March is a 25-year old, recent college graduate who lives in northwest Mississippi. March works in social services and, having grown up in poverty, identifies with many of the clients they serve. “The cost of housing seems to be rising faster than how much people are getting back in return from income,” March tells us about their experiences in obtaining affordable housing growing up, and now as an adult.
“It’s forcing (the clients) to move on the outskirts of town, away from their jobs and away from accessing resources.”
Rachel is a 34-year-old, single mother who resides in one of the townhomes managed by her local public housing authority in northwest Mississippi. Rachel works full-time as a technician for a State of Mississippi-run treatment facility while also pursuing her master’s degree in counseling. Rachel has a strong desire to help those who are suffering from debilitating mental illnesses, a disproportionate number of whom she tells us are Black like her.
Despite working full-time for the state, Rachel’s total income last year was just $18,000, making her dependent upon programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, called SNAP, just to get by. “Wouldn’t be able to afford groceries without it,” she says.
We asked Rachel to tell us about her housing situation. “I feel trapped here,” she says. “This is the only affordable place within the city. I want to increase my salary and get a better job, but the rent here is income-controlled, so if I moved I wouldn’t be able to afford my rent.”
A Brief History of Deepened Residential Segregation
Both March and Rachel’s experiences are situated within broader, national patterns. Public housing has all but disappeared, while the private housing market has been unable to meet the needs of the most economically disadvantaged Americans.
Throughout the mid-20th century, as white families found new prosperity and purchased homes in the suburbs, those who looked to public housing as a means of shelter became Blacker and poorer. This mattered for two reasons. One, it deepened residential segregation. And two, budgets for maintenance came out of rent paid by tenants. As residents became lower-income, those maintenance funds shrank, and buildings fell into disrepair. Many white Americans, policymakers among them, began to blame public housing tenants for their own deteriorating living conditions.
This perception mattered. The federal government’s commitment to brick-and-mortar public housing waned as it became associated with poor Black Americans. Few new units have been built since the 1970s. Then, there were 300,000 more low-cost rentals than there were folks who lived in them. By the mid-1980s, after massive cuts to HUD’s budget, there were 3.3 million more households who qualified than there were units to rent. In Mississippi, between 2000 and 2019 the number of federally subsidized housing units declined by more than 47%—from over 15,700 to less than 8,300.
The shift away from public housing also coincided with wage stagnation. Since the 1970s, real wages have barely budged for all but the top 10% of earners in the United States. According to a Pew Research Center study in 2018, today’s earners have about the same purchasing power as they did 40 years ago. While some state and local governments have increased their minimum wage, Mississippi has no minimum-wage law and instead follows the federal government’s $7.25 per hour, unchanged since 2009.
Meanwhile, housing costs have increased dramatically. In Jackson, the cost of a two-bedroom apartment at fair-market rent has increased 10% over the last 10 years alone. In Oxford, where we live and work, fair-market rent for a two-bedroom home has increased by 22% over the last 10 years.
Today, a worker in Oxford would need to earn nearly $17 per hour to afford a two-bedroom unit without becoming cost-burdened, which is defined as paying more than 30% of their income toward housing costs.
The State of Housing in Mississippi
The economic precarity described by both March and Rachel is a common experience across our state. We examined data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census’ American Community Survey, the premier source for detailed housing and population information in the United States. We found that the median household income for renters across this state is less than $27,500 annually. More importantly, that figure has barely moved over the past 10 years. More than 54% of households in this state earn less than $50,000 per year. Over 40% earn less than $35,000 annually.
Rachel’s story also helps illustrate how income and rent are two sides of the same coin. Rachel works full-time. Yet, her paltry income makes it impossible to afford rent without the aid of federal subsidies. Across Mississippi, more than 41% of all renters are cost-burdened, defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as paying more than 30% of household income toward housing costs and, as a result, having “difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.”
More than one out of every five renter households in Mississippi is extremely cost-burdened, defined as paying more than 50% of household income toward housing costs. For Rachel, the absence of subsidized housing would mean she would pay nearly 58% of her annual income toward housing costs for just a modest, two-bedroom home.
Drawing upon the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, we calculate Mississippi’s housing wage to illustrate the gap between the income needed to afford a rental home versus what low-wage renters actually earn. The housing wage, presented in Table 1 and visualized in Figure 1, estimates the hourly wage a full-time worker must earn in order to afford a modest rental home without being cost-burdened.
As an annual income, the housing wage for 2015-2019 is almost $37,700, or roughly $10,000 more than the median annual income of Mississippi’s renter households. Put differently, half of all Mississippi renter households earn 74% or less than the housing wage necessary to afford a modest, two-bedroom home without cost burden.
To be sure, some argue that the market sets both income and housing costs. But these arguments often make assumptions about the market that fail to reflect available evidence. Chief among these assumptions is that the market is a neutral force.
Rachel’s case once again proves instructive. She has an undergraduate degree, and is in the process of pursuing an advanced degree while working full-time and taking on full-time care-giving responsibilities to her children. By any estimation, she is working hard. By most estimations, she is working far too hard to have so little to show for it.
Minimum Wage vs. Housing Wage, Mississippi, 2005-2019
(American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates)
Across the state, the median income for Mississippians with a bachelor’s degree is roughly $43,500 annually. Yet when analyzed by gender, the differences are enormous. The typical man with a bachelor’s degree in Mississippi earns roughly $54,600 annually. The typical woman? Just $37,900, annually. A similar gap exists between the median income of White households ($56,000) and Black households ($30,700).
So What Can Be Done?
There are no simple solutions to the challenges identified above. Yet, we can take clear steps to make life easier for our most vulnerable communities. Federal funding for affordable housing is crucial. The Biden administration has recently proposed $213 billion in housing investments as part of its infrastructure plan, including the construction and rehabilitation of more than 500,000 homes for low- and moderate-income people. This proposed spending plan is an important step, and we encourage our congressional representatives to support this plan.
To be sure, opponents of this plan point to its costs and warn of inflation associated with it. Yet the real cost would be in doing nothing, or too little. Moreover, we have not seen spikes in inflation after the 2009 bailout nor the 2020 CARES Act. The risk of inflation is minimal, but the increased security that comes along with decent affordable housing is guaranteed.
We can take action at the state level, too. We propose that the Mississippi Legislature pass a minimum-wage increase that reflects an actual housing wage in this state. One of the strongest arguments for a statewide housing wage is that raising the wage floor for low-income workers like Rachel would simultaneously reduce the inequalities that result from decades of gender- and race-based discrimination in both employment and housing.
We also propose that the Legislature work with Gov. Tate Reeves to create a statewide affordable housing trust fund, accompanied by a dedicated source of public revenue that supports the production and preservation of affordable housing for low-income Mississippians. Communities around the country have adopted this flexible strategy to meet local housing needs, including subsidies for building and maintaining affordable housing developments, security deposit assistance, eviction and foreclosure prevention programs, and more. Nationwide, more than 800 housing trust funds generate over $2.5 billion annually to support local housing needs, but Mississippi is home to only one—in Jackson.
Finally, we want to stress that any concrete changes in the conditions of our most vulnerable communities will require collective action. We cannot simply wait and hope for our state and federal government to do the right thing.
Across Mississippi, groups and organizations continue to fight for better workplace conditions, a living wage and fair housing—from tenant organizing in Central and North Mississippi, to unionizing across our public colleges and universities. That also includes the historic efforts that led to the adoption of a new, and more inclusive, state flag. We encourage everyone, in every community across our state, to tap into these existing networks for social change. At the same time, we encourage those actively organizing to center affordable, quality housing in their current demands.