Each year, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) releases its signature Out of Reach report, which shows the huge gap between wages and housing costs. The findings are sobering, and the information doesn’t differ all that much from year to year, but I still look forward to the report. It’s required reading.

Out of Reach gives us perspective. It calculates a “housing wage,” an estimate of the hourly pay a full-time worker must earn to afford a modest apartment without spending more than 30% of his or her income on rent and utilities. This year’s housing wage is a whopping $20.30 for a basic two-bedroom unit.

A worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would need to work 2.8 full-time jobs in order to afford a basic two-bedroom apartment. That’s three jobs. The NLIHC points out that if this worker slept for eight hours per night, he or she would have no time left during the week for anything other than working and sleeping.
Many of us complain about the one job we have. It’s hard to imagine holding down three.

Two weeks after the release of Out of Reach, House Speaker Paul Ryan and his Republican colleagues came out with an anti-poverty plan. Part of a larger platform called A Better Way, it’s light on affordable housing proposals and heavy on the idea that people need to get to work. The trouble is, a job, or even three, doesn’t guarantee you have stable housing or you’re no longer poor.

And these problems aren’t limited to people making minimum wage. Many families who earn more still can’t find an affordable home of their own.

Out of Reach and A Better Way seem a world apart, but they shouldn’t be. Affordable housing is like an iceberg: We see the housing, but there’s much more below the surface. More than shelter, it’s a foundation for improving health, gaining employment, and reducing government spending in other areas.

Reading A Better Way reminds me that affordable housing needs to be part of the big picture when looking for answers to major social problems. It can’t be just a housing issue. Affordable housing needs to be a poverty, health, jobs, and education issue. Let’s expand the conversation.