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High rents, low income

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Celixia Rodriguez used to spend more than 60 percent of her income on rent. She makes about $10 an hour cleaning houses in Boston and picks up any side work she can.

“Even if I had five part time jobs, at $10 an hour it’s hard to come up with $1,500 a month and still support your children and fill your gas tank,” she says.

For three years, Rodriguez and her two kids doubled up, sharing a three-bedroom apartment in Boston with her sister and her two kids. Now she’s moved to the suburbs and her rent is subsidized by the local nonprofit, Neighborhood Housing Services of the South Shore. Her rent is now a much more manageable 30 percent of her income.

Over a quarter of renter households paid over half their income to rent in 2010, says Eric Belsky, managing director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. That’s up from 20 percent in 2000.

“And we know that that’s a risk for homelessness, because you just have so little left over for basic necessitie,s and you are unable to save for emergencies,” says Megan Bolton, the research director at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which released a report looking on rents and wages this week.

The study estimates that workers would need to make $18.79 an hour in order to keep rent from eating up more than 30 pecent of their income. Yet the average renter actually only makes an hourly wage of $14.32.

That often means sacrificing on money for food, health care, travel, and other expenses.

It also means the economic impact can spread from the renter to the communities they live in, says Harvard’s Belsky.

“They’re spending less on things in the local economy,” he says. “There’s no question, from nothing comes nothing.”

Moreover, some renters are forced out of pricey cities because they can’t afford the rents at all.

“Families are deliberately, and in many cases systematically, moving outside of some of the high-cost cities across the country,” says Brett Theodos, a senior research associate in the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. “What we’re losing there is some of the fabric of social life in cities.”

See how many hours a week a minimum wage worker would have to clock just to keep rent around 30 percent of their income. Map from The National Low Income Housing Coalition. (Click to enlarge PDF)

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