Rents, mortgages soar, tighten squeeze on workers’ families

By Brian Williams
February 13, 2023

With housing costs rising faster than workers’ wages, those renting apartments or homes are paying on the average 30% of their income for rent, an all-time high. Mortgage rates have doubled in the past year. Underneath these figures is the bosses’ callous disregard toward the degrading living conditions confronting millions of workers. 

On top of high rents and mortgages, inflation is eating away at the funds working-class families have available for food, transportation and health care. Increasing numbers of workers are working overtime or taking on another job to make ends meet. Those unable to afford a place to live are moving back in with their parents or friends, or renting cheaper apartments that are often smaller and in worse shape.

One consequence is the decline in birth rates, as more young workers struggle to start families. 

In some areas the portion workers pay from their wages for rent is much higher — over 68% in New York City and 42% in Miami. A decade ago the average household spent about 26% of its income on rent. 

In Fort Myers, Florida, where Hurricane Ian ravaged the area four months ago, soaring rents have prevented thousands from getting a new home. Despite promises of government aid, very little has been received. The storm destroyed 5,000 homes and damaged another 30,000 in the southwestern part of the state. Some workers are still living in campers, trailers or mobile homes, many at sites where their houses used to be. 

New York public housing disaster

In New York, the city’s public housing system has been the one place where workers on low incomes could afford the rent. But the whole system is falling apart. Increasing numbers face unreliable heating systems, broken elevators, lead and mold in apartments, rats in the buildings and more. 

Little is being done about these horrendous conditions. In fact, the New York City Housing Authority says it would need a further $40 billion to repair the apartment complexes where 340,000 of the city’s residents live. 

The squeeze on workers’ incomes is so sharp that the Housing Authority collected just 65% of the rent it charged last year, the lowest percentage in the agency’s history.

With the pandemic rent moratorium that had been put in place by state officials, many residents accumulated back debts. Stacey Rollins, 56, has lived in the Robert F. Wagner Houses in East Harlem her whole life. She amassed $15,000 in debt for about 12 months of missed payments. She works overnight shifts for the Housing Authority taking calls from residents about emergencies. Her request for rent assistance was rejected by city authorities. 

When New York legislators set up the pandemic rent relief program, “public housing tenants were given the lowest priority of those eligible,” noted the New York Times. “NYCHA residents still applied for at least $130 million worth of aid — but they received none.” 

Rather than improving living conditions, Mayor Eric Adams is pushing to put the city’s public housing under private management. Under his plan some 36,000 apartments where city authorities have started or completed renovations will be sold off.

Homelessness has reached record heights in New York. In a city of over 8.4 million people, nearly one in every 120 is homeless — that’s 70,000 men, women and children. Some 104,000 schoolchildren, about 10% of all students, were homeless during the 2021-22 school term. 

Exacerbating these conditions is rising joblessness. The city’s official unemployment rate of 5.9% is nearly double the national level. The percentage of the population aged 16 or older who are not employed or looking for work is 39.5%. 

Housing shortages, overcrowding, deterioration of the housing stock and periodic gentrification have been faced by workers in cities across the country for decades. “The housing crisis is a permanent feature of workers’ lives under capitalism,” Lea Sherman, Socialist Workers Party candidate for New Jersey General Assembly, told the Militant. “It’s organized for profit, not housing.

“But workers are using union power to strike for higher wages. Every union struggle needs the support of fellow workers and our unions. We need to fight for cost-of-living clauses in all contracts and benefits — so our wages rise automatically whenever prices go up — and a shorter workweek with no cut in pay to share the work available around and prevent layoffs.”