Millions Spend Half of Income on Housing

Traditionally, the government and most lenders consider a homeowner spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing costs to be financially burdened. But that definition now covers almost 38 percent of American homeowners with a mortgage — 19 million of them.

** FILE ** In this July 2, 2008 file photo, a foreclosed home is seen for sale in Sacramento, Calif. A record 9 percent of American homeowners with a mortgage were either behind on their payments or in foreclosure at the end of June, as damage from the housing crisis continues to mount, the Mortgage Bankers Association said Friday, Sept. 5, 2008. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file)

MIAMI - Al Ray is so strapped for cash, the only time he eats out is on Wednesday or Sunday, when the local McDonald's sells hamburgers for 49 cents.

Ray lost his engineering job last November, and has been working as high school tutor, scratching out about $1,000 a month — if he's lucky. He struggled to make his $1,400 monthly mortgage payment and $330 monthly homeowners' association fee until May, when he stopped paying.

Ray, 44, is looking for work and renting out a room in his two-bedroom condo in Davie, Fla., for $500, but his monthly income doesn't match his expenses and he's facing foreclosure.

"I barely have money to survive," he said.

Ray is one of more than 7.5 million people — almost 15 percent of American homeowners with a mortgage — who are spending half of their income or more on housing costs, according to 2007 data released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau. That is up from nearly 7.1 million the year before.

Traditionally, the government and most lenders consider a homeowner spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing costs to be financially burdened. But that definition now covers almost 38 percent of American homeowners with a mortgage — 19 million of them.

Though home prices have fallen this year, in the most expensive markets where home prices tripled during the boom, many working families still cannot afford to buy a home.

"We had a bubble," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. "This is a case where we absolutely want the market to adjust."

The data underscore the serious affordability problems in this country and highlight how the slightest financial problem — from a lost job to higher gas prices or insurance premiums — can put a family behind on their mortgages and into the realm of foreclosure.

When home prices fell in the early 1990s, borrowers had more equity in their homes, and were able to escape foreclosure. But now, an estimated 10 million homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, according to Moody's economy.com.

More than 4 million homeowners were at least one month behind on their loans at the end of June, and almost 500,000 had started the foreclosure process, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Cascading foreclosures over the past two years created a domino effect in the lending industry, undermining investor confidence and forcing the Bush administration last weekend to announce the greatest rescue package and market intervention since the Great Depression.

And yet, the deal will not help Dolly Hanna, 51, and her husband, who bought five homes in the San Francisco area over the past 20 years, and were enjoying life during the housing boom by renting them out.

But her husband's overtime at his mechanic's job was cut, and the Hannas now find themselves overextended at a loss of $15,000 per month and trying two sell two of the homes.

With four children, Hanna had been a stay-at-home mom, but Monday she started a job in real estate. They are seeking a renter for two upstairs bedrooms in their primary residence for $1,200.

Getting a loan during the boom was easy, Hanna knows. Too easy.

"All you had to was massage the information enough to fit it into their round hole, and they gave us a mortgage," Hanna said.

In San Francisco, more than one out of five homeowners with a mortgage spends half or more of their income on housing.

That's also true in 13 more of the largest 100 metro areas analyzed by the Associated Press. Other places include California metro areas of Stockton, Los Angeles, Riverside, Oxnard-Thousand Oaks, San Francisco, and San Diego. Also in the top 10 are the Fort Myers, Sarasota and Orlando metro areas in Florida, and New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island.

But the most cost-burdened homeowners in the country live the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Miami Beach metro area: 58 percent of homeowners spending 30 percent of their income on housing costs, and 29 percent spending half of their income or more on housing.

Though prices here are dropping, the high cost of land, construction, insurance and property taxes makes living in South Florida too expensive for some.

"Certainly, we hear about people leaving South Florida and going into Atlanta where they can get into a house for less money," Suzanne Weiss, associate director for real estate with Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida.

To help with the affordable housing stock, Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida joined forces with a construction company to build homes for low- to moderate-income residents that include energy-efficient appliances and hurricane-resistant windows.

Other cities and states are also taking action.

In Illinois, a network of 15 nonprofit housing groups gives free advice to struggling homeowners seeking to avoid foreclosure amid rising mortgage payments.

In New England, an affordable housing program funded by the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston awards grants and low-interest loans to communities to encourage affordable-housing initiatives for very low- to moderate-income households.

And in Las Vegas, the Nevada Fair Housing Center is helping Rita Harvey renegotiate her mortgage from $2,700 to around $1,800 per month.

Harvey, 64, lives on about $3,300 a month in social security and disability payments for herself and her four disabled grandchildren. She nearly lost her home this summer after her adjustable rate mortgage payment jumped.

"I did not understand that in two years, this would adjust out of control," she said. "Nobody deserves what I've had to go through."


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