As prices have tumbled during the housing recession, housing affordability has expanded. However, many workers without whom the holiday season would stall don’t make enough to buy a house within their own communities, and barely earn enough to afford the rent for a two-bedroom apartment.

This is the conclusion that the Center for Housing Policy draws from an analysis of salaries and housing costs in more than 200 metropolitan areas for five worker groups that are integral to the holiday season—delivery truck driver, mail carrier, retail salesperson, retail assistant manager, and stock clerk.

This survey is part of the Center’s “Paycheck to Paycheck” series, which has been looking at the relationships between the cost of housing and incomes for different job classifications.

Since late 2009 through the third quarter of this year, the cost of a house declined in 41 of the markets that the Center studied. Incomes of people working in these job classifications were down in nearly half of those markets. During the same period, fair-market rents for a two-bedroom apartment inched up by 1.1%. Consequently, “with rent increases generally being moderate, housing affordability changes tend to reflect changes in income rather than in housing costs,” the Center wrote in its analysis.

Drawing from sources such as the NAHB’s Opportunity Index, the National Association of Realtors’ index for existing home prices, and the website, the Center estimates the median national home price in the third quarter of 2011 at $176,000, which would require an income of $50,776 to afford. The national median rent for a two-bedroom apartment, $960 per month, would require an annual income of $38,400.

Only mail carriers, with a median salary of $54,373, could afford to purchase a house. The other workers’ incomes would fall short, according to the Center’s estimates for median salaries:

Delivery Truck Driver: $32,636

Retail Salesperson: $23,473

Retail Assistant Manager: $39,063

Stock Clerk: $28,934

Based on salary ranges, delivery truck drivers can afford a median-priced home in only 13% of the markets studied by the Center, compared to 71% for mail carriers, 32% for assistant managers, 8% for stock clerks, and 1% for retail salespeople. Mail carriers can afford to rent a one- or two-bedroom apartment in nearly all of the markets analyzed, but delivery truck drivers can afford to rent a one-bedroom in only 69% of those markets, and a two-bedroom in 41%. Retail assistant managers can afford a one-bedroom in 88% of the markets and a two-bedroom in 69%, but rents are beyond the means of a good many salespeople and clerks who may work for that manager in a retail store.

“Even after record home price declines, retail workers do not generally earn enough to afford to buy a median-priced home,” the Center reports. “With rents actually increasing (modestly), these workers face considerable difficulties affording their housing costs.”

The Center found that delivery truck drivers made out best as home buyers in markets such as Florida, Ohio, and Michigan, where foreclosures abound. But drivers who reside in places such as Washington, D.C.; New York; San Francisco; and Honolulu can’t afford rents there.

One-bedroom rents are within the budget of a retail salesperson in only 15% of the metros studied. And in only two markets—Mansfield and Youngstown, Ohio—is a median-priced home affordable for retail salespeople with access to credit; that is if they can save enough of their meager salaries to meet down-payment requirements.

So where does this situation leave people in these kinds of jobs? Usually making longer daily commutes to job centers from towns where housing might be more affordable. And if those towns don’t have public transportation, those commutes leave modest-income workers more vulnerable to rising fuel prices.

The Center argues that municipalities must consider more seriously the dilemmas these workers face, and come up with solutions that create higher-paying jobs and lower-cost housing.

John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Washington, DC, New York, NY, San Francisco, CA.