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Low-income wage earners, many of whom have served as essential workers during the pandemic, would have to work more than one job to afford their rental apartments and some could lose their homes once eviction restraints are lifted, a national study released Tuesday found.
A worker earning the federal or prevailing state or local minimum wage anywhere in the United States cannot afford an average two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent by working a standard 40-hour work week, according to the annual National Low Income Housing Coalition study based on the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau and other government sources. Those workers, especially Blacks, tend to be in grocery stores and other frontline positions during the pandemic.
In Maine, where the average low-income renter wage is $12.34 per hour, a renter must work 66 hours per week or about one-and-one-half jobs to afford a two-bedroom rental home at fair market value, the survey found. That ranks the state 11th nationally in terms of having a large gap between income and wages. All other New England states except Rhode Island rank in the Top 10 states having large gaps.
“These days everything is even more tenuous given the earned income that people have lost and the struggle they are going through to keep up with the rent,” said Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.
In Portland alone, he said, a two-bedroom apartment is $1,516 at fair market value, while the average renter earns $14.83 per hour, far less than the $29.15 per hour needed to afford a living space if rental costs take up 30 percent of income. That’s the 42nd highest two-bedroom housing wage required of the 657 metropolitan areas in the country, according to the national report.
The York-Kittery-South Berwick area of the state came in second behind Portland as most expensive in the state, with a worker needing to make $25.52 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment, according to the national report.
In Bangor, the wage needed to afford that apartment is $18.13 per hour, or one-and-one-half full time jobs, for a $943 per month apartment. Throughout Penobscot County, a renter would have to make $15.60 per hour or one-and-one-third jobs to afford an apartment costing $811 per month.
Many renters have had their hours reduced or even lost their jobs during the pandemic, but they still are continuing to pay rent, according to the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition’s own recent study of 31 Portland-area rental households. It plans to increase the study to other areas of the state and check in on respondents once a month.
“People have lost earned income so they’re cobbling together a lot of resources including unemployment, savings, social security and stimulus payments,” Payne said, adding that is true throughout the country. “A lot are skipping bills to accomplish that, especially internet bills.” Half of households in June also needed food assistance, which allowed them to redirect those funds towards rent.
“It’s either pay the rent or eat,” one respondent answered on the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition’s survey. “I’m skipping laundry this pay period in order to pay AT&T and trying to sell whatever I don’t use anymore from the house.”
Looming on the horizon is the moratorium on evictions, which ends Aug. 3, he said. Gov. Janet Mills protected tenants from eviction if they couldn’t pay rent because of the pandemic in an executive order issued in April.
“We already were dealing with a crisis before the pandemic,” said Payne of the high housing costs in the state. “COVID threatens to put a lot of people at risk of eviction.”