Many Utah workers must stretch to afford a two-bedroom apartment

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A man on the balcony of a Salt Lake City apartment, as seen Tuesday, April 21, 2020. A new report highlights the wide gap in Utah and the U.S. between average wages and housing costs.

Large numbers of Utah workers can’t afford to rent a modest two-bedroom apartment on one paycheck at going market rates, a new report says.

In a yearly analysis of the wide chasm between average wages and going rents in the country, the Beehive State now ranks near the middle of U.S. states for a lack of affordable places to live. The situation has been made more dire, advocates said, by the pandemic.

The Out of Reach 2020 report, published Tuesday by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, pegs rent on a two-bedroom apartment in Utah at $1,031 per month these days. That means an average renter would have to earn at least $19.83 per hour to be able to move in and not spend more than 30% of their incomes on housing.

That’s equivalent to working 109 hours each week at minimum wage. The cost of an average one-bedroom, according to the report, would mean at least a 90-hour work week — and that doesn’t include an array of fees that landlords typically charge on top of rent.

In Salt Lake City, where monthly rents are higher, a person would need to earn $22.62 per hour to afford the same two bedroom place, the report says. In the Ogden-Clearfield area, the hourly wage would have to be $19.69, while in the tourism-centered counties of Summit and Wasatch, a person would need to earn $24.15 and $21.15, respectively.

Nationally, the report found housing costs were furthest out of reach in Hawaii, California, Massachusetts and New York, where a two-bedroom apartment requires an hourly wage of $38.76, $36.96, $35.52 and $32.53, respectively.

On the other end, Kentucky, West Virginia, Mississippi and Arkansas had the most affordable housing, the report found, with a two-bedroom requiring an hourly wage of $14.99, $14.97, $14.89 and $14.19, respectively.

The Out of Reach 2020 report, in fact, found few places in the country where average renters could afford a home without spending so much of their incomes they would be forced to sacrifice on other necessities such as food or medical care.

That ongoing plight for low-wage workers has been further underscored during the coronavirus crisis, particularly for those holding what are deemed as essential jobs — grocery clerks, medical workers, nursing home aides and others, according to Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition.

“These are the people we depend on,” Rollins said Tuesday. “Why aren’t we paying them a wage that they can afford to live in a community?”

Rollins and others also noted that COVID-19 has underscored how vital stable shelter is to health and safety, education and even employment for those who can work from home. But right now, “people can’t afford housing,” she said.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the report was being released just as “the coronavirus has so deeply impacted job security and housing across the country and certainly here in Utah and Salt Lake City.”

Demand for housing assistance has increase dramatically since mid-March, when the coronavirus began to upend life in Utah. Patrice Dickson, COO of social services with the nonprofit Utah Community Action, said many disadvantaged residents have seen job losses and pay cuts even as their medical costs and needs for child care have increased.

More Utah landlords are moving to month-to-month leases, leaving many tenants more vulnerable to having to move at short notice, Dickson said. Waiting lists for subsidized apartments are long and growing, she said, and extra fees in addition to rent — for items such as parking, pets, mobile home lots, rental applications, holding fees and more —are also increasingly common.

Rents overall continue to rise as well, leaving seniors and others on fixed incomes in particular, Dickson said, “often not able to stay up with payments and struggling to find affordable units to match their incomes.”

And as evidence of pent-up housing demand on the Wasatch Front, those rent hikes have steadily continued as the effects of COVID-19 have started to weaken other parts of the economy, said Michelle Flynn, executive director at the Road Home, which operates two homeless resource centers in Salt Lake County.

“This is unusual in an economic downturn that we haven’t seen a loosening of the rental market,” Flynn said. “We are feeling the impact.”

Mendenhall highlighted the city’s latest strategies for offering incentives to developers to build more affordable housing in more affluent neighborhoods, where the economic opportunity for residents is thought to be greater. She also called for so-called “inclusionary zoning” along some of the city’s transit corridors, mandating that a certain share of new construction be kept affordable.