A national study says housing in the United States has become too expensive for low-income workers. The problem is most serious in the mid-Atlantic region, from New York to Washington, and in California on the West Coast. Los Angeles officials say the lack of affordable housing has become a crisis in their city.
The median wage in the United States is nearly $17 per hour. But the legally mandated minimum wage is just one-third that amount: $5.15. A number of states, including California, have set their minimum wages slightly higher. However, a recent study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition says an American needs a salary double that amount to afford a small apartment.
Conditions are more serious in Los Angeles than in much of the country, according to Jan Breidenbach, director of the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing. "Los Angeles County is the low-wage capital of the United States," he said. "We have a larger proportion of minimum-wage and low-wage workers than any other county in the United States. And one of the things we find is that although... minimum wage is used for teenagers, it is [also] used for an entry-level job. In some cases, you have tens of thousands of people, between 10 and 15 percent of the full-time permanent working force in Los Angeles, is living on the minimum wage."
Two reasons for the high number of low-wage jobs in Los Angeles: The city has a large service sector, made up of hotels, restaurants and other small businesses that pay low wages. Los Angeles also has a large pool of immigrants who lack the skills to find better-paid employment.
Jose Portillo lives in the Pico-Union district, an inner-city neighborhood made up of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. He works in downtown Los Angeles as a janitor and belongs to the service employees union, which recently won concessions from employers. Those businesses now provide health benefits for their workers. But union officials say a janitor's wages of $8 or $9 per hour are still too low to support a family in Los Angeles.
Mr. Portillo addressed reporters in front of the building where he has lived for 11 years. He pays rent of $550 per month, about half the average rent for a small Los Angeles apartment. A tour of the building shows why. A fire escape exit is blocked, there are rats and mice in the building, and garbage is piled high in the rear alley.
Some low-wage workers cope with the high cost of housing by doubling up, with two or more families living in a single house or apartment. Others work at several jobs to make ends meet.
A coalition of local organizations says the gap between wages and the actual cost of housing has grown too wide. Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony co-chairs the coalition. He talked about the problem, speaking in English and Spanish, as he stood in front of Mr. Portillo's apartment building. He said the minimum wage is not enough to earn a living, to pay for decent housing or raise a family.
Efforts in Congress and state legislatures to raise the minimum wage face opposition. Business groups say the move would raise operating costs for restaurants and small businesses, putting some of them out of business and costing the jobs of workers.
Members of the affordable-housing coalition say the minimum wage, at the very least, should be tied to the rate of inflation. They say that would prevent it from falling so far behind the actual cost of living.
According to Los Angeles city councilman Eric Garcetti, the lack of affordable housing has now become a crisis, which the new mayor, James Hahn, and other city officials are addressing. Mr. Garcetti, who is acting chairman of the Los Angeles city council housing committee, said, "We must connect jobs and housing, wages and the place that people live. And we must ask everybody here to be part of the solution."
Los Angeles officials have proposed a fund of $100 million to expand low-income housing, and are looking for ways to finance the program. The money would renovate tenements, build new housing units, and provide subsidies for low-income renters and homeowners.
Housing activist Jan Breidenbach also wants to see an expanded role for the federal government, which is this year spending $30 billion to subsidize low-income housing through grants and subsidies to local communities. There is some support for that proposal in Congress, but mixed support for another proposal, to increase the federal minimum wage. While many Democrats support an increase, most Republicans and business groups oppose it, saying the move would hurt an already-slow economy.
Photos by Mike O'Sullivan, VOA.