ELKO — Renters in Elko County must earn at least $15.44 per hour — nearly two times the state minimum wage — to make rent on a basic two-bedroom unit, according to numbers released last week by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Although the cost of renting a two-bedroom unit in Elko is slightly lower than the rest of the state, the numbers show that about 35 percent of families in Elko County are unable to afford a two-bedroom rental.
Some local housing advocates say that percentage is very conservative.
The numbers released by the coalition for its annual study capture the gap between wages and rents across the country, and specifically in counties like Elko. They outline a harsh reality for America’s poor, disabled, elderly and vulnerable in their quest to land adequate housing.
The study revolves around the estimated housing wage: the full-time hourly wage that a household must earn to afford an apartment at the estimated fair market rent while spending no more than the recommended 30 percent of its income on housing costs.
This year, Nevada was the 13th most expensive state in which to rent a two-bedroom unit. Hawaii is the nation’s most expensive state, requiring an hourly wage of $32.14 to cover monthly rent. The least expensive is North Dakota, where people who make about $12.06 per hour can afford to rent a two-bedroom place.
Because the national study is organized by county, it’s difficult to grasp the variation and scarcity of housing options in Elko County, where the city of Elko has far different renting options than an outlying area such as Jackpot, for instance.
The fair market rent calculated in Elko County is $800 for a two-bedroom unit. A place within the city limits, however, will cost you closer to $1,000 (if you can find one that’s available). A three- or four-bedroom place will run about $2,000 per month.
There were only six available rental units in Elko/Spring Creek listed in the Free Press classified ads on Friday.
“People don’t have a lot of options here, even if they can afford the rent,” said FISH Programs Manager Londa Manteufel. “People who can’t afford it — and there are a lot of them — live with friends or family or rent a room from someone ... motel rooms, RV parks might have something. I don’t know exactly unless someone discloses, but I’m sure there are some living in cars.”
Elkoans who are eligible for housing subsidies also face an uphill battle in finding housing.
“We have a three- to six-month waiting list for our family properties, but for seniors or the handicapped it’s a couple years out,” said Dawn Keyes, an occupancy specialist at Weststates Property Management, which manages one subsidized property in Elko.
Statewide, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,024. In order to afford that monthly cost without paying more than the recommended 30 percent of income on housing, a household must earn $3,414 per month.
That’s nearly $41,000 per year.
The problem is, in Nevada a minimum wage worker earns $8.25 per hour. To afford that two-bedroom apartment he or she would need to work 95 hours a week, all year.
Can’t do that? Then you’d need three people working nearly full time at minimum wage in your household to make rent on the average apartment in Nevada.
Even if you’re not considered low income and you earn an average hourly wage in the state — $14.40 in Nevada — you’d have to work about 15 hours of overtime each week to make rent if there is one household earner.
Elko has a relatively low number of rental households, at 27 percent. By comparison, more than 40 percent of people in the state as a whole rent their homes.
But the low-income renter populations who do have homes still struggle to make ends meet when spending so much on housing.
Manteufel knows one recurring client at FISH who works full time, rents a $450 per month long-term hotel room and is left with only $70 for the rest of her expenses each month.
“She comes here to get a food box each week,” Manteufel said. “About 31 percent of the people we served (in December 2012) were homeless, but 69 percent were residents. A lot of these people need help and they need services that help offset the high cost of housing.”
Elko County may have the highest average income in the state at around $80,000 annually. But even with those kind of wages, renting a place can be an overwhelming challenge.
“Not every property is subsidized, so people in that case have to make double the rent each month,” Keyes said. “That can be a challenge.”