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Lindsay Diaz and her son stand in what's left of their home after tornadoes tore through North Texas on Dec. 26, 2015.KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.The problem's known as asset poverty, and it doesn’t discriminate. A job loss, health emergency, even legal trouble can be enough to plunge a third of our friends and neighbors into financial distress. One Crisis Away puts a human face on asset poverty and the financial struggles of people in North TexasExplore the series so far and join the KERA News team as they add new chapters to One Crisis Away in the months to come.One Crisis Away is funded in part by the Communities Foundation of Texas, Allstate Foundation, the Texas Women's Foundation, The Fort Worth Foundation, The Thomson Family Foundation, and the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas.

In Texas, Monthly Rentals Go Up -- And Texans Spend More Of Their Paychecks On Rent

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Matthew Rutledge

A report released last week by Apartment List shows Texas rent prices jumped 3.5 percent last year, which outpaces the national increase. Other research shows almost half of Texans spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

When it comes to what each family should be spending on rent, there actually is a magic number.

“Thirty percent is a threshold that our housing agency at the federal level sets as a good portion of your income to use.”  Solana Rice is with the Center for Enterprise Development. Known as CFED for short, the nonprofit is based in Washington D.C. and measures economic opportunity.

Living By The 'Magic Number'

The 30 percent rule means a family bringing in $60,000 a year should spend no more than $1,500 a month on rent. CFED research shows 49 percent of Texans are over the rent limit.  And it’s worse for families of color.

“Black families, actually 53.8 percent of households are spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent, and nearly 50 percent of Latino households are paying more," Rice says.

When families are spending that much on housing, everything else can suffer. John Greenan is Executive Director of Central Dallas Community Development Corporation—a nonprofit that builds affordable housing for the homeless and low income families.

“It cramps the amount of income they have to spend for anything else. For food, for medical care, for transportation," he says. "What it means and most lower income people find that they’re one emergency away from disaster.”

Cheap Housing- A Tough Sell

Greenan says building low income housing is not a good deal for private developers; they’ll always lose money. He says getting people matched up with rentals they can afford has to start with Washington.

“It’s entirely dependent on what kind of subsidies are available for the government to build housing cheap enough to rent or to sell at that amount," he says. "And those subsidies simply aren’t large enough, there aren’t enough of them to provide the housing that’s needed.”

In North Texas especially, builders tend to push away from city centers in Dallas and Fort Worth and put new, and potentially affordable, apartments and houses farther out.

“It’s much cheaper here to build suburbs where you don’t have the difficulties you do to build in the inner city," Greenan says. "Closer to jobs, closer to public transportation is the toughest place here to build.”

Which means if you rely on the bus to make it to work in downtown Dallas or Fort Worth, there aren’t a lot of cheap places to live.

Using The Tax Code

And since there aren’t many nonprofit housing developers out there, Greenan says one way to get more reasonably-priced rentals into the market is to make the process tax-friendly for builders.

“The federal low-income housing tax credit program is very effective," he says. "It draws private industry in to build this housing. So I think it’s a real efficient tool, and should be expanded.”

In the meantime, people who don’t make much money-- especially minority families who don’t make much money-- are stuck spending a big chunk of their paycheck on rent. Which means a lot of cutting back, and even more compromise.