As area median income rises, what is the impact for residents seeking affordable housing?

'Area median income' is broadly used for affordable housing eligibility and costs. Here's what that means in Allegheny County.

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People walk along Bedford Avenue near the Bedford Hill Apartments in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

How do rising incomes in Allegheny County impact affordable housing?

It’s not exactly clear unless you know that benchmarks for affordable housing rents and eligibility are based not on local residents’ needs, but on the overall wealth of the region.

Known as area median income [AMI], the benchmark is revised each year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. AMI is the midpoint of all the incomes in the region — if all of the household incomes in the county are listed from least to greatest, the AMI would be the value in the middle of that list.

For 2019, AMI in Allegheny County is $79,900. That marks a roughly 5% increase from last year’s AMI of $76,000, and a 23% increase from 2012’s AMI of $64,900.

When AMI increases, the benchmark incomes for affordable housing eligibility also rise and, therefore, the rent for subsidized housing increases.

This is how it plays out: In 2012, a family of four in subsidized affordable housing with an income at 50% of AMI ($32,450) would pay no more than $731 per month in rent for a two-bedroom apartment, according to numbers published by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. In 2019, the same family could pay up to $900 per month.

2019 Allegheny County area median income limits

Income Limit Category 1 Person 2 Person 3 Person 4 Person 5 Person
30% AMI $16,800 $19,200 $21,600 $25,750 $30,170
50% AMI $28,000 $32,000 $36,000 $39,950 $43,150
80% AMI $44,750 $51,150 $57,550 $63,900 $69,050

Source: ACTION-Housing

Carol Hardeman of the Hill District Consensus Group said rent based on AMI is “still not affordable to extremely low-income individuals.”

The consensus group, along with national organizations such as Homes for All, is advocating for a more complex process to assess and price affordable housing units than AMI.

In Pittsburgh, Hardeman said the consensus group is reaching out to economists to develop a fuller understanding of real income, which takes into account inflation and the consumer price index [CPI] that tracks the average change over time that consumers pay for goods and services.

“Imagine that you made $12 an hour in 2003,” Hardeman said. “By 2015, if you want to see how things have changed over that time, you have to take into account 2003 wages in terms of 2015 prices. Even though you have a higher wage, you are still really stuck with that 2003 salary because of inflation and changes in the CPI. ”

Despite worries of some advocates, AMI is broadly adopted as the affordability benchmark. It’s used not only to determine eligibility and rents for federally subsidized housing but also to determine eligibility for programs in Pittsburgh’s Housing Opportunity Fund and compliance with the city’s new inclusionary zoning ordinance in Lawrenceville.

Notably, higher AMI also means that people with higher incomes will be eligible for affordable housing.

Linda Metropulos, vice president of real estate development at ACTION-Housing, Inc., said the housing nonprofit has generally seen AMI as a useful affordability measure and has been using AMI guidelines for 20 years.

“Those who are naysayers might not fully understand that AMI is not average income,” Metropulos wrote in an email. “[I]t truly reflects an increase in the number of people making more money, not just the super-rich or techies getting six-figure salaries after graduating.”

ACTION-Housing's Penn Mathilda Apartments in Bloomfield. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

At ACTION-Housing, the new annual numbers impact rent for new tenants but not current residents.

“They are locked into their rent,” she said in an interview. “You qualify when you move in. There is nothing that prevents you from having your income go up, but we hold our rents as if you were still at the initial what you moved in. Which is interesting. We have seen peoples’ income go up significantly when they move in."

Metropulos said that building owners need to be mindful that they bring in enough rent to cover costs. For instance, though current ACTION-Housing tenants won't see rent increases based on AMI, rents could be raised marginally to cover things like rising utility costs.

Once a unit is vacated, Metropulos said new rent will be set at the most recent AMI thresholds.

ACTION-Housing’s others initiatives, such as its federally funded program to weatherize homes, uses eligibility guidelines linked to the federal poverty guidelines. Metropulos sees households qualify on either scale — AMI or poverty guidelines— and said both tools accurately identify families burdened by housing costs.

The poverty guidelines are based on census data about the poverty rate and incomes in the United States, and is issued each year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

While AMI has been rising, Metropulos said she has yet to see a spike that concerns her.

“I keep waiting to see a giant jump in AMI every year,” she said. “It hasn’t happened yet, but I am always waiting for it.”

Meg St-Esprit is a freelance writer based in Bellevue. She can be reached at megstesprit@gmail.com or on Twitter @MegStEsprit.

This story was fact-checked by Sierra Smith.

Develop PGH has been made possible with funding from The Heinz Endowments.

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