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Joel John Roberts Headshot

Does America Have Enough to Pay Rent?

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All my life I've paid my bills -- mortgage, credit card, car payment, electricity, etc. I used to think it was because I was responsible; because I was taught at a young age to pay my debts.

Given the current difficult economy, I wonder if it is really because I was just plain lucky. Lucky to have a solid education, gainful employment, sufficient savings. Enough to pay rent and buy food at the grocery store.

I know many people would say that I just worked hard. But when more and more hard-working, educated, gainfully employed Americans are losing their jobs and barely able to pay rent, the Puritan paradigm of personal economics is shifting.

A recent study in southern California revealed that nearly one in four households are paying more than 50 percent of their income toward housing, when economists believe a family should not be paying more than 30 percent. If you've ever tried to apply for a home loan, you know this 30 percent barrier very well.

What does it mean to have to pay a larger percentage of your household budget toward keeping a roof over your family's head? Less money for other essentials like medical costs and food.

No wonder one in five Americans say they cannot afford food (one in four in southern California say the same).

When a family that I have known for years as a hard-working middle-class, self-sufficient familial clan, calls me to say they need help paying for a motel room that has become their last resort housing, I can only conclude that my own personal economic state is secure but for the grace of God.

When these formerly middle-class families begin to lose their homes, and enter a rental market they never imagined having to join, there is another sad economic fact occurring in America. Rents are going up. The supply of affordable housing is limited and the demand is skyrocketing.

So lower-income Americans who have rented all their lives are now paying more of their household income toward housing. This is also becoming a housing crisis for poor renters.

This national state of unaffordable housing and hungry Americans feels like the musical Rent. But instead of bohemian young adults who struggle for purpose in life, the cries of poverty are coming from everyday Americans: "When real life is getting more like fiction each day; headlines -- bread lines, blow my mind; And now this deadline, eviction or pay. Rent!"

How do we reinstate the American Dream for people who never dreamed the nightmare of personal economic security would hit them hard?

Provide enough affordable housing so that a person's housing budget doesn't go over 30 percent. Maybe that mortgage company that insisted my loan wouldn't be over 30 percent of my household revenue was on to something.