Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Need more proof of Tacoma’s housing crunch? Look no further

For 2016, the Out of Reach report revealed the cold-hard truth we already knew anecdotally: It’s practically impossible for someone earning minimum wage to reasonably afford a place to live.
For 2016, the Out of Reach report revealed the cold-hard truth we already knew anecdotally: It’s practically impossible for someone earning minimum wage to reasonably afford a place to live. Thinkstock photo

Ominous.

For Pierce County, and the entire state, that’s just one of many doom-invoking words one could use to describe the findings in the recently released “Out of Reach” report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Unsurprising could, unfortunately, be another.

The annual report breaks down just how much it costs renters across the country — and in counties throughout the state — to afford housing.

Specifically, the report highlights the increasingly difficult plight of minimum wage workers.

For 2016, the Out of Reach report revealed the cold-hard truth we already knew anecdotally: It’s practically impossible for someone earning minimum wage to reasonably afford a place to live.

In Tacoma, using rents in the 50th percentile, the report found that it takes a wage of $14.27 an hour, or just under $30,000 a year, to afford a studio apartment.

For a one-bedroom, you need $16.79 an hour, or just under $35,000 a year.

For a two-bedroom, it’s $21.65 an hour, or just over $45,000 a year.

$21.65The wage it takes to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Tacoma

You get the idea.

By “afford,” the NLHIC uses a calculation that means spending no more than 30 percent of gross income on rent and utilities. That’s a generally accepted standard, but it’s also true that — locally and nationally — more and more people are spending a far greater chunk of their income just to put a roof over their head.

Still, the report finds that at minimum wage it would take a 60-hour workweek in Pierce County to afford a studio apartment, and a 91-hour workweek to afford a two-bedroom.

“The basic message is that rents are increasing … and wages are stagnant,” says Connie Brown, the executive director of the Tacoma-Pierce County Affordable Housing Consortium.

Perhaps the only silver lining in all of this for Tacoma and Pierce County is we’re not in quite as bad shape as other areas of the state, at least not yet.

Last year, it took a wage of $21.02 an hour to afford a two-bedroom rental, meaning this year saw only a 63-cent increase.

Meanwhile, in King County, the corresponding wage is up more than $2 to $29.29. That’s a physically impossible minimum-wage workweek of 124 hours to afford a two-bedroom apartment. (Thanks, Seattle.)

But even this seemingly good news comes with a caveat, Brown says.

Pierce County already suffers from an acknowledged lack of affordable housing — one of the worst in the state. There are only 10 available units of affordable housing for every 100 households living at zero to 30 percent of the median family income in Pierce County, and 29 available units for households living at zero to 50 percent

And as more and more people are forced to flee the insane housing costs up north and stumble upon Tacoma as an affordable respite from the madness, rents will naturally increase as the housing stock gets scarcer.

Meaning it’s natural to expect the affordable housing crunch to worsen.

Unless we do something. Fast.

Maybe we’re doing better (than other counties), but it also means there will be more people moving here expecting lower housing costs.

Connie Brown, executive director of the Tacoma-Pierce County Affordable Housing Consortium

“Maybe we’re doing better (than other counties), but it also means there will be more people moving here expecting lower housing costs,” Brown says.

“We were bad last year and bad the year before,” she continues. “We’re not gaining on it. And inventory will shrink (as more people arrive), driving rents up.”

Two obvious courses of action exist. Both are emergencies.

First, Tacoma and Pierce County need far more good-paying jobs, not the low-paying service sector jobs that the economy is increasingly built on. Simple increases to the minimum wage — like the one Tacoma is rightfully undertaking — can’t solve the problem. And while a complete return to the manufacturing job heyday is probably unrealistic, we have to find some way to create jobs that pay like those jobs once did.

“Better paying jobs are really the key,” Brown says, “because these trends of increasing costs and stagnant wages have been true for several years.”

And even more headway can be made by dramatically increasing Pierce County’s stock of affordable housing. While new developments — like the recently announced 172 market-rate rental apartment units coming soon to the Stadium District —are good, and needed, Tacoma and the entire county must do everything within their power to make sure renters of modest means, and below, have housing options.

Which means, sooner or later, we need to start thinking seriously about an affordable housing trust fund — yes, a dedicated source of revenue (gasp – a tax!) to help Pierce County climb out of its affordable housing deficit.

And if we don’t?

Well, expect next year’s Out of Reach report to be even more ominous.

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