Rent expense in Md. rated fifth-highest

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maryland is the fifth-most-expensive state in which to rent a home, and rental costs rose faster here over the past year than in any other state, according to a study released yesterday by a low-income housing advocacy group.

The report looked at the wages people would need to rent a market-rate home without spending more than 30 percent of their income, the federal definition of "affordable housing."

Nationally, a two-bedroom unit is affordable for someone earning at least $15.21 an hour, the study asserts. In Maryland, it takes a salary of nearly $19 an hour - or about $40,000 a year - to afford the same unit.

That's a 12 percent increase from last year, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which produced the report.

A Maryland worker earning minimum wage would need to work nearly every hour of every day to cover the cost of a two-bedroom apartment with 30 percent of their income.

"What happens when you can't afford a place to live? It means that you're spending way more of your income than you should be on your housing, and you can't afford other basic things," said Sheila Crowley, president of the coalition.

She said the problem is a combination of too little residential development, subsidized units being converted to fair market rentals and sharply declining federal spending for cheaper homes.

"Housing costs go up because there's a demand for housing without a sufficient supply," Crowley said. "It seems to be particularly acute in this area."

Virginia saw the second-highest increase in rental costs for a two-bedroom unit, according to the study - about 9 percent over the past year.

Massachusetts ranked first in overall rental expenses, followed by California, New Jersey and New York.

Not surprisingly, the most expensive rentals in Maryland are clustered around Washington.

According to the study, residents living in Montgomery, Frederick, Charles and Calvert counties need to make more than $48,000 a year to keep housing costs from rising above 30 percent of their salaries.

The report follows the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of "market rate" - at or near the middle of an area's range of rental costs.

Leslie Mooney, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, said state leaders realize there's a problem. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. recently appointed 21 people to a new Commission on Housing Policy, which will recommend ways to increase and retain affordable housing in the state, she said.

John Greiner, the department's housing policy officer, said more state and federal money is desperately needed to help finance projects. Many developers are interested in building lower-cost housing, he said, but they can't do it without tax credits and subsidies.

"We don't have enough money to give out," he said.

As housing prices skyrocket, people who would normally have bought a home are stuck renting, helping to drive down vacancies and drive up rental prices, Greiner added.

He believes there's not enough development to keep up with the demands of an increasing population, and he blames it in part on the people already ensconced in houses. "Smart Growth got hijacked by no-growth advocates," he said.

James Upchurch, president of Interfaith Housing of Western Maryland, a nonprofit housing developer, said development fees imposed by counties - sometimes with no distinction between mansions and studio apartments - are also driving up the cost of housing.

"In Maryland, what we have is the classic case of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer," he added.

Bart Harvey, chairman and chief executive of the Enterprise Foundation in Columbia, which helps finance affordable housing projects across the country, said the cost of homes is a critical issue for Maryland for reasons beyond individual well-being.

"Lack of affordable housing within a reasonable commuting distance to jobs really hampers the economic development of the state and the counties," he said.

He said suburbs need more lower-income housing - instead of fighting to keep it out - and local leaders need to improve blighted communities. "Most of the affordable housing is in Baltimore City, but it's in areas where people prefer not to live."

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