Working families squeezed by housing costs in state

Washington — Janet and Quan Hightower are middle-income homeowners in Hartford who, like a rising number of working families, are finding it hard to keep up with housing costs. A new study says the Hightower family is one of 137,000 in Connecticut spending at least half their income on housing.

The Hightowers, who have four children living at home, estimate it costs 60 percent of their combined incomes to pay the cost of their mortgage, utilities, insurance and taxes. High housing expenses force the family to cut back on other things.

“It means buying fewer clothes for the children and not being able to do some enjoyable things, like going to the movies,” said Janet Hightower, a call center supervisor. Her husband is a machinist.

Falling home prices have not done anything to help make housing more affordable, according to a new study by the Center for Housing Policy, which found that one in four households like the Hightowers are struggling to pay housing costs.

Housing graphic

Costs outpace income, especially for renters.

The study says households with incomes no greater that 120 percent of median saw their housing costs rise significantly as a share of income between 2008 and 2010. The median annual income for individuals in Connecticut was $53,106 for individuals last year and $103,127 for a four-person household.

The center studied both homeowners and renters, but did not investigate the housing problems of the poor.

It found that nearly one in four working households in the United States — about 24 percent — spent more than half of their income on housing. In Connecticut that figure was 25 percent, up from 23 percent in 2008. The percentage was 25 percent in Massachusetts and 28 percent in New York.

That means that 137,000 of Connecticut’s 555,000 working households are paying at least half their income to put a roof over their heads.

“It’s a wonderful thing owning your own home,” Janet Hightower said. “But living in Connecticut where housing costs are so expensive makes it hard to continue.”

The center’s report, based on U.S. Census figures, showed affordability for moderate-income homeowners was more elusive than for renters.

Jeffrey Lubell, executive director of the Center for Housing Policy, said this is largely the result of a drop in the average hours worked by moderate-income homeowners.

“The data show that homeowners have been hit hard by the housing crisis in more ways than just lost equity,” Lubell said. “Many working homeowners have been laid off or had their hours cut.”

While renters have more flexibility than owners to find lower-cost housing, higher demand for rental properties has also made renting unaffordable for many.

The Hartford-based Partnership for Strong Communities determined the “housing wage” in Connecticut is more than $23 an hour, or about $48,000 a year. That’s what renters would have to earn to afford a typical two-bedroom unit without spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

David Fink, the policy director of the Hartford-based Partnership for Strong Communities, said rental costs in the state rose 45 percent in the past decade, but the income of renters rose just 7 percent.

Fink also said that Connecticut comes in 47th in the nation when it comes to the number of rental units.

“We just don’t have enough rental housing,” Fink said.

The Center for Housing Policy also studied housing affordability in the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the nation.

In the East Hartford-Hartford-West Hartford area, 19 percent of households spent at least 50 percent of their income on housing in 2010.

That’s higher than other metropolitan areas — including Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City and St. Louis. But it’s lower than the most expensive places to live in the United States. Those are Miami, where 43 percent of moderate-income households pay more than half their income for housing, and Los Angeles, where 38 percent do, the study says.

Laura Williams, author of the center’s report, said, “Our goal is to demonstrate to state and local governments that there’s a need for policies that provide affordable housing.”

Fink said Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is on the right track by spending $130 million last year on grants to developers who build affordable housing and proposing another $360 million for that program this year.

“Governor Malloy gets it,” Fink said.