The Star-Ledger

Rents In Jersey Continue To Soar

Minimum-wage Earners Priced Out

The Star-Ledger — Friday, January 7, 2005

Star-Ledger Staff

The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey has climbed to $1,058 a month, putting rental housing far beyond the means of low-income households, according to an annual report released yesterday by a nonprofit housing coalition.

For the second consecutive year, New Jersey remains the most expensive state in the nation for a minimum-wage worker to rent an apartment. Overall, New Jersey ranks behind only California and Massachusetts as the most expensive state in the nation for all renters.

And the problem is getting worse with each passing year, affordable housing advocates say.

According to the report, "Out of Reach," made public yesterday in Trenton by the nonprofit Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, the annual income needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the state is $42,323 -- up from $39,202 two years ago.

That means a household's wage earners would have to make $20.35 per hour -- nearly four times the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour -- to be able to afford the average two-bedroom apartment, based on the federal affordability standard of paying no more than 30 percent of income for housing costs.

In six counties, the report says, an income higher than $42,323 is necessary: $48,400 in Middlesex, Somerset and Hunterdon, $45,280 in Bergen and Passaic, and $44,000 in Hudson.

"Many of the people you and I depend on in our daily lives -- child care workers, cashiers, gas station attendants, nurse's aides, retail workers and security guards -- do not make anywhere near $20 an hour," said Diane Sterner, the housing network's director. "And certainly our most vulnerable citizens on fixed incomes, like the disabled and elderly, do not make $20 an hour."

The activists do not see any quick solution to the problem, but they believe an increase in the state minimum wage to $7.50 an- hour and a hefty increase in the state-funded rental assistance program would be two steps forward. The Fairness Alliance, a coalition of social activists and labor unions, is pushing for the minimum wage hike.

A couple, with each person making minimum wage, would have to put 64 percent of their income toward affording an apartment costing $1,058, according to the report. In New Jersey's wealthiest counties, Middlesex, Somerset and Hunterdon, they would have to expend 73 percent of their income.

If they each made $7.50 an hour, the statewide average would drop to 44 percent, and in Middlesex, Somerset and Hunterdon, 50 percent.

"People working for minimum wage in New Jersey not only cannot afford adequate housing, they cannot even dream about it," said Jon Shure, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a Fairness Alliance member.

There are seven bills pending in the Legislature that propose an increase in the minimum wage. The activists are focusing on S-2065, a measure sponsored by Sens. Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex). The proposal would boost the minimum wage to $7 an-hour and provide future increases to meet inflation; the activists said they intend to lobby for $7.50.

Sean Darcy, a spokesman for acting Gov. Richard Codey, who is also Senate president, said, "Governor Codey has consistently expressed his support for increasing the minimum wage. We continue to discuss proposals with the Legislature."

The activists said they also support a proposal (A-3677) by Assembly Speaker Albio Sires (D-Hudson) to increase annual rental assistance aid from $10 million to $25 million. Then-Gov. James E. McGreevey allotted the initial $10 million in June.

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