A study released Tuesday by The Center for Housing Policy, the research arm of The National Housing Conference, an affordable housing advocacy group, found that a shrinking number of wage owners can still buy into the housing market. Perhaps even more alarming is the number of vital workers who are unable to afford even the rents in the communities they serve.

The study, titled Paycheck to Paycheck: Wages and the Cost of Housing in America, found that the median cost of a home nationally grew from $186,000 in the fourth quarter of 2003 to $225,000 in the first quarter of 2005, a growth of 20 percent. Yet, during that same time period the wages and salaries of many crucial employees such as police officers, janitors, and licensed practical nurses remained flat and, in many areas continued to slip farther and farther below the amount necessary to purchase a home.

Of course the 20 percent increase is not evenly distributed across the country. As usual much of California and Florida are fueling the averages with the five least affordable markets all located in the Golden State. In San Francisco, for example, it would take a household income of $223,576 to purchase the "median priced home" at $705,000. In Orange County this $657,000 home requires $208,354 in household income.

At the other end of the spectrum Lima, Ohio; Buffalo, New York; and Waterloo Iowa ranked 1, 2, and 3 on the most affordable index. In those metropolitan areas an income of $23,785 to $27,273 would qualify for the purchase of the $75,000 to $85,000 median priced homes.

But when it comes to rentals, even in the most affordable area, Brownsville, Texas, a worker needs an hourly wage of $9.21 to afford a two bedroom apartment (at $479 per month). This is based on spending 30 percent or less of household income on housing. With the federal minimum wage currently at $5.15, one wonders how some people are managing to keep a roof over their family's heads.

We randomly pulled information out of study's web site data base - www.nhc.org - for five metropolitan areas and five categories of workers; elementary school teachers, police officers, licensed practical nurses (LPN), retail sales personnel, and janitors. The five areas were Boston, Massachusetts; Appleton, Wisconsin, Santa Cruz, California; Fort Walton Beach, Florida; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Cedar Rapids was the least expensive of the areas we surveyed, with homes priced at $119,000 and a one bedroom rental costing $451 per month and a two bedroom $595. All five occupations earned the $8.67 per hour necessary to rent a one bedroom apartment, however both retail employees and janitors fell below the $11.44 to rent a two bedroom. The incomes of those two groups as well as that of LPNs fell well below the $37,738 required to purchase that median priced home.

In Appleton it takes an income of $8.94 per hour to rent a one bedroom apartment and $10.83 for a two. Janitors fell ten cents an hour short of earning enough for a two bedroom but everyone else was more or less comfortably able to rent. However, only teachers and police were in a position to buy a median priced $128,000 home which required $40,593 in household income.

In Fort Walton Beach, Florida the median price of a home at $176,000 does not seem that exorbitant, however, wages in the south are low and not one of the five occupational categories came even close to the $55,815 annual household income necessary to purchase. Teachers, at $39,383 came closest, but nurses, retail employees and janitors made only 35 to 37 percent of the salaries necessary to qualify for such a purchase.

Rentals were a little more affordable. The three best compensated employees were able to easily afford a two bedroom apartment ($610 per month) but neither retail workers nor janitors could afford even a one bedroom unit ($542.)

In the two most expensive areas we surveyed workers literally fell off the charts when it came to their ability to purchase a home. In Santa Cruz, teachers fared the best but even they earned only 25 percent of the $198,206 annual income necessary to buy a $625,000 home. In Boston teachers earned 44 percent of the $112,581 required to buy a $355,000 house. The $1,077 per month required to rent a one bedroom apartment in Boston was beyond the reach of LPNs, retail workers, and janitors and none of the five occupational categories could theoretically afford a two bedroom unit. While rents were marginally cheaper in Santa Cruz, the five groups were similarly arrayed. Minimum wages in both Massachusetts and California are set by law above federal levels at $6.75 per hour.

We pulled this information from the interactive data base on the National Housing Conference web site which allows visitors to plug in any of dozens of metropolitan areas and a mix of 63 occupational categories to see how prices and wages match up. Try it for your local area. Assuming the data is accurate, it is a sobering experience on a number of levels.