Working class Americans struggle with affordable housing as rents rise

Global Business

Connie Ball pays $800 a month for her Denver area apartment. With her part-time minimum wage job, she’s not able to keep up.

CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy reports.

“My paycheck won’t pay the rent or anything,” Ball said recently. “It’s hard, it really is.”

Gary Van Damme’s rent was about to jump from 900 to $1500 a month when we met him. He’s on disability.

“Everything I’ve looked at recently was even more than what I’m paying now,” Van Damme said.

Ball and Van Damme are among many working-class Americans who’ve discovered the words affordable and housing don’t necessarily go together.

“It’s not fun,” Ball remarked.

“I don’t know what everybody else is doing,” Van Damme said. “I just know what I’m doing and it’s not working.”

A study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows a minimum wage worker in the U.S. needs to work 122 hours per week every week of the year to afford a two-bedroom rental home at the average fair market rate.

“I think over the past five years, rents have been rising precipitously,” said Claire Levy, the Executive Director of the Colorado Center on Law & Policy. She said that’s forced residents in U.S. cities like Denver out of their homes and apartments.

“They’re doubling up, they’re couch surfing, they’re sleeping in their car,” Levy observed. “It’s all around us. We just don’t see it.”

She said a severe shortage of low-income housing has dramatically narrowed options for renters.

“And when you have a city like Denver that is growing substantially and has a very strong economy, there’s more incentive to build more market rate and luxury type apartments than there is to build affordable units,” said Cathy Alderman with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.

That’s caused rents for upper-end units to come down in some cases. According to Zillow, a real estate marketplace, U.S. median rent in August was unchanged from a year earlier ($1,440 per month.) On an annual basis, rent actually fell in more than half of the largest U.S. markets. But it hasn’t eased the crunch on the lower end.

Last year, Denver created a 10-year, $150 million affordable housing fund to help deal with the problem. And a program called LIVE Denver uses public-private partnerships to subsidize rents. But Levy argued much more public support is needed for affordable housing.

“It’s a hard sell to approve a tax increase to house somebody else,” she said.

She blames stagnant wages for much of the problem. She and others worry that housing costs could dampen the economies of U.S. cities.

“Housing is really the foundation of so many of our social structures and without it, people just can’t succeed,” Alderman said. Her organization helps clients find affordable housing. But waiting lists and housing restrictions frustrate folks like Ball.

“I’m scared, I really am, because my age, a lot of people just turn me away because I’m in my mid-50’s,” Ball said.

“I can go from house to house if I have to for a little while,” Van Damme said, clearly indicating that’s not his preferred option.

It’s a challenge, putting a roof over their heads, while the economy continues to hum along for so many.