By now, you’ve seen Out of Reach, our annual research report on renter rages and market rents. Today, we’re taking a look inside the report with Elina Bravve, NLIHC’s Research Analyst and lead researcher on the report this year. We hope Elina can answer some of your questions about why the data is important and how it can be used. 

Why is Out of Reach an important publication for housing advocates?

Out of Reach provides a look at the gap between wages people need to earn to afford rents and the actual wages people earn, at the local level. The report demonstrates that the great need for affordable housing is not unique to major cities or a particular region of the country – it is a problem felt everywhere, from suburban Chicago to rural North Dakota to Los Angeles.

The report also addresses two important questions. First, how much does a household need to earn to be able to afford an apartment in their community, while staying within their budget? Secondly, at the prevailing wages being paid in any particular community, is a typical full time job going to be enough to provide a family to afford a decent apartment? This year, the answer is resoundingly “no”:  in nearly every city, state and metropolitan area, the cost of housing is too much for many families to bear.

Much of the publication focuses on the Housing Wage.  Can you explain what this is, and why it is the focal point of all the data available in Out of Reach?

The Housing Wage is a measure of what one must earn to afford rent and utility costs on a modest two bedroom apartment in their community. We provide this figure for every county, metropolitan area, combined nonmetropolitan area and state in the United States, and for different sized units.

As an example, the Housing Wage in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area is $28.96.  A renter that earns less than $28.96 an hour, or one who works fewer than 40 hours per week, will have a difficult time finding an affordable apartment to rent in the region.

Renters making less than this hourly wage have a variety of coping mechanisms; they might share housing with family members or friends, or they might just spend more of their incomes on housing costs. The latter approach is common, but leaves families in a precarious position. They are often just one health emergency or broken-down car away from a real financial crisis.

Did anything shock you as you looked over the data for the report this year?

One thing that stands out to me is that extremely low income families have it very tough when seeking housing.  This year, nationally, an extremely low income household earns about $20,000 a year.  At this income level, a family can afford to spend about $505 on rent each month.  This is according to the generally accepted standard  that a household should only spend about 30% of their income on rent and utilities, in order to be able to afford to pay all their other bills.  Yet, as the Out of Reach data shows, there are very few places in the United States where a unit costing $505 a month can be found.

With other recent NLIHC research showing that one out every four renters is extremely low income, this suggests to me that a large proportion of our renter population is really struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

What is the most important take away from Out of Reach 2012? And, how can advocates best use the research found in Out of Reach to make the case for affordable housing?

I think that the most important take away is that for many families, finding or holding onto a full time job is not a guarantee that affordable housing will be within their grasp.

First, many full time workers are paid such low wages that they can’t afford to actually live in the community where they earn their living. Second, the supply of affordable apartments is extremely limited, and subsidized housing is extremely hard to gain access to due to the great demand for affordable rental housing nationwide. Waitlists for public housing or vouchers are closed in many communities, and those lucky enough to get on these lists face years of waiting.

Out of Reach shows us each year that there is a true need for expanding the supply of affordable housing, especially housing targeted towards the lowest income families – who are simply unable to get by on the wages they earn each month.

What do you think of Out of Reach? How do  you plan to use it in your advocacy? Let us know in the comments.