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Affordable Housing Tough to Find in San Luis Obispo County

It's not easy being poor in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., or even middle class, for that matter.

High housing costs play a big role in the Central Coast's unaffordability, as underscored by National Low Income Housing Coalition data released this week. Affordable rental housing — units that cost residents no more than 30% of their income — is tough to find in San Luis Obispo County and across the country, especially for those working for minimum wage.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates a fair market two-bedroom apartment averages about $1,056 in the U.S. A resident would need to earn about $20.30 per hour, or $42,240 per year, to afford such housing. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour, meaning a worker would have to work about 112 hours per week to pay for their housing.

In California, where the minimum wage is $10 per hour, the Housing Coalition's study ranks California as having the third most expensive housing in the country. A resident must earn about $28.59 per hour, or $59,464 per year, to afford the $1,487 monthly rent for a typical two-bedroom apartment. Although the state's minimum wage is set to go up to $15, the cost of housing still outpaces the jump in salary.

SLO County's rental housing costs more than in most other areas of the country, but it still costs residents less than those living in the famously expensive San Francisco Bay Area. SLO County residents need a job paying about $25.19 per hour, or $52,400 per year, to rent a $1,310-per-month two-bedroom apartment, which makes SLO County the 17th most expensive county in California.

In Marin County — the most expensive county in California — residents must earn $44.02 per hour, or $91,560 per year, to afford the typical $2,289-per-month rent for a two-bedroom apartment.

Even so, young professionals juggling student loans with rent and other monthly expenses find it tough to eke out a living in SLO County.

Ray Scott, a physical therapist assistant, said he and his wife are preparing to move in with family in the Bay Area because they can't afford to live in the area and pay rent on their own. They pay about $1,100 per month to live in a guest house in San Luis Obispo, which he said is hard to manage, especially because his wife wants to go back to school.

"As far as wages versus rent, it's just not sustainable," Scott said.

Even though SLO County isn't the priciest place to live in California, its highly competitive housing market makes a decent apartment hard to find. The countywide vacancy rate is 1.7%, said Scott Smith, executive director of the Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo. A healthy vacancy rate is about 5 percent, Smith said.

"It's a supply issue," said John Fowler, president of nonprofit Peoples' Self-Help Housing.

Smith said affordable housing is important to consider because it affects employers as well as residents. It's hard to convince both professionals and minimum wage earners to work in an area with such high rents, Smith said.

HASLO helps low-income residents with housing subsidies and builds affordable units throughout the county. People's Self-Help does similar work as a private nonprofit in SLO, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Fowler said he's seen some area officials push back against building more housing, especially due to concerns about water and limited resources. Even so, he said it's possible to balance such concerns with the need for housing.

SLO County residents are more open to the need for affordable housing than in the past, Smith said.

"To be a healthy community and to be a sustainable community, we need to be providing housing for everyone," he said.

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