A minimum-wage worker must put in a 62-hour workweek to afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Pierce County, according to a recent report. Hemera Technologies Getty Images
A minimum-wage worker must put in a 62-hour workweek to afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Pierce County, according to a recent report. Hemera Technologies Getty Images

Matt Driscoll

A 62-hour workweek for a 1-bedroom apartment? Yes, and that’s here, not Seattle.

June 14, 2017 01:55 PM

UPDATED June 16, 2017 10:34 PM

The picture is bleak and sobering.

As it has in the past, the latest installment of the National Low Income Housing Coalition's "Out of Reach" report reveals a Pierce County housing market that’s increasingly out of whack — even with recent minimum-wage hikes.

Though Tacoma bumped its minimum wage to $11.15 an hour in January, and the statewide minimum wage jumped to $11 at the same time, that progress isn’t keeping pace with the cost of rent.

Not long ago, those in favor of a substantial raise to the minimum wage — say, to an unfathomable $15 an hour — were seen as radicals or dreamers.

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But the the rising cost of living in the South Sound suggests they were onto something.

Unfortunately, what’s also clear is that efforts to raise the minimum wage are just scratching the surface of what needs to be done to help make sure people can put a roof over their heads. Without a local public investment in affordable housing, minimum-wage earners will be increasingly squeezed out.

It’s hard not to get that sense, at least, when poring over the latest Out of Reach report.

62 The number of hours a minimum-wage worker would need to work every week to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Pierce County

80 The number of hours a minimum-wage worker would need to work every week to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Pierce County

Released annually, the report compares the wages people earn with the cost of rental housing in their community. It utilizes local minimum wages and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s calculation of an area’s “Fair Market Rent.”

In 2017, according to the report, a minimum-wage earner in Pierce County would need to clock 54 hours a week just to afford a studio apartment.

To rent a one-bedroom, a person would have to work 62 hours a week at minimum wage.

That’s not good, especially when you consider who earns minimum wage these days. As others have noted, it’s not just teenagers working the drive-through, or kids at their first job. Many minimum-wage workers are older, plenty have kids, and most are women.

Viewed from another angle, the 2017 report finds that the “housing wage” for a studio apartment in Pierce County is $14.73 an hour.

The figure is calculated by assuming that a person should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Spending more than 30 percent of income on housing is widely considered to be unaffordable. Those spending 50 percent or more of their income on rent are classified as “severely cost-burdened.”

Spoiler: A lot of our neighbors are currently carrying this burden. And, as rents continue to increase, that burden will grow.

Consider: Renting a one-bedroom in 2017 required a “housing wage” of $17.02 an hour in Pierce County, according to the report.

A two-bedroom, necessary for anyone with kids, takes a wage of $21.96 an hour — up slightly from 2016, when $21.65 would do the trick.

So what do we make of this recent batch of bad news?

Raising the minimum wage is not a silver bullet, as the Out of Reach report shows. But we’ve always known that.

Although the minimum wage in Tacoma and Pierce County is up by more than $1.50 an hour over the previous two years, the number of hours it takes for a minimum-wage earner to afford a two-bedroom apartment also has increased. It’s gone from just over 76 hours in 2015, to 80 this year.

“What this year’s Out of Reach report shows is the even though the minimum wage is up, with rising rents, income is not keeping pace,” said Connie Brown, executive director of the Tacoma Pierce County Affordable Housing Consortium. “Rental units are less available, and less affordable.”

What this year’s Out of Reach report shows is the even though the minimum wage is up, with rising rents, income is not keeping pace. … Rental units are less available, and less affordable.

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

Closing the gap would require steps that Pierce County has thus far been reluctant to take, Brown said.

“Pierce County desperately needs public, local affordable housing investments,” she said.

Specifically, Brown highlighted the need for an affordable housing trust fund — like the ones that have built thousands of affordable housing units elsewhere in the state. Local housing trust funds allow municipalities, generally through the collection of property taxes or fees, to create a dedicated stream of funding for affordable housing.

Therein lies the catch.

Previous efforts to establish a local housing trust fund have failed or faltered in Pierce County because both voters and some elected officials have denied “the need, and refused any tax increase,” Brown said.

If there’s a silver lining in any of this — and it’s a stretch to find one — it’s that Pierce County is still in better shape than its neighbor to the north, and the state as a whole.

Statewide, a worker earning $11 an hour needs to work 69 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment.

In Seattle, it takes an 87-hour workweek.

In this instance, Tacoma and Pierce County simply being better than Seattle is no solace.

Especially for those on the low end of the pay scale.