Struggling for a home

Nearly half nationwide spend too much of pay on housing

In Maryland and Beyond

October 17, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

THE STRUGGLE to pay for housing isn't limited to Baltimore's urban core, where incomes tend to be lowest. Across Maryland, families were spending a larger share of their income on housing last year than they were in 2002.

In affluent Howard County, rising housing costs have made living in the county unaffordable for many who work there in relatively low-pay service occupations like teaching and law enforcement.

The situation is similar in Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County, where census data show both renters and homeowners are paying growing shares of their income to house their families.

For housing to be affordable, families should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on rent or mortgage payments, experts say, but in Maryland and across the nation a growing proportion of the population is paying more, leaving less money available for the other necessities of life.

To afford the average two-bedroom apartment in the Baltimore region, a person would have to earn $17.08 an hour, estimates the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington advocacy group that studies such trends nationwide.

In the past five years, the "housing wage" - the hourly pay necessary to afford the average cost of housing - has risen 37 percent, said Kim Schaffer of the coalition.

"It's even more incredible when you think that wages have gone up nowhere near that," Schaffer said.

Saving and budgeting only goes so far, say advocates who point out that housing is not being built in a range that people earning the minimum wage can afford.

"Certainly, most of the new housing that is being built is not affordable to someone earning $7 or $8 an hour," said Schaffer.

Others insist the situation won't improve until more mid-tier jobs are created with good salaries.

"The correct answer to this problem in the long run is not more public subsidies," said Mitch Klein of the Baltimore chapter of ACORN - a community group that supports affordable housing. "The long-term solution is to expand skill sets and get a job that pays a living wage."

Some experts believe more homeowners than ever are caught in the housing crunch because everyone from the federal government to mortgage lenders has been promoting homeownership.

"It's too easy for people to get a mortgage these days," said Richard Doran, executive director of the Community Assistance Network, a nonprofit action agency in Dundalk that helps Baltimore County residents. "We are at record levels for homeownership, but we are also at record levels for people who can't afford it."

In Baltimore County, the number of jobs that pay more than minimum wage is shrinking, and that has many families living from paycheck to paycheck, said Doran. The result is more people are seeking assistance for housing costs and utilities, he said.

In August, the Community Assistance Network helped 86 Baltimore County families stave off eviction with financial assistance - double the number it typically helps in a month, Doran said. And during the 12 months ending June 30, the organization helped more than 2,300 families with their utility bills, about 600 more than usual.

"We've been just inundated lately," Doran said.

Doran sees a combination of problems that have working families struggling. Poor education and a lack of job skills keep many families earning low wages.

"I see more and more laid-off people," he said. "More people working two jobs or more. You have people getting their kids ready for school asking if they can afford to buy the kid new shoes."

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