About 40 percent of Long Island homeowners who have a mortgage devote too much of their income to housing, a statistic that economic experts say is fueled in part by rising taxes and flat wages.
In an analysis of 2010 census data, Long Island Association chief economist Pearl Kamer found that 4 in 10 homeowners with mortgages used more than 35 percent of their income for housing costs. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines recommend spending no more than 30 percent of total income on housing.
Besides wage stagnation and higher property taxes, unemployment and other rising costs also are taking a toll on both homeowners and renters, area economic and housing experts said.
"Incomes on Long Island, according to the census data, have simply not kept pace with housing costs," Kamer said.
Among homeowners without a mortgage, nearly a quarter are paying 35 percent or more for housing costs, Kamer said, citing the expense of property taxes, oil, utilities and maintenance.
"What a cruel irony," said Gregory Blass, Suffolk County social services commissioner. "Our economy depends so much for its survival on working people and a growing number of working people increasingly struggle in desperation for their own survival."
Families that pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing, which includes mortgage payments and related payments such as heating, water and electricity, may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care, federal officials and financial experts said. An estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing nationwide, according to HUD.
Compounding the problem on the Island, Kamer said, is that about 1.2 million people lived in households in 2010 with income of less than $75,000 a year, which the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., points out is the amount it takes to meet basic necessities in the region.
"These numbers speak to Long Island's disproportionately high housing costs," Kamer said, adding it also pointed to the "need for more affordable housing options and higher-paying jobs."
Seth Forman, a professor of public policy at Stony Brook University, concurred. "Essentially, what you have is incomes going down and the cost of housing is not."
The high housing costs many area residents face echo a Long Island Index poll out this week that found 61 percent of all respondents have at least some difficulty making their housing payments.
Frank Castellano, of Wading River, told pollsters that it was "somewhat difficult" to meet his housing costs.
Castellano, an information technology professional who commutes by car and train to his job at Citigroup in Jersey City, said it's a struggle to keep up with rising property taxes and other housing costs as he and his wife put two children through college.
"I've got a second mortgage essentially -- a home-equity loan. I've got two kids in college," Castellano said. "I keep playing Lotto, but I haven't hit."
Eileen Anderson, senior vice president of the Community Development Corp. of Long Island, a nonprofit housing agency, said more than 600 families last year sought homeowner counseling. Before the economic downturn, the agency averaged 50 families a year.
"Ninety percent of them were behind on their mortgage payment." She added, "A one-income household probably cannot support their ongoing mortgage debt."
Peter Elkowitz, president and chief executive of the Long Island Housing Partnership, a nonprofit housing development agency that also provides homeowner counseling, said, "From what we see, a lot of them are having difficulty making their mortgage payment because of a loss of a job."
In addition, he said, Long Island is hindered by a lack of housing options, particularly of affordable rentals.
Michael Vittorio, president and chief executive of First National Bank of Long Island, was among a few banking executives who said they were not seeing high delinquencies among the home mortgages they've underwritten, attributing it to prudent lending practices. But he agreed that high costs and taxes are hurting homeowners.
"Everybody thinks this is the land of the rich," Vittorio said, but it's not -- aside from some "wealthy pockets." He added, "With the cost of our utilities, the cost of property taxes on Long Island, they're overwhelming people."