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Forget buying -- low-wage workers can barely afford rent
by Carol Smith    Seattle Post
Entered into the database on Friday, May 20th, 2005 @ 01:20:15 MST


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In Seattle, if you're earning the minimum wage, you have to work 90 hours a week to afford to rent an average two-bedroom unit, let alone buy one.

That's just one of the most recent indicators to show housing is growing increasingly out of reach for many working families here.

The gap between housing prices and wages is continuing to widen, said Carla Okigwe, executive director of the Housing Development Consortium, a non-profit housing trade association in Seattle.

And that puts not just families at risk, but communities as well.

"Affordable housing is important for the stability of the community," Okigwe said. "If there's no place for young people who grew up there to get started, or for people who are growing old to stay, then you end up losing your people -- the very people who are most invested in the community."

Housing experts advise that families should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Yet that goal is growing more elusive every year.

Over the past five years, the number of working families paying more than 50 percent of their household income for housing increased by 76 percent nationally, according to recent data released by the Center for Housing Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition pushing for more affordable housing.

The housing bite is particularly severe at lower income levels.

Locally, the Housing Development Consortium says nearly three-quarters of renter households in King County earning less than $13 an hour are paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing -- meaning their shelter costs are eating up a disproportionate share of their budget.

Even those households earning the median income level are struggling with housing.

The median annual income for a family of four in King County is $72,250. According to the Center for Housing Policy, it would take an annual income of $76,350 -- more than $4,000 above the median -- to qualify for a $245,000 home in the Seattle metropolitan area. The difficulty for would-be homeowners is that the median home price in King County is now $355,000.

"There is a growing chasm between the landed gentry -- those who can afford to own homes -- and those who can't save enough to even get started in the market," said Mack McCoy, a real estate agent in Ballard.

High housing costs make it difficult for lower-wage earners, such as retail clerks, nurses' aides and teachers, to stay close to where they work and to participate in their communities, Okigwe said.

"Before you know it the whole fabric is loosened and destroyed."

P-I reporter Carol Smith can be reached at 206-448-8070 or