On the House: A dearth of affordable rentals

Posted: June 28, 2009

Amid abundant houses for sale and unsold condos doing temporary duty as rental units, "quality" affordable apartments remain in short supply. But don't interpret "quality" as "high-end."

Kirk Dorn, a spokesman for the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, said it meant apartments with "enough quality to actually give prospective middle-class homeowners a choice."

At the same time, rents for all sorts and conditions of spaces, quality or not, continue to increase, as do the costs of utilities.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition calculates what it calls a "housing wage" for Pennsylvania - what a typical family must earn, working 52 weeks a year, 40 hours a week, to be able to afford rent and utilities.

That wage is $15.37 an hour. Yet the typical Pennsylvania renter earns $13.40 an hour - $2 an hour less than what is deemed necessary for a modest two-bedroom apartment. At minimum wage, 2.1 family members would have to work full time to bring in that much, or one person must work 86 hours a week.

The earnings-vs.-housing-cost burden falls heaviest on some of the most critical members of society - health-care workers, for example.

Like Keveedah D. Ayers, 25, a certified nurse assistant for a home-health-care firm.

"My company doesn't pay any overtime, even if I work over 40 hours," she said. "Right now, I'm taking care of one patient downtown. Sometimes, they give me extra work. That isn't often, but when it [happens], it helps."

Ayers earns $8 an hour for a job she has been doing since 2007. She pays $700-a-month rent for the three-bedroom house in West Oak Lane she and her year-old daughter, Shauna, share.

"It was easy finding this place," said Ayers, who moved seven months ago from a neighborhood she said wasn't as safe.

"Every dollar I make goes to rent and bills," said Ayers, whose child-care options for Shauna are limited by the cost of shelter and utilities.

Is there any solution to the problem she and thousands of other Pennsylvanians face meeting the costs of housing every month?

A report from the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that incentives to produce more quality rental housing could go a long way toward solving the rental-affordability crisis.

In fact, John Kromer, the Fels consultant and former Philadelphia housing czar who was the study's author, says the absence of a large supply of "reasonable" rental alternatives to homeownership was a factor in the collapse of the housing market.

Some cities already are taking steps to revitalize the rental market: York offers a 10-year tax abatement for new or refurbished rental housing; Allentown requires presale inspections of residential properties to thwart speculation; Philadelphia provides small subsidies for upgrading rentals, including apartments above storefronts.

But for her, right now, "it's hard, especially with the economy so bad," Ayers said. "I can't even think about saving any money."


"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.

Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens is the author of "Remodeling on the Money" (Kaplan Publishing). His home-improvement columns appear Fridays in Home & Design.

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