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Renters facing affordability crisis as wages stagnate

A view of historic homes on Logan Circle in Washington, D.C. Wikimedia Commons

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Across the country, wages aren’t keeping pace with rent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, average rent has increased 66 percent since 2000, while wages have only increased 34 percent.  The implications for poor and middle-class families are clear. In an environment where rent alone can account for 30-50 percent of incomes, evictions are becoming almost commonplace.

According to a new report from the national real estate brokerage Redfin, 2.7 million Americans were evicted last year.

The findings add color to the national debate on poverty, which typically focuses on income and wages. In reality however, housing may be the bigger concern.

About six blocks from the White House, the 14th Street corridor, in the Logan Circle neighborhood, is the heart of one of Washington, D.C.’s oldest African-American neighborhoods.

“We’re also standing in front of one of the fastest gentrifying miles in the United States,” Silvia Salazar said.

Salazar lived in Logan Circle for the past 15 years. That was before the condo boom of the mid-2000’s sent rents skyrocketing.

“Yeah, people easily spend more than 50 percent of what they make in rent,” she said.  “Because you want to be in an accessible neighborhood where you can walk to work, people are willing to sacrifice.”

Many of these jobs Salazar is talking about are in the service industry, cleaning, serving food. Oftentimes they don’t pay enough to cover costs — particularly for families.

“You know, it’s been a lot of times when we didn’t eat,” 19-year-old Tamie Small said. “It was more like—  are we going to eat? Or are we going to be eating in the streets?”

Growing up, Small said her mom raised her and her two siblings on one income and eviction was always a threat. As soon as she could she got a job to help out, but at $9 an hour it was never enough.

“It was never to a point where I was like ‘OK, I’m good. I’m good this month.’ It was never like that. It was just like I need to work more. I need more hours,” Small recalled.

Eventually, Small said her family fell behind on the rent for their apartment. The landlord took them to court where they tried to set up a payment plan.

“Long story short—we still got evicted anyways,” she said.

Together with her mom and sister, Small is now sharing a one-bedroom apartment with her older brother.

Nela Richardson is chief economist at Redfin and a contributor to Marketplace. She notes that the squeeze on renters is largely a supply problem.

“We don’t have enough affordable housing,” Richardson said. “Most of the building that we’ve seen in the last few years has been at the high end.”

That leaves most renters with few options but to pay more than they can afford on the private rental market.

Richardson says that while Redfin has looked at court records to get an idea of the trend in evictions, that may only be a fraction of the total number of evictions occurring nationally. The real number, she said, including informal evictions, could be double that. 

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