Where, Oh, Where Can Minimum Wage Earners Afford to Rent a One-Bedroom Apartment?

The 'housing wage' puts a modest place beyond a $7.25-an-hour salary in every county in America.

(Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Is the rent too darn high? If you’re an American worker earning minimum wage, the price of a modest one-bedroom apartment is beyond your reach in every single county across the nation.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the cost of renting an average one-bedroom apartment exceeds the national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The coalition determined this by crunching data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to create a “housing wage.” That housing wage is how much someone working 40 hours per week over 52 weeks would have to earn to afford fair-market rent in a community.

What does a modest one-bedroom apartment look like? The coalition’s not talking living in a pricey Manhattan penthouse with views of Central Park, nor does it mean squalid, roach- and rat-infested tenement housing that no one should be forced to call home. Instead, think about a place that’s basic (no swimming pool or building gym) but decent. 

Of course, some states and local municipalities have minimum wages that are higher than the federal minimum. San Francisco has one of the highest minimum wages in the country, $10.55 per hour. Compared with the federal minimum, that seems downright generous. Most experts advise against putting more than 30 percent of your paycheck toward housing costs. But if you’re a fast-food worker living in San Francisco, even if you’re sending your entire paycheck to your landlord, you still can’t afford a decent one-bedroom. You’d need to earn a whopping $29.83 an hour—approximately $62,000 per year—to afford a basic one-bedroom apartment.

The result is that Bay Area workers are moving to inland counties where housing is less expensive. Of course, that leads to more time spent commuting to work and more CO2 emissions.

The other option? Shacking up with roommates. Four young people, all service-industry workers, live in a one-bedroom apartment in my building in Los Angeles. The dining room has a mattress on the floor, the living room has two futons, and one person sleeps in the bedroom. They do that because you’d have to earn $20.83 per hour to afford an average market-rate one-bedroom in L.A. County. Head across the country to Osceola County, Fla., the home of Disney World, and you’ll see service workers sleeping in cheap motels—all because of the same unaffordable housing problem.

What’s the housing wage in your county? The Washington Post has created a helpful interactive map that makes it a snap to see the variations across the nation. Let’s hope all the politicians speaking out against raising the minimum wage see that map too. 

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