Few events in history highlight as clearly as the COVID-19 public health crisis that housing is healthcare. Governments at all levels have told residents to stay home. Not everyone, unfortunately, is stably housed in a safe and adequate environment, and government action to help secure that environment is both morally vital and prudent from a public-health standpoint. In the first six months of 2020, the economic situation for low-wage workers has precipitously worsened: in June the Department of Labor reported that over 34 million people were receiving or had applied for unemployment insurance. More than half of all low-income households experienced job or income loss because of the pandemic. Many low-wage workers could not afford their housing before the crisis, and they will need even more help now.
A full-time worker needs to earn an hourly wage of $23.96 on average to afford a modest, two-bedroom rental home in the U.S. This Housing Wage for a two-bedroom home is $16.71 higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25, and $5.74 higher than the national average hourly wage of $18.22 earned by renters. In 11 states and the District of Columbia, the two-bedroom Housing Wage is more than $25.00 per hour.
Renters with the lowest incomes face the greatest challenge in finding affordable housing. The average minimum wage worker must work nearly 97 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom rental home or 79 hours per week to afford a one-bedroom rental home at the average fair market rent. In no state can a person working full-time at the federal minimum wage afford a two-bedroom apartment at the Fair Market Rent. In only 145 counties can a full-time worker earning the minimum wage afford a one-bedroom rental home at the Fair Market Rent.
In most areas of the U.S., a family of four with poverty-level income earns no more than $26,200 and can afford monthly rent of no more than $655. The national average fair market rent for a one-bedroom home is $1,017 per month and $1,246 for a two-bedroom home, far from affordable for a family in poverty.
Minimum wage workers are not the only workers who struggle to pay the rent. The two-bedroom housing wage of $23.96 is more than what 60% of all wage and salary workers earn. The median hourly wage of $19.68 is just barely sufficient to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and nearly half of all workers earn less than that.