The United Way of Southwestern Oregon has released its ALICE report for Curry County that shows stagnant wages and increasing costs of living are pushing more people into poverty.
“ALICE is an acronym for the ‘Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained and Employed’ household that earns more than the federal poverty level, but less than the basic cost of living for the county,” the report reads. “Combined, the number of ALICE and poverty-level households equal the total population that is struggling to afford basic needs. Conditions have improved for some (since the recovery from the Great Recession) but with rising costs, many still find themselves struggling.”
The report, compiled every two years, shows that Curry County had 16 percent of households living in poverty in 2010, and that that has improved, to 14 percent in 2016. However, 23 percent were “asset-limited, income-constrained — and employed” in 2010 and that increased to 37 percent in 2016.
The number of people above that ALICE threshold — those who are faring well — was 61 percent in 2010. But by 2016, that decreased to 49 percent.
By area, it shows that a full half of households in Brookings live at the ALICE threshold or below. It’s only slightly better in Gold Beach, with 45 percent of households at that level. Nesika Beach is the shining star, with only 36 percent of its households struggling to make ends meet.
But in Harbor and Port Orford, 87 percent and 65 percent of households, respectively, in those areas struggle to make ends meet.
According to Beth Barker-Hidalgo of the Curry Homeless Coalition, a separate housing study conducted by CZB LLC, an urban planning and development firm from Alexandria, Virginia, shows that 40 percent of workers in Curry County make about $10 an hour.
“That’s hardly enough to afford a $500 rent,” she said, “and no opportunity to purchase a house and build equity.”
Ideally, housing costs should consume 30 percent of a worker’s gross salary, but low wages here — combined with high rents and purchase prices — force many to spend up to 80 percent on housing, she said.
She cited the Chetco Inn in Brookings where a room — and shared bathroom and no kitchen facilities — starts at $600.
Income and rent
In 2016, the median income for Curry County workers was $38,661. That same year, the median home value was $222,100, the CZB study shows.
“That won’t buy that house,” Hidalgo said.
And renters have it even harder.
Because Curry County has “gradually transitioned into a low-wage services economy,” Hidalgo said, many people make $20,000 or less — and they are forced to rent at prices that should be reserved for those making up to $35,000.
“Ninety percent of all renter households making $34,000 or less are cost-burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their gross income to pay their housing costs,” Hidalgo said. “They’re one car repair away from not being able to pay housing costs. One unexpected bill: a car repair, a medical bill.”
The United Way report evaluates the changing faces of households, as well.
“There are more family and living combinations than ever before,” the report reads, “including more adults living alone, with roommates or with their parents. Families with children are changing. There are more non-married cohabiting parents, same-sex parents and blended families with remarried parents.
According to the report, 16 percent of people living alone or those cohabitating together live in poverty, 32 percent are in that ALICE bracket and 52 percent live above the threshold.
Of those with children, 17 percent live in poverty, 24 percent are barely getting by and 59 percent live above the threshold. For seniors, the rates are 12, 46 and 42 percent, respectively.
The number of senior households is also increasing. Yet all types of households continue to struggle. And it doesn’t help that the federal Housing and Urban Development agency is considering lowering what it believes is the fair-market rental rate here, which would result in less money going to people who receive assistance.
The Coos-Curry Housing Authority Board is waiting on survey results to show HUD that their numbers don’t accurately reflect what’s going on in Southwest Oregon, she said.
Making ends meet
The challenge, the United Way report indicates, lies in low wages that haven’t kept up with the increasing cost of living.
Its “Household Survival Budget” reflects the bare minimum a household needs to live and work today, the report reads. It doesn’t include savings for emergencies or future goals such as college.
In 2016, costs were well above the federal poverty level of $11,880 for a single adult and $24,300 for a family of four. But between 2010 and 2016, family costs increased by 34 percent statewide — compared to 9 percent nationwide.
The household budget shows that if a single person is making an hourly wage of $10.91, their housing needs — rent, water, sewer and electricity — shouldn’t exceed $552. Food should be a monthly expense of $177, transportation, $346; healthcare $196; technology, $55; and taxes $328.
For a family with one infant and a preschooler, the family needs to pull in $33.07 an hour — and then only spend $849 on housing, $1,260 on childcare, $586 on food, $692 on transportation, $728 on healthcare, $75 on technology and $821 on taxes.
Employment and wages vary by location, the report reads, with larger firms tending to pay more. But smaller jobs, particularly in rural areas, are less stable and typically pay less.
“Curry County is the poster child for the missing middle class,” Hidalgo said. “There’s a consistent state of decline, a deepening economic divide.”
More housing needed
The solution is more housing — but that, too, is expensive, Hidalgo said.
She used a piece of property on Parkview Drive at the north end of Brookings that is selling for $84,900. Add to that permits and sewer and water tap fees — totalling about $32,000 — and a would-be homebuilder has already invested almost $120,000 and hasn’t even broken ground. Add another $100,000 to build that home, and it’s no longer in the range of affordability, she noted.
Hidalgo said large employers in the county — health care, the prison in California, the mill, Fred Meyer — need to step up and provide housing for their employees.
“They need to consider what their stake is in the housing game and if they have undeveloped property and if it’s worthwhile to develop it for their employees,” she said. “We need to work on building Curry County as a thriving community, to attract business, attract economic development. We can’t do that until we have something to put people in.”