A low-wage worker would have to earn $20.93 per hour -- more than three times the current Massachusetts minimum wage of $6.75 -- to afford the fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the state, based on an annual study of national housing affordability released yesterday.
The figure placed Massachusetts second only to California in terms of the theoretical hourly wage a worker would have to earn to pay that rent while limiting their housing and utility expenses to 30 percent of their income, a federal affordability standard. In California, the same worker would have to earn $21.24 per hour, based on a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington. It compiled the report from government data such as the US Census and income figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While Massachusetts has a national reputation for its high housing prices, affordable housing advocates say the new figures highlight the challenge the state faces in maintaining its workforce, keeping senior citizens in their communities, and providing a meaningful quality of life for its residents.
"We lose people every year because of it," said Tom Callahan, executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, a nonprofit group that works to increase private and government investment in affordable housing. "Younger folks who went to college here and want to settle here are leaving the state in droves, which creates a brain drain. It's also a real drag on the business community in terms of being able to attract talent into the state, or to attract low-wage workers to live anywhere near their jobs. It also adds to commutes when people have to live in Fall River in order to work in Boston."
State officials say it also highlights the need for some controversial legislative programs aimed at increasing the stock of affordable housing in Massachusetts.
One, known as Chapter 40B, allows developers to circumvent local housing laws in communities with less than 10 percent affordable housing, as long as they reserve a percentage of their new units for low- and moderate-wage earners. Another, Chapter 40R, provides cash payments to cities and towns willing to zone for the construction of affordable housing in community centers or near transportation hubs. In general, the housing is aimed at people earning 80 percent or less of the state median income, which totaled roughly $78,000 for a family of four in 2000. A study estimated the state needed 30,000 more units to meet demand.
"A partnership needs to be created between the state and the municipalities," said Representative Kevin Honan, a Democrat who is chairman of the House Committee on Housing and Urban Development. Honan represents Allston and Brighton, two Boston neighborhoods with a strong demand for affordable housing.
"It puts an awful lot of pressure on the individual people of our society," Honan said of housing costs. "It puts a lot of stress on them that a significant portion of their income has to go towards housing. In some cases, it denies you other things you need like medication, food."
The housing coalition used 2000 Census data to determine the number of householders and renters in each state. Then it took data from the census and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine a state's annual median income, before using HUD data and figures from the Consumer Price Index to calculate the "fair-market rent" for apartments with zero to four bedrooms.
Extrapolating from that and other data, the group determined the annual and hourly wage a single worker would need to pay those rents, while limiting housing and utility costs to 30 percent of their income. The figure is designed to ensure that workers have enough money remaining for food, clothing, and other household expenditures.
Massachusetts has 2.47 million households, including 942,000 families who live in rental units, or about 38 percent of households. Fair-market rents were calculated at $838 for a loft or apartment with no bedrooms, $912 for a one-bedroom, $1,088 for a two-bedroom, $1,304 for a three-bedroom, and $1,446 for a four-bedroom apartment. The study indicated that to pay those rents, a worker would have to earn an hourly wage of (in order) $16.12, $17.55, $20.93, $25.07, and $27.81.
When measured by county, the top nine counties requiring the highest minimum wage were in California. The 10th was Nantucket County, where a hypothetical hourly wage of $24.58 is needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment.
The current Massachusetts minimum wage is $6.75 per hour, higher than the national rate of $5.15 per hour. The federal minimum wage has not been raised since 1997, prompting both of the state's US senators to propose increases. Democrat Edward M. Kennedy this year proposed raising the national hourly wage to $7 in three steps over a little more than two years. Three times Republican leaders halted the underlying legislation to which Kennedy attached his amendment. Democrat John F. Kerry called for a minimum wage of $7 per hour by 2007 during his recent presidential campaign.
Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.