nation’s infrastructure, but a recent Center for Housing Policy study found that many of the jobs created by these construction projects will pay insufficient incomes to enable workers to afford rental housing in many U.S. markets.The study covered rental rates of two-bedroom apartments, as well as single-family homes. Typical rents in each metropolitan area are based on the fiscal year 2009 compared to the 2007 Fair Market Rents issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, effectively comparing rents for the fourth quarter of 2008 and the third quarter of 2007. The study took an in-depth look at five occupations that may see a boost from the stimulus package, including construction management, carpentry, equipment operation, long-haul trucking and construction.Based on the average salary of these occupations and an affordability metric of 30 percent of a worker’s income, construction managers and carpenters can afford to pay the average rental rates in a majority of the cities studied, according to the study. However, equipment operators could not afford the typical rent for a two-bedroom apartment or home in 52 of the 210 markets studied and long-haul truck drivers in 57. Construction laborers were virtually priced out in all but a few markets, unable to find an affordable two-bedroom rental property in 161 of the rental markets studied.The top five most expensive rental markets, based on the average rental rate for a two-bedroom apartment or home, were: San Francisco at $1,658; Honolulu at $1,631; Santa Cruz, Calif., at $1,590; Nassau and Suffolk counties in New York at $1,581; and Santa Ana, Calif., at $1,546. By contrast, the least expensive metro was Wheeling, W.Va., where the average two-bedroom rental rate is $577.However, opportunities to build more affordable rental housing may exist, as state and local governments may be able to acquire foreclosed single-family homes and develop affordable rental or for-sale housing on these sites, said Center for Housing Policy research associate Maya Brennan.Mounting job losses mean that providing affordable housing should become more of a priority, she said. Many laid-off workers have taken retail sales jobs, but such jobs do not enable workers to afford two-bedroom rentals in any of the markets studied, and rents would also be out of reach in 184 of the 210 markets surveyed for a one-bedroom apartment or home.The study also found that rental housing has become markedly less affordable in Florida’s major metros. From 2007 to 2008, Pensacola saw the largest jump in the nationwide rankings, from a ranking of 182 to 126, or $755 per month. Ocala also moved up significantly, from 183 to 131, reaching $749. Miami climbed, as well, from 32 to 26 to a monthly rate of $1,156. Fort Lauderdale had the highest rental rate for a two-bedroom property in the state and 13th in the nation, at $1,313.Brennan called Florida’s rent spikes “something of a mystery,” noting that they could be the result of home foreclosures increasing the demand for rental properties while condominiums are not converted to rentals fast enough to serve the need.