The gap between what workers earn and what they need to pay for housing is rapidly increasing, and according to a recent report, Connecticut has one of the least affordable housing markets in the country.

As housing costs increase faster than wages, decent, modest housing is increasingly out of reach for millions of Americans, a report released Monday by the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows.

The national housing wage for 2003 is $15.21 an hour, or $31,637 a year – almost three times the federal minimum wage – according to the report, titled “Out of Reach: 2003.” The housing wage is the amount a person working full-time has to earn to afford a two-bedroom rental unit at fair market rent while paying no more than 30 percent of income in rent.

The “Out of Reach: 2003” report calculates the housing wage for every state, region and county in the United States.

While Massachusetts and California topped the list with hourly housing wages of $22.40 and $21.18 respectively, Connecticut came in with the sixth-highest housing wage at $18 an hour. However, Connecticut also saw the fifth-largest increase from last year at 5.7 percent.

The least affordable metropolitan statistical areas and their housing wages are San Jose, Calif., at $35.02 an hour; San Francisco, at $34.13 an hour; and Stamford-Norwalk, with a housing wage of $28.71 an hour.

‘Difficult’ Search

In Connecticut, the report finds that 50 percent of the state’s renters cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. The generally accepted standard for housing affordability is that a household pay no more than 30 percent of its gross income for housing costs.

“The widening gap between the cost of housing and household income is taking its toll on families and communities throughout Connecticut. The ability to find and maintain decent, affordable housing in Connecticut is slipping out of too many peoples’ hands,” said Lynne Ide, associate director of the Connecticut Housing Coalition.

According to the report, a Connecticut household needs to earn $37,438 annually to put a family into a two-bedroom apartment. It also notes that a single parent in Connecticut making only the minimum wage of $6.90 an hour would have to work 104 hours a week, or the equivalent two-and-a-half full-time jobs, in order to afford a place to live with two bedrooms.

The state’s combined non-metropolitan areas ranked the fourth most expensive in the country, with a two-bedroom housing wage of $15.87 an hour.

For 2003, housing costs continue to rise faster than wages and the cost of other goods. The national housing wage increased by 3.7 percent between 2002 and 2003, while inflation was 2.1 percent. According to the Economic Policy Institute, real median earnings have fallen throughout much of 2002 and 2003.

The housing wage has increased 37 percent since 1999, when a person had to earn $11.08 an hour to afford fair market rent on a national basis.

“Finding housing is very difficult, and it ranges in difficulty depending on the particular part of the state in which a person is looking for an apartment,” said Ide. She reports that even the lowest housing wages are twice the minimum wage.

“You either need to work two jobs or have two incomes in the household,” she said.

The way this scenario is playing itself out in Connecticut is through an increase in homelessness.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in homelessness in the state in last two to three years – shelters are oversubscribed, and shelters that previously saw fewer people in the warmer months are now full to capacity, particularly in family shelters where people have jobs,” said Ide.

“We also are seeing a trend in parts of the state where there is inadequate housing. There aren’t enough units so the market is tight, particularly in the southeastern part of the state, which has traditionally been an affordable part,” she added.

With the growth of the Native American casinos in the southeastern corner of Connecticut has come an influx of workers from both in and out of state. So far, the area hasn’t been able to keep up on the housing end, and the market has been unable to absorb all the new renters. Ide explained that some areas have resorted to “hot bedding,” a situation in which renters trade off beds during opposite shifts, so in essence the beds are never empty.

Ide noted that the governor convened a bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on Affordable Housing in 1999, and that group’s assessment of the housing market estimated there was a shortfall of about 68,000 units in the state.

“The private market is building units in Connecticut, but most of them aren’t market rate. If your income is 50 percent of the median income or below, you aren’t going to have many choices,” she said.

That has led to a trend of people spending significantly more than the federally prescribed limit of 30 percent of their income on housing. Increased competition and limited stock have led renters to pay higher rents in order to compete. For example, because the Stamford-Norwalk area is so expensive, workers in that labor market have moved up the coastline to Bridgeport, which saw an 11.1 percent increase in its housing wage over the past year.

“There is increased competition going on, and landlords are able to raise rents because the market will support it,” said Ide.

Housing costs are especially acute for families earning wages in the services sector, which continues to represent a fast-growing portion of the national economy. The average income earned by families with extremely low incomes, or those at 30 percent or below of their area’s median income, is $8.34 an hour, yet there is no state in which an extremely low-income household can afford the fair market rent on a two-bedroom home.

The report also highlights the inadequacy of the federal minimum wage, which has been $5.15 an hour since 1997. Renter households in 40 states – home to almost 90 percent of all renter households in the nation – face a housing wage of more than twice the prevailing minimum wage. Eleven states have housing wages more than three times the minimum wage.

“It is appalling that here in America, the richest country in the world, we have millions of people working full-time, plus seniors and people with disabilities, who cannot afford decent, modest rental housing,” said NLIHC President Sheila Crowley. “‘Out of Reach’ clearly establishes that there is a gap between what people earn and what housing costs. It is time to make the housing crisis a priority and solve this problem once and for all.”

“Housing is the backbone of the American economy and the linchpin of stable family and community life,” wrote Reps. Robert Ney, R-Ohio, and Maxine Waters, D-Calif., chairman and ranking member respectively of the Housing and Community Opportunity Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee, in the preface of the report. “But for growing numbers of families and individuals, this foundation of family well-being is out of reach … As ‘Out of Reach’ reveals, not a single community is spared the challenge of housing problems for some of its members.”

According to “Out of Reach: 2003,” the least affordable states and their housing wages after Massachusetts and California are New Jersey, with a wage of $19.74; New York, at $18.87; Maryland, at $18.85; Connecticut, at $18; Hawaii, at $17.02; Alaska, at $16.75; New Hampshire, at $16.49; and Colorado, at $16.29.

The states with the largest annual increases in their housing wages are Maryland, with an increase of 12.09 percent; Virginia, 9.07 percent; California, 7.59 percent; Massachusetts, 5.92 percent; Connecticut, 5.7 percent; New Jersey, 4.73 percent; New Hampshire, 4.57 percent; Arizona, 3.52 percent; Minnesota, 3.52 percent; and New York, 3.48 percent.

“There is good news. All around Connecticut, community nonprofits are building affordable housing that is high-quality, low-cost and well managed,” said Jeffrey Freiser, executive director of the Connecticut Housing Coalition. “There have been real success stories, we just need to multiply these successes through increased state and federal investment in housing. This report, we hope, will provide added impetus for our public officials.”

The Connecticut Housing Coalition, which is releasing “Out of Reach” in the state, provides education and advocacy on housing issues. Its membership includes over 250 organizations across Connecticut concerned about affordable housing, including nonprofit development corporations, social service agencies, resident associations and other housing advocates and providers.