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Oct. 6, 2022

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Washington tenants need to work 72 hours a week at minimum wage to afford rent

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Significant increases to Washington’s minimum wage have not been enough to offset rising rent prices for scores of workers across the state.

A minimum-wage worker in Washington would need to work 72 hours each week to afford a typical one-bedroom apartment. In King and Snohomish counties, that stretches past 90 hours a week.

The figures, calculated each year by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, highlight how difficult it can be to budget for Washington’s rising rents. That’s true even as workers have new leverage in the job market, and even for those making far beyond Washington’s $14.49 minimum wage.

To afford a two-bedroom apartment in the Seattle-Bellevue area, an hourly worker would need to make about $39 an hour, or roughly $81,000 a year, according to the report.

That’s more than twice Seattle’s current minimum wage of $17.27 for large employers. It’s also higher than the $36 an hour the average renter in the area makes, according to the coalition’s report.

In Snohomish County, the average renter makes about $22 an hour, but would need to make $33 to afford a one-bedroom and $39 to afford a two-bedroom. In Kitsap County, the average renter makes about $8 less than needed for a one-bedroom and $16 less than for a two-bedroom.

The analysis uses a common threshold for “affording” a home: Housing costs should take up no more than 30% of monthly income to leave room for other costs and savings. But that’s impossible for many workers.

Four in 10 renters in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area pay more than 30% of their income for rent, and 1 in 5 spend more than half, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. In Seattle, Black, Native American and Pacific Islander renters are to spend a higher share of their income on rent, according to a city analysis last year.

All of that adds up to tighter budgets with less room for an unexpected car repair, medical expense or missed days at work.

“Because people’s budgets are so tight, just one little thing throws it all off and they’re at risk of homelessness,” said Theresa Curry Almuti, homelessness prevention manager at the nonprofit Solid Ground, which counsels tenants who need help with rent.

Add to that rising rents, especially outside of Seattle.

Spokane rents are up 37% since the start of the pandemic, compared to 6.5% in Seattle, according to Apartment List. Rents are up 30% in Auburn, 27% in Everett and 24% in Kent.

Renters flocked to the suburbs out of either desire or necessity early in the pandemic, driving prices up, said Rob Warnock, a researcher at the rental site Apartment List.

“Prices are going up quickly. Vacancy rates are still pretty low. All of the momentum is still in the direction of rent prices going up,” Warnock said.

All of that can make it feel impossible to spend only a third of income on rent, even for tenants making well beyond minimum wage.

When Terrilyn Johnson was looking for a one-bedroom apartment last spring, she thought she would have options.

Johnson is the co-owner of a Seattle underground tour company, made a $50,000 salary at the time and had good credit and years of good rental history. But prices were higher than she expected. And one requirement appeared over and over: She needed to prove she earned three times the monthly rent.

“I was just meeting that mark. In some cases, I was going to miss it by like $100,” she said.

She landed a small $1,400 one-bedroom near Green Lake after she wrote to the building owner about her situation. Now, she wonders what would happen if the owner sold the building.

“How much rent am I going to have to pay now for something comparable?” she said.

Rent estimates like those used by the National Low Income Housing Coalition are still below the costs renters would encounter at newly constructed apartment buildings, said Warnock, from Apartment List.

“It’s a dire situation, even if we have this more conservative way of looking at the cost of housing,” he said.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition report calls on federal officials to spend more on affordable housing construction and preservation, expand rental assistance and legal assistance for renters, and pass more protections against mold, pests and other housing issues.

Johnson has rented since moving to Seattle in the 1990s and doesn’t see herself being able to change that anytime soon.

“I rent because I liked it initially, not having to pay for appliances,” she said. “And then by the time I entertained the idea of buying a home, I couldn’t afford one in Seattle.”

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