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Then There's This: Through the Roof

Cost of living in Austin is 'Out of Reach' for most renters

By Amy Smith, Fri., March 23, 2012

Remember when Austin used to be a cheap place to live?
Remember when Austin used to be a cheap place to live?
Photo by Jana Birchum

A new national report on the cost of rent for working people confirms what most of us already know: Austin, we have an affordability problem.

"Out of Reach 2012" – released last week by the National Low Income Housing Coa­li­tion – breaks down rental housing costs by state, county, and metropolitan area. The good news? Austin's "average" tenant makes more money than renters in most other Texas cities. The bad news: Austin is the most expensive city in Texas for residents making minimum wage or close to it, meaning their "housing wage" (which includes household costs, such as utilities) makes it impossible for most renters to afford a two-bedroom apartment without a second job or roommates.

High rents have become increasingly challenging for tenants in big cities nationwide. To cover the costs of utilities and a "modest" two-bedroom dwelling, full-time workers must earn on average $18.25 an hour, "significantly surpassing the $14.15 hourly wage actually earned by renters, on average, nationally," the report states.

In Texas, a full-time worker must earn a housing wage of $15.88 per hour to pay the "fair market rent" of $826 for a two-bedroom apartment, according to the report. Here in the capital city, we have a different story – employees need to earn $19.02 an hour to pay about $990 a month for utilities and a two-bedroom.

Two Economies

Austin Tenants' Council Executive Direc­tor Kathy Stark, who has spent 25 years in the affordable-housing trenches, says a couple of current trends are wreaking havoc on people who live on modest-to-low incomes. "The first issue is that we have two economies going on," she says. While it's possible for many to make cuts here and there to adjust to the economic slump, others are either moving to the streets, farther outside of central neighborhoods, or to the suburbs, where their transportation options are more limited.

"We have people who used to work 60 hours a week to make ends meet who are now working 30 or 40 hours or less," she says. "They used to work two jobs and can now only find one job. So we have a whole group of folks who are struggling to get by because of the economy."

"The second issue is that it's not just rent," she adds. "Water bills went up, wastewater went up, and electric is proposed to go up. And all of those increases are huge, and they impact directly on a tenant's ability to live where they want to live. It affects all of the city, but I would say it has a disproportionate affect on the folks that we work with, because once they pay their rent and pay their utilities, there's not much left."

Families Matter

With these two factors combined, families are practically becoming an endangered species in Austin's central neighborhoods, emptying schools of the students they need to survive in a hostile public education climate. The most dramatic example of this depletion occurred – and continues to occur, before our very eyes – in the East River­side corridor, where aggressive redevelopment projects are displacing working-class families who had found their niche in an affordable part of town – once home to University of Texas students, before more housing opened up in West Campus.

Karen Paup, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, nailed it when she summed up the situation in a Statesman op-ed published last year. "Instead of counting the families already living in the area among the number of people needed to support more retail, light rail and pedestrian-oriented amenities," she wrote, "city planners seem to view them as an obstacle to be removed."

Beginning of the End

The upheaval on East Riverside began shortly after the City Council's 2009 approval of a rezoning request made by the owners of two large apartment complexes. The council's approval marked the beginning of the end for hundreds of tenants. Other apartment owners caught the "owners' market" fever and began rehabbing or tearing down to rebuild. Some remaining properties are going the way of benign neglect until the owners can either sell or obtain the financing to redevelop.

"A lot of the people that we're serving now are from East Riverside – or used to be," Stark says. "The people who used to live there can't afford to live there anymore." The displacement of families took a toll on nearby Sanchez Elementary, which lost more than a hundred students to "revitalization." "That school lost about a third of its population," she adds.

Stark nevertheless remains hopeful that the city's investment in affordable housing studies and an upcoming bond election will ultimately yield some tangible benefits for low-income residents.

"We need to do whatever we can, and to really ramp up affordable housing in the city of Austin," she says. "We don't want to have to end up like Vail [Colo.], where you have to bus in all the people who work there but can't afford to live there."

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