PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday May 20th, 2015, 6:58pm

Illinois Renters Must Earn $18.78 Hourly To Afford A Two-Bedroom Apartment, Report Finds

The gap between wages and rents continues to widen in Illinois and nationally, shows a new report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Minimum wage earners in Illinois must work 91 hours a week, year round to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in the state.

That's just one of many sobering figures in the National Low Income Housing Coalition's (NLIHC) annual "Out of Reach" report for 2015, which shows that the gap between wages and rents continues to widen both nationally and in Illinois.

According to the federal government's standard, rental housing is affordable when a household spends no more than 30 percent of its income on housing.

Without paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing, Illinois renters must earn $18.78 per hour, or at least $39,067 annually, to afford the Fair Market Rent (FMR) price of $977 for a two-bedroom unit in the state, according to the report.

FMR is a price estimated annually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to determine the amount of income needed for rent, plus utilities, for one to live in a modest, privately-owned rental housing unit.

At $18.78 an hour, Illinois has the nation's 17th most expensive two-bedroom "housing wage." Of the 102 Illinois counties, Brown County has the highest two-bedroom housing wage at $25.73.

The two-bedroom housing wage at the national level is $19.35, and it's higher than $20 in 13 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The national two-bedroom housing wage is more than double the federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25.

"Clearly, full-time minimum wage workers are just unable to find modest, affordable housing in their communities," NLIHC research director Megan Bolton said on a Tuesday conference call with reporters.

Illinois has more than 4.7 million households, 1.5 million of which are renters. The average renter's wage in Illinois is $14.90.

For Illinois minimum wage workers -- who earn the state's base hourly wage of $8.25 -- a monthly rent price of $429 would be considered affordable, according to the report.

The report also looked at the housing wage in Illinois Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) and HUD Metro Fair Market Rent Areas (HMFAs). In HMFA areas, fair market rent prices are set at the median 50th percentile rent, rather than the typical 40th percentile.

Of the 17 combined Illinois MSAs and HMFAs examined in the report, the two-bedroom housing wage is highest in the Kendall County HMFA at $22.52. At $12.13, the two-bedroom housing wage is lowest in the Macoupin County HMFA. In the Chicago-Naperville-Joliet HMFA, the figure is $21.02.

NLIHC President and CEO Sheila Crowley said it will take more than minimum wage hikes to address the housing affordability issues cited in the report.

"Anything you do to improve wages is important, and it does make the access to housing easier for people in the low-wage workforce," she said. "But we also have to recognize that that is not the answer in and of itself and there are many other things that would make wage earning more stable." Crowley cited paid sick leave as one such policy that should come alongside a minimum wage increase at the federal or local levels.

Experts said addressing the shortage of affordable rental housing also needs to be a top priority for policymakers.

According to Housing Action Illinois, which jointly released the "Out of Reach 2015" report, the nation is in need of 7.1 million affordable and available rental units for extremely low-income renters, or those spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs. In Illinois, there is a shortage of nearly 319,000 affordable and available units for such renters.

The report comes after the U.S. House Appropriations Committee approved a transportation, housing and urban development funding bill on May 13.

Housing Action Illinois has concerns about the funding bill because it leaves the nation's insufficient affordable housing supply largely unaddressed.

For example, the funding bill looks to move money intended for the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF) to the Home Invest Partnerships (HOME) Program. The HOME Program provides grants to local governments to, among other things, expand affordable housing for low-income households. NHTF is a new federal program, scheduled for implementation in summer 2016, that looks to increase affordable rental housing options for extremely low-income households.

The HOME Program still faces deeps cuts as part of the funding bill, even with the added money intended for NHTF, the latter of which is more useful out of the two initiatives "to meet the needs of the nation's poorest households," Housing Action Illinois policy director Bob Palmer noted in a statement.

"The House budget for affordable housing programs shows a disregard for the situations of millions of low-wage workers that cannot find apartments they can afford to rent," Palmer stressed. "We will be looking to the Senate to pass a HUD budget that has a higher funding level overall and that preserves the National Housing Trust Fund."

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