Working Class Americans Are Finding It Increasingly Difficult To Afford Housing

Jun 25, 2019
Originally published on June 25, 2019 10:15 pm
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The economy right now is strong, but wages aren't keeping pace. That means more middle-class families across the nation are struggling to find homes at rents they can afford. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: A.J. Jackson takes me up the path between some brick garden apartments in Silver Spring, Md., right outside Washington, D.C. Tall oak trees shade the property. Lush purple and blue hydrangea line the walks.

A J JACKSON: It's a sort of beautiful park-like setting. We've got a stream valley running through it, yet we're walking distance to the metro station. We're walking distance to downtown Silver Spring, which has arts and entertainment, grocery and retail services - Whole Foods. We're on major bus lines.

FESSLER: And the rent is surprisingly reasonable for this area - $1,300 a month for a one bedroom; affordable for a middle-income worker.

JACKSON: Making somewhere between 60- and 80-, $90,000 a year - it's a rent that they can afford to pay and still have money for groceries, for health care, for transportation, for other necessities.

FESSLER: Jackson runs an initiative by a local developer JBG Smith, working with a nonprofit and private investors. They're trying to preserve affordable housing for teachers, construction workers, IT support staff and others who help the local economy thrive but who are increasingly being squeezed out of the rental market.

CHRIS HERBERT: For those households, even though the economy is improving, even though affordability generally is improving, it's been getting worse year by year.

FESSLER: Chris Herbert is managing director of Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, which is out today with its annual report on the state of the nation's housing. Herbert says despite some improvement, nearly half of all renters have to pay more than 30% of their incomes on housing. He says new apartments are being built but mostly for high-end renters, especially in areas with the strongest economies.

HERBERT: So if you're living in San Francisco in a city with however many billionaires that have been identified, you know, the people at the upper end of the income distribution help to bid up the cost of land for everybody.

FESSLER: The pain is also being felt in poorer cities. Regina Clarke is an anti-poverty activist from Memphis, Tenn., who was in Washington, D.C., last week for a conference. She says investors are coming into her city, buying up homes and remodeling them.

REGINA CLARKE: And they're making the housing even more expensive. The average homeowner can barely afford about four or $500 a month in a rent or a mortgage. And they're now bringing out rent that's about fifteen to $1,600.

FESSLER: Forcing out many longtime residents - the Harvard study finds that overall, the nation is losing apartments that rent for less than $800 a month at a rapid pace - about one million a year, which means people have to either spend more of their incomes on rent, double up with family and friends or become homeless. Herbert says on the positive side, there's more interest in trying to fix the problem now that it's hitting the middle class. AJ Jackson hopes his company's initiative will help.

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FESSLER: He shows me one of their recently renovated units, which has new but modest kitchen appliances. He says the pressure in the market is to make these places more upscale.

JACKSON: Yeah, you could come in with granite countertops and high-end appliance packages.

FESSLER: But he says that would mean a much higher rent and another working-class family struggling to pay.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.