On the House: Worsening conditions for apartment renters
Experts appear to agree that the multifamily rental market remains strong. The problem, they say, is that during the now-discredited housing boom, builders focused on single-family houses and condos.
Remember how many rental buildings went condo in Center City beginning in the late 1990s?
There is, as experts have also noted, much "not-in-our-backyard" opposition to suburban apartment construction. In city and suburb and the rest of the country, that has resulted in a shortage of apartments and rising rents, making housing more unaffordable for many.
The problem, not unknown in the eight-county Philadelphia region - I'll get to that in a minute - was the subject of a recent biennial report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard.
That report found that affordability problems for renters have skyrocketed over the last decade, both in number and the share of renters facing them.
The inability of so many to find housing they can afford dramatically impacts the health and well-being of U.S. renters, as lower-income households cut back on food, health care, and savings just to keep up, the report stated.
Half of U.S. renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, up 12 percentage points in a decade.
Much of the increase was among renters who spend more than half their income on rent, boosting that group to 27 percent of all renters. A decade ago, the share of renters spending half their income on housing was 19 percent.
In this region, to afford a basic two-bedroom unit at the "fair market rent" of $1,119 per month, households must earn $21.52 per hour - nearly three times the state minimum wage and 127 percent of the typical city renter's wage.
The 2013 "Out of Reach" report published jointly by the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania and the National Low Income Housing Coalition found 63 percent of local renters unable to meet the expense of such a unit.
"It's an issue that disproportionately affects the injured or disabled, low-income families, and seniors," said Liz Hersh, executive director of the housing alliance.
New Jersey's Out of Reach Report, from the coalition and the Housing and Community Development Network, found the mean wage for a New Jersey renter was $16.77 an hour, below the housing wage for a modest two-bedroom apartment.
At the mean wage, a person would have to work 59 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom unit.
At minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, a New Jerseyan would have to work 137 hours a week, or 3.4 full jobs a week, to afford a two-bedroom apartment, the report said. (As of Jan. 1, the minimum wage is $8.25 an hour.)
The number of renters, as I've noted, is increasing as homeownership has tumbled from the boom's heady days - up from 31 percent in 2004 to 35 percent in 2012. In fact, the 2000s marked the strongest numerical growth in renter households in the last 50 years, the Center for Housing Studies report said.
As homeownership rates fell, markets adjusted to increased rental demand, with about three million homes switching from owner to renter occupancy between 2007 and 2011 alone.
"For many low-income families, the rental-housing affordability crisis is like a game of musical chairs in which there is never a chair left for them," said Chris Herbert, research director of the Harvard housing center. "The situation just keeps getting worse."