Why America’s Workers Can’t Pay the Rent

Why America’s Workers Can’t Pay the Rent

Hector Cuatepotzo, a waiter at the upscale Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, California, and an active member of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union, lives in a tiny one-bedroom apartment with his wife, Maria, six-year-old daughter, Ashley, and infant, Bryan, who was born last October.

All four sleep in the same small room. Bryan’s crib is nestled in one corner, Ashley’s bed sits in another, and the parents’ bed in another. The sixty-six-unit building, located in a rundown neighborhood in Los Angeles, has no place—inside or outside—for the children to play. Several times Hector has asked the manager not to yell at Ashley for running in the hallways. Hector often has to fix leaky faucets and the toilet himself because the manager claims the handyman is unavailable. Hector also painted the walls and cleaned the carpet himself because the landlord refused to do so. Hector earns about $20,000 a year in salary and tips (about $10 an hour, almost twice the state minimum wage). But with $625 a month in rent and another $80 monthly for gas and electricity, the Cuatepotzo family spends more than 40 percent of its income on housing. Hector works the 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift and travels forty miles a day to work and back because rents are even higher in buildings closer to his job.

Even when Maria was working as a cashier for Pollo Loco, before Bryan was born, the Cuatepotzos had problems paying the rent. Since then, things have gotten worse. The family has received several eviction notices for late payment, though each time Hector persuaded the landlord to let them remain after they borrowed money and paid. After paying for food, gas and car repairs, and other necessities, the family has no money left and is frequently in debt. Thanks to Hector’s union, the family has medical insurance, but it doesn’t include dental coverage. Hector’s thinking about getting a second job, but that would mean he’d hardly ever see his children. Hector, who has worked at the Miramar since he arrived from Mexico ten years ago, would like to own his own home someday. “It’s my dream,” he says. But he can’t imagine how he’ll ever get there when his family lives paycheck to paycheck and can’t put anything away for savings.

Hector is one of a growing number of American workers —even union members—who can’t afford to pay the rent. Despite the strong economy and low unemployment rate, working families face a severe shortage of affordable housing. Wages are rising, but housing costs are spiraling upward even faster. This situation shows that a “rising tide” not only doesn’t lift all boats, instead it raises rents and home prices. Moreover, if income disparities continue to widen, disparities in housing conditions will widen too.

In fact, according to a new study prepared by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, there’s no city in the entire country where a family living on the minimum wage ...