Where Have All The Workers Gone? They Can’t Find An Affordable Place To Live


Atticus is the CEO of PadSplit, an affordable, shared housing model that creates financial independence for workers.

I recently tried to check into my local Great Clips to trim my overgrown curls that are rapidly approaching full mullet stage. More often than not, I can just call ahead or even walk in for a quick haircut and wait no more than 15 to 20 minutes. Unfortunately, on this Wednesday morning, there was more than an hour-long wait because of staff shortages.

I’m not alone in this scenario. Staff shortages are hitting communities everywhere, especially for hourly wage workers, and leaving places like hair salons, restaurants and daycare centers severely understaffed. When was the last time you tried to go to a restaurant and saw a line outside the door while multiple tables sat empty due to insufficient staff?

But when you look at unemployment rates, they are at a “pandemic-era low.” And the stock market is showing some of the biggest jumps since the early ’80s. Many employers are increasing wages or offering bonuses for prospective employees. So where have all the workers gone?

The answer, if you look closely at what’s happening, is pretty simple. Our community workers simply cannot afford a decent place to live close to these jobs.

Rents are too high and have too many barriers.

Let’s take a look at the data in my hometown of Atlanta. Long considered a bastion for quality of life because of its affordability compared to other bigger cities, the city and the surrounding metro area is recently facing the same problems of a severe housing shortage caused by two predominant factors: lack of supply and a lack of access to that supply.

Lack of Supply: Since the 2008 financial crisis, we simply have not created housing in or around Atlanta at anywhere close to the rate we have added jobs, resulting in increased demand for the supply that exists and rapidly increasing pricing both for rental and for-sale housing units. Nationwide, even prior to the pandemic, the country had a shortage of 7 million affordable and available homes for renters with lower incomes.

Lack of Access: Housing providers seek to mitigate their risk when qualifying potential tenants for their properties. This has only been exacerbated due to the pandemic, with property owners looking to recoup losses from moratoriums or play catch-up to the rising costs they face for home maintenance. Standard minimum income requirements have long been at three times the monthly rent. But rents have continued to skyrocket, reaching a current average of $1,723/month in Atlanta, meaning that anyone earning less than $62,000 per year could not even qualify to rent this apartment.

Because wages haven’t kept pace, community workers bear the brunt of these issues.

Since 2009, the federal minimum wage has been $7.25. There’s no question that this wage has not kept pace with inflation or productivity growth. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the federal wage had 17% less purchasing power in 2019 than it did 10 years ago, and this report pre-dates the massive inflation we’ve seen over the last couple of months.

Many are making the argument that wages have increased as a result of labor shortages and inflation. This is a good thing. But these wages still haven’t come close to the average rent growth.

Staying with the Atlanta example, here are the average salaries for a few important service roles that keep the city functioning, coupled with what they would qualify for in terms of rent.

• Atlanta Police Officer: $48,500 average starting salary qualifies for a $1,347 per month apartment.

• Atlanta Public Schools Teacher: $48,086 average starting salary qualifies for a $1,335 per month apartment.

• Security Guard: $33,235 average yearly salary qualifies for a $923 per month apartment.

• Cashier: $24,362 average starting salary qualifies for a $676 per month apartment.

With these wages alone, the vast majority of these service workers would not be able to find apartments close to their jobs, leading to untenable commutes even if they have car transportation. Keep in mind this doesn’t account for the other barriers to access — what if someone doesn’t have a 650-plus credit score, is unable to save for a security deposit or has a prior eviction on their record?

The result of all these factors, which only compound with other increasing costs like healthcare and childcare, is that community workers are moving away from cities where they can find cheaper housing and leaving these roles altogether to try new occupations or gig work; in many unfortunate cases, they are simply entering into homelessness. It’s a vicious cycle.

There are two levers: increase wages and decrease housing barriers.

I realize that there are many other variables in play and that each circumstance is different. But the point of this article is to get down to brass tacks and simply show the relationship between housing costs and worker shortages.

When you look at it this way, the Atlanta example is easily replicable to every city with surging rent costs, and there are two levers that policymakers must consider — either we have to increase wages or decrease housing barriers.

We should look at our housing policies, many of which were formed decades ago as a way to discriminate against people of color, and enact changes to remove some of these barriers. For example, we could bring the definition of family to modern standards to allow more unrelated individuals to live together. Another idea is to permit more high-density or new types of housing such as co-living, tiny homes or other new concepts instead of only prioritizing single-family homes.

When workers face these issues, small business owners and citizens of the city are adversely affected as well. Doing nothing is what got us into this situation. So we must ask ourselves: what changes must we make so our community’s workers can actually afford to live in the communities they serve?


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