A Seattle P-I reader writes:
Judy is simply not being completely honest with herself on the topic of affordable housing. First off, there is no shortage of 1 bedroom/studio apartments for under $700 and even under $600. I just did a search and there is even more around $500 a month.
A minimum wage worker (after taxes) takes home about $1,200 a month. That leaves enough money to rent a studio for that much if not cheaper. Certainly better to rent a small room that is warm and dry than sleep outside in the rain and cold.
My response: Have you visited any of those cheapest “studios” – often just a bedroom with a microwave? Some of them are filthy dumps in houses that should be boarded up, and of course one room can’t accommodate a family. But yes, some of the more liveable apartments in the area are renting at lower rates – one bright side of the current economic slump.
Once recovery is under way, rents will rise, of course, faster than income will, but even now a young couple with two children, friends of mine, both employed at minimum wage levels, did a thorough search and just found the cheapest decent 2-BR apartment (in South Seattle) is $850/month plus utilities, which brings monthly costs closer to $950. After furnishing and equipping the place they still have to cover food, health insurance, transportation, clothing, child care, and other miscellaneous needs.
Financial counselors advise spending no more than 1/3 of one’s income on shelter. Based on that standard, a working couple with a full-time minimum-wage income of $2400/month net must spend $150 too much each month for shelter, a significant chunk of a low income.
As rents decline unemployment rises. A friend lost his job when the landscaping company he worked for downsized. He and his wife and year-old son can’t afford an apartment because they can’t come up with the first-and-last-month rent payment, plus the $50-$100 fee charged by landlords for a credit/background check, plus sometimes a security deposit and/or a nonrefundable cleaning fee. The result? They live in a cheap motel room because they can manage to pay week by week, knowing and hating the fact that it adds up to a higher expense monthly, but it’s either that or become homeless.
A corollary of this problem is (as Barbara Ehrenreich noted in her book, Nickel and Dimed – recommended reading for anyone who’s never had an inside look at minimum-wage life) that people with limited incomes can’t economize by buying in bulk, for example at Costco, even if there were no annual fees, because items become affordable only when purchased singly, sometimes in the smallest sizes even though these are more expensive ounce by ounce.