Chester County, the wealthiest county in Pennsylvania with a median household income of close to $85,000. In fact, Chester County is very close to being the wealthiest county in the entire nation, according to a report last year in Forbes Magazine that ranked the county as 24th. Last year saw the median price of a house sell at $276,700.In 2008, the average household income in southern Chester County was $85,547, while the median income in all of Pennsylvania is $50,702, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. To make matters worse, southern Chester County has the fastest growing population in Chester County (102,000 residents in 2008) and is projected to hit 113,000 by 2013. Chester County as a whole has more than 500,000 people and has averaged an increase of 7,500 people per year since 2000. And Chester County's Hispanic population has increased 28.8 percent since 2000.
"Right now, it's a landlord's market in Chester County," said Rivera, housing counselor for Alliance for Better Housing.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $915 a month, meaning a person must make $8 per hour and work 88 hours a week to afford it, paying no more than 30 percent of gross income on housing. In southern Chester County the majority of migrant workers make minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. For families, it's worse. Three-bedroom apartments average $1,339, meaning one person must work 129 hours a week at $8 an hour, or two people must work 64 hours per week. Throw in daycare costs, which average about $8,060 annually for toddlers, and it's easy to see how even dual-income families earning minimum wage or even several dollars above minimum wage cannot afford to live in Chester County.
Carrie Freeman, executive director of the United Way of Southern Chester County, an organization that provides financial assistance to agencies that help the needy, said there's a severe lack of affordable housing for hard-working, low-income workers in the area. "We have people here living in very substandard housing conditions," she said. "I've been in trailers where plumbing isn't working and sewage is dropping under the trailer. The wires in the light bulbs are dangling from the ceiling. It's an unbelievably bad housing situation."
Substandard living conditions in Chester County aren't limited to any one culture.
Jackie Maas, director of Tick Tock Learning Center in Avondale, said she's seen deplorable living conditions in diverse housholds. "I have African-American and white families that have the same issues relating to poverty," she said. "I know a family renting a trailer and it's infested with cockroaches and rain comes in. They don't have enough money for food. It happens right here. We have children who sleep in inferior accommodations. We had a child two years who slept on tires. There are pockets of poverty in Chester County. It's sad."
Currently, one in 19 households in Chester County is living in poverty, according to the most recent survey performed for the Chester County Department of Community Development. Poverty is defined as an individual with an income of less than $16,350 per year or $23,350 for a family of four. Poverty in Chester County is concentrated in pockets. In the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, where the median sales price of a home is $453,500, poverty is virtually nonexistent. Travel about a mile south to Kennett, and the face of poverty is evident. There are 586 single-parent families who live in the Kennett School District and nearly 350 families live in mobile homes. Many of those homes have codes violations and substandard living conditions. Single-parent families are hardest hit. A single mother in Chester County with one infant preschool child needs to earn $69,613 yearly to be self-sufficient, according to the most recent survey. Self-sufficiency measures the real costs of meeting basic needs and is meant to assess the costs facing working-age, nondisabled and nonelderly households.
"People I meet every day are just trying to eke out an existence," said Jay Malthaner, executive director of Good Neighbors Inc., a Christian home repair ministry for low-income residents in southern Chester County. "These people are living on the edge and aren't sure where to get help from."
Those earning a low-income often do not own cars. In southern Chester County, in fact, 1,644 households do not own cars. Others take public transportation, which is limited to certain routes, largely along the Route 1 corridor. And still others walk to work. Mike Pia Jr. of Kaolin Mushroom Farm in Kennett Township said about 30 percent of employees walk.