Talk of the Town: The Low-Wage Recovery

According to a report from the National Employment Law Project released this week, most of the jobs added during the recovery from the Great Recession have been low-wage jobs, even though the majority of those lost were middle-wage jobs.

According to the report, the fastest growing occupations between the first quarter of 2010 and the first quarter of this year were retail sales and food preparation. While the average hourly wage for retail is $10.97, and the average hourly wage for food prep is $9.04, the Housing Wage- the amount a household must earn, working full time, to afford rent and utilities on a modest 2-bedroom apartment- is $18.25. As our report, Out of Reach 2012: America’s Forgotten Housing Crisis, demonstrated, those low wages are simply not enough to cover the cost of housing without scrimping on basic necessities like food and medicine.

The New York Times story on the report also mentions the ongoing polarization of the U.S. labor market, wherein job growth happens in both highly specialized-and high-paying- technical fields, and in low-paying, low-skilled jobs like the low-wage jobs cited in the NELP study. If this trend continues, it will mean an ever-growing gap between those who can easily afford housing, and those who can barely keep a roof overhead.

How do you think we can solve the housing problems of these low-wage workers? Is there a way to put a stop to the polarization of the labor market? What have you heard the presidential candidates, or other candidates for elected office in your community, say about these issues? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

News Round-Up: Housing Disasters, Natural and Man-Made

In this week’s News Round-Up, we find news stories showing that both natural disasters, and the disastrous economy, have combined with the nationwide shortage of rental housing affordable to low income people to create a crisis for many American families.

In Vermont, manufactured home park residents whose homes were flooded during Hurricane Irene had no other choice but to destroy their own homes, as repair was impossible and the fee to dispose of them was more than the residents could afford. In a state with the second lowest rental vacancy rates and the seventh highest rents, these former homeowners will have a tough time finding a place they can afford. They will also find themselves in competition with other low income families for scarce affordable rental opportunities. As the need grows, service providers have difficulty stretching the state and federal funding available to them, and must cobble together donations and other resources to help their clients.

Franklin County, Pennsylvania’s shelter system is under stress due to the poor economy and lack of housing affordable to low income people. Waiting lists for vouchers and public housing mean the shelters stay full.

We find a similar story in Indiana, where the minimum and low wage jobs available pay nowhere near the $17.84 Housing Wage there. Service providers say they’re seeing an increase in homeless families in particular.

Advocates in the Spotlight: Michael Dahl

Many people, from staff and board members to conference attendees and members, work with the Coalition to help us achieve our mission. “Advocates in the Spotlight” celebrates different types of advocates, from people in the field to those behind-the-scenes working in our office every day. We continue this series by interviewing an advocate who has been doing a lot of spotlighting of his own, Michael Dahl of St. Paul, Minnesota.

As part of his “Talk About Home” project, Michael has been interviewing a wide range of pedestrians walking around the Twin Cities about the meaning of home and their response to the extreme levels of homelessness in their state. Videos of the interviews are posted on his website, which he hopes help make affordable housing and ending homelessness major issues during the 2012 election.

Our Communications Project Manager Sarah Brundage recently got Michael to take some time off from interviewing people on the streets of Minnesota, and got him on the other end of the camera to ask him a few questions of her own about his hands-on advocacy work.

The man behind the camera

SB: “Talk about Home” is a really exciting and engaging project. What does advocacy mean to you and how did your personal experience of advocacy inspire this idea?

MD: Advocacy has always been my thing and my drive has been to work on affordable housing issues. My advocacy has also been very drawn to being participatory…. We’re not going to get major change on issues unless we involve the public in a way we’re not doing right now. The reason we’re not doing that is because [we think] housing is so confusing and people won’t understand what we’re talking about. I wanted to put that to test and so I started thinking about what would happen if I went out and interviewed people.

When I started interviewing individuals it was beautiful in some ways; in other ways it was heart wrenching. I just decided to keep that up, and hopefully learn some lessons that I could teach advocates about how to communicate with people about housing in a way that they can understand it.

And while people do talk about housing differently, when they talk about affordable housing and homelessness they have a really good sense of it. People might not use the same words that we use but they know how to make sense of the problem.

SB: We were excited to see that you had used data from NLIHC’s annual Out of Reach report to help introduce this project on your website. You referenced Minnesota’s Housing Wage of $15.50 to show how low-wage workers cannot afford to live in that state. As a long-time affordable housing advocate, what role has Out of Reach has played in your advocacy work?

MD: Ever since I’ve been aware of Out of Reach I’ve been using it, and I’ve been using it a lot. It’s a really simple way to talk to anybody – whether it’s people on the streets, people living in housing or politicians – they understand that someone has to work to afford housing in most cases, and that full-time work often doesn’t pay for what we would consider quality housing.

SB: Unfortunately the state of affordable housing as described by Out of Reach has not improved much over the years. Do the report and the Housing Wage still surprise you?

MD: In some respects it’s what I’ve grown to expect since the numbers haven’t changed dramatically over the past few years. Even though they’re not headed in a good direction, I want to know that we’re not moving the ball forward enough right now, and that we need policies to do that. The Out of Reach report is a really good indicator of, “Are our policies being effective or not?”

The reason we’re not being effective enough isn’t because we don’t know how to do policy or because we don’t have answers or because we haven’t gotten politicians to pay enough attention to what the solutions are so far…. They key to getting politicians to pay attention is to not have just me talking about affordable housing, homelessness and Out of Reach data, it’s to have the public talking about it.

Two or three times a week, Michael “panhandles” for videotaped interviews about the meaning of “home”. While most of those interviewed are from Minnesota, he’s also talked to people from at least a dozen other states as well as visitors from Britain, Venezuela, and Costa Rica.

SB: You have interviewed over 100 individuals already. What would you say is the greatest take-away?

MD: I have people identify what they think about home and do they have particular memories, and it doesn’t matter if the person is well off, has an intact family or is homeless, I’d say 98% of them identify home as something they really love. We have this common good feeling about home, and when I ask people about those memories and I get them to think about the bigger issue they start to think, “What would it be like if I didn’t have this security, that place to go to, if I never cooked with mom, what happened if I lived in a car?” I’ve seen people grappling with the fact that what they have if they’re doing okay right now is not something that a lot of people have and it’s getting worse. And if they’re homeless, they still realize how important stability is, and how they’re not able to get out of their homeless situation because of the lack of stability.

So my advice, my punch line, the thing I want to get to for advocates and politicians that care about housing issues is… we’re still going to have to use the acronyms and the legislative speech in certain circles, but if we want to get the public behind us on a major policy initiative, we need to talk about how people can’t rely on home as a place of safety, as a place to go back to. Those are important things to people and a lot of folks don’t have it.

I hope that we find a way to talk about this in ways that really resonate with the public because as the interviews show, they’re ready to talk about this. They understand it.

Click on the image to watch one of Michael’s favorite interviews featuring Timothy, a man experiencing homelessness who gave an “extremely thoughtful and empathetic interview.”

Watch more interviews at and stay tuned for tips from Michael on how you can start your own “Talk About Home” project locally, coming soon!

News Round-Up: Desperate Times, Inadequate Measures

Evidence has been mounting for decades that there exists in the United States an extreme shortage of rental housing affordable to the lowest income Americans. What those with influence choose to do about this situation is another matter.

The Los Angeles Times and the Huffington Post reported last week that a Los Angeles landlord took advantage of that city’s demand for low-cost rental housing by subdividing a triplex into 44 separate apartments. While housing this substandard is illegal, and criminal charges have been filed, as Huffington Post notes it is no surprise that demand exist for this kind of living situation, when the national Housing Wage is $18.25.

Presumably, those Los Angeles renters must now move to new apartments. As reported by Affordable Housing Finance and in Memo to Members, a recent study from the Brookings Institution and First Focus shows that switching schools due to a move is detrimental to a child’s education, as well as to her physical and mental health. The report recommends funding the National Housing Trust Fund, as well as increasing funding for HUD’s voucher, public housing, and project-based rental assistance programs.

How will Congressional appropriators address this issue? The House passed its FY13 budget for HUD on Friday with inadequate funding for key programs serving low income people. According to Coalition president Sheila Crowley, in spite of the efforts of a few Representatives to introduce helpful amendments to the bill,

“The U.S. House of Representatives broke faith with many thousands of the poorest, most vulnerable Americans who are served by the programs of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Housing assistance is not an abstraction. Real people, the majority of whom are elderly or disabled, will lose their homes if these cuts are enacted. And turning the clock back on fair housing shows that the House is out-of-step with 21st century American values.”

It might be some time before the FY13 budget is decided; the Senate has yet to weigh in with its own appropriations bills.

New Issue of Tenant Talk Available

Where can advocates get a refresher on the FY13 budget process for housing programs, a summary of important facts from Out of Reach and Housing Spotlight, an update on minimum rents and the Moving to Work demonstration program, and a review of NLIHC’s 2012 conference and new website? The answer is in the most recent issue of Tenant Talk, NLIHC’s quarterly newsletter for tenants, renters and residents that engages low income people in housing advocacy!

This issue also includes a section where readers can write questions into Tenant Talk; here is an excerpt:

Dear Tenant Talk,

NLIHC’s new website looks great! Is there still a way that I can use it to find out information on my federal representatives?

C.H., Richmond, VA

Dear C.H.,

Absolutely. As with our old site, you can type in your zip code in the section titled “Contact Congress” to immediately find out who your elected officials are and how you can reach them. Now “Contact Congress” is located on the right hand side of every page on the site. Just above that on the website, you’ll see a box where you can sign up to take action. By sharing your contact information with us, you’ll receive our Calls to Action, which alert you to the ways you can advocate on a range of housing issues. We hope you’ll explore our new website even further! You’ll find housing policy fact sheets, our most recent research, information about how to become an NLIHC member, and more!

In case you aren’t one of the thousands of individuals who already receive Tenant Talk in your mailbox or e-mail inbox, getting it delivered directly to you is easy! Just e-mail with your contact information.

In the mean time, we hope you check out the Spring 2012 issue, available online here.