Eye On Illinois: Affordable housing getting further out of reach

To no one’s surprise, the problems with affordable housing aren’t getting much better.

In April, I examined the shortage of housing units predating the arrival of COVID-19. Then the math showed one person would need to earn $21.31 an hour working 40 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom rental at the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair market rate.

Last Wednesday, the National Low Income Housing Coalition and Housing Action Illinois released an annual report putting that hourly figure at $22.11.

If that difference of 80 cents an hour seems insignificant, you’re probably pretty far removed from your last minimum-wage job.

The current statewide minimum wage is $11. The two housing organizations said it takes 68 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment and 80 hours – two full-time jobs – for a two-bedroom place. In places where the minimum wage is higher, so is the “housing wage.” The groups cited the example of the $15 minimum wage in Chicago and $13 in the rest of Cook County, where the housing wage is $24.98. The smallest housing wage in the state is $13.46.

Housing Action Illinois Policy Director Bob Palmer said Illinois lawmakers deserve credit for appropriating $114 million in federal funding toward housing needs, but noted it’s only part of the solution.

“The federal funds committed by the Illinois General Assembly will help address the emergency needs created by the pandemic,” Palmer said in last week’s release. “However, we need bold federal action to truly address the need for affordable housing for people with the lowest incomes.”

Also this spring lawmakers negotiated House Bill 3123 and Senate Bill 2445, both named the Build Illinois Homes Tax Credit Act, with mechanisms to incentivize owners of qualified developments. The Senate version goes further by creating tax exemptions for building materials for new construction or renovations on a project where 100% of the units are set aside as affordable housing.

That’s all good news for developers, but it doesn’t do anything to sway local zoning boards that might prefer single-family homes that generate big property tax bills and bring in residents with lots of discretionary income to infuse into the local economy.

And while the debate over the nature of the minimum wage remains unsettled, to say nothing of current unemployment rates and arguments about whether increased assistance suppresses the labor market, consider people living with disabilities who rely on Supplemental Social Security, which tops out at $794 per month. What could you rent in your town for that much?

The nationwide numbers are at reports.nlhic.org/oor. More housing stock, better wages and federal assistance all help, but the most important factor might be widespread understanding of how many people need better options.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.