Housing wage gap exacerbates homeless problems

Published: Jul. 23, 2021 at 2:48 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 23, 2021 at 7:27 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Housing is one of, if not the, most expensive monthly bills the average South Carolinian has to contend with.

Conventional wisdom suggests no more than 30 percent of your income should be dedicated to your rent or mortgage payment. The latest report on homelessness in South Carolina shows that goal is unattainable for many in the state.

Data published in the 2020 South Carolina State of Homelessness Report shows the average wage needed to afford a basic two-bedroom apartment is $17.30 per hour, working full-time. However, the report concludes the average renter makes $13.52 per hour, leaving a $3.78 wage gap.

In the tri-county that gap grows wider.

In Charleston County, the wage gap is $7.01, and in Dorchester County the gap stretches to $10.42, the largest in the state. Berkeley County does slightly better than the state average with a wage gap of $3.68 but still below the average wage needed to live comfortably.

Lowcountry Counties wage gaps:

  • Dorchester County – $10.42
  • Beaufort County – $7.64
  • Charleston - $7.01
  • Calhoun County - $6.14
  • Berkeley County – $3.68
  • Bamberg County – $2.25
  • Jasper County - $2.04
  • Orangeburg County – $2.02
  • Allendale County – $0.72
  • Colleton County – $0.52
  • Hampton County – Not enough data

These numbers are indicative of the plight many low-income workers face in finding a place to live. In 2020, the number of people experiencing homelessness reached its highest number since 2016 at 4,268, according to the report.

Uplift Charleston is an organization working with and advocating for the homeless. Founder Aaron Comstock says the price of housing is out of control.

“We are contacted daily by people who are looking for help. . . unfortunately, because of COVID it has just gotten worse,” Comstock said, suggesting city councils need to look outside the box to address the housing problem. “Zoning and ordinances can be done to build things like tiny homes. Folks don’t really care about the size of the house. They want something affordable. A $1,300 a month, even $1,000 a month is not affordable for most folks who are working two or three jobs even. We are talking about rent that can be $500-$800 dollars a month.”

According to the report, a minimum wage employee would have to work 96 hours a week in Charleston County to bridge the wage gap.

The housing wage gap is not just a homelessness problem. It’s a problem for everyone. Donna Gill works in downtown Charleston, but she says she makes much less than $17 an hour. Without her roommates she says she would never be able to afford her rent.

“I think most people can afford something in the $600 or $700 range, but those places are unheard of you. You can’t find that unless you’re living with five college students and who wants to do that,” Gill asked. “In Charleston it’s more like what can you find that doesn’t require your first born.”

Kim Harmon works with homeless veterans by helping them find places they can afford to live. She says $17 an hour for anyone trying to get off the streets is a pipe dream.

“I can’t think of anywhere off the top of my head where you could get paid $17 an hour walking into a job,” Harmon said. “My husband has a bachelor’s degree and has worked full time at some of these jobs that are hourly wages. No one has offered him $17 an hour.”

She and her group of volunteers put together a list of available apartments under $1,000 a month. It was a short list.

“It’s hard. We maybe had five apartments listed and those were right at the $950 mark,” Harmon said. “I mean when I say under $1,000, I mean just barely under that thousand mark.”

While Comstock is hoping governments can encourage affordable housing developments, Gill has a message for landlords.

“Really consider renting at a reasonable rate that people don’t have to open a vein for,” Gill said. “I know a couple who are both on disability and they cannot afford anywhere based on the federal guideline of 30 percent of your income. It’s just impossible. It’s crazy.”

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