Monday, June 27, 2005

Washington’s robust housing market is forcing even middle-income wage earners to seek roommates to pay for a place to live.

As average apartment rents and home-mortgage payments climb well over $1,000 per month, residents who could have afforded a place of their own a decade ago now must live with non-family members to keep a roof over their heads.

Companies that match roommates and landlords say they are doing a brisk business as the median price for a single-family home in the Washington area rose to $369,000 by the end of March and continues climbing.

“People who make less than $45,000 a year are not able to afford a decent home to live in,” said Ruben Major, chief executive officer of Roommates Online Network, a roommate search service. “This is especially true in large metropolitan areas, such as San Diego, Phoenix, Boston and Washington, D.C.”

In Washington, Roommates Online Network reported a 175 percent growth in business since it opened shop in 2002, or twice the national rate.

The average rent for an apartment in the Washington area is $1,255 a month, according to real estate research firm Delta Associates, even making renting an apartment a struggle for some residents.

In the Washington area, “People who are looking for a room to rent are not only students and interns, but are professionals and low-level government employees, usually bringing in approximately $22,000 to $42,000 per year,” Mr. Major said.

Roommate search service RoommateNation says the Internet has made finding a roommate easier in places where the cost of living is high.

Although many of its customers are college students, “many others are young professionals with good jobs” who cannot afford to purchase or rent a home, said James Lindeen, chief executive officer of

“Washington, D.C., is certainly included in this trend and is one of the busiest cities of our national service,” Mr. Lindeen said.

Nationwide, the number of low- and middle-income working families that spend more than half their incomes on housing increased 76 percent in the past five years, according to the Center for Housing Policy, a nonprofit group that advocates for affordable housing.

Financial planners traditionally suggest spending no more than 30 percent of household income on housing.

Many roommates and landlords in the Washington area agree paying for a place to live can be a struggle.

“I couldn’t afford to get a place on my own,” said Jessica Wilbanks, a program manager for a Washington nonprofit organization. “Neither could my roommates, despite the fact they are well paid.”

Miss Wilbanks pays $500 a month for rent and about $100 a month for utilities to share a row house in Mount Pleasant with four roommates. The house is valued at about $600,000, she said.

“I feel lucky to have found that,” Miss Wilbanks said. “The housing market is just rising and rising.”

She would like to buy a house, but, “I know it’s not going to be in the cards for me for at least a couple of years.”

Karl Jones, a grants coordinator for a nonprofit organization, said he took a second job as a waiter on weekends to save up for a down payment.

Meanwhile, he is living in a group home with two roommates near Howard University.

He checked into buying a house, but found prices rising faster than his income.

“The only thing I could afford would be a group house,” he said. “A lot of my friends who have been thinking about buying are just waiting it out, hoping the bubble will burst.”

Robert Powell, a salesman and homeowner in Bethesda, recently ran a newspaper ad for someone to rent a room in his house near the National Institutes of Health.

“It’s unfortunate, but you got to do what you got to do,” Mr. Powell said. “It just simply helps to pay the mortgage.”

Dennis Atkins, a Federal Emergency Management Agency program manager, said the $650 a month he charges to rent out part of his home in Germantown gives college students a home they otherwise could not afford.

“Housing is out of control here,” he said.

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