Housing

Harvard Study Finds: The Rent Is Way Too High


Rent Is Too Damn High Party Founder Jimmy McMillan

Photograph by Kathy Kmonicek/AP Photo

Rent Is Too Damn High Party Founder Jimmy McMillan

Since the 1980s, rents (right scale) have risen, while incomes (left scale) have fallen. Both series are adjusted for inflationSource: Joint Center for Housing StudiesSince the 1980s, rents (right scale) have risen, while incomes (left scale) have fallen. Both series are adjusted for inflation

If you can’t afford to own, you can rent. But what if you can’t afford to rent, either? Millions of Americans are in precisely that situation, according to a study released today by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The availability of apartments, especially cheaper ones, hasn’t nearly kept up with demand, and the problem has worsened since the 2007-09 recession, the study says.

“In 1960, about one in four renters paid more than 30 percent of income for housing. Today, one in two are cost burdened,” according to the study, America’s Rental Housing.

“Cost-burdened” means you’re paying more than 30 percent of income for housing and “severely cost-burdened” means you’re paying more than half. “By 2011, 28 percent of renters paid more than half their incomes for housing, bringing the number with severe cost burdens up by 2.5 million in just four years, to 11.3 million,” according to the Harvard study, which was conducted with partial funding from the MacArthur Foundation.

The boom in housing prices made ownership unaffordable for many families, and the subsequent bust forced others into foreclosure. You would think that all of those foreclosed homes would make great rental properties, and they have. “Remarkably,” though, the study says, “soaring demand was more than enough to absorb the 2.7 million single-family homes that flooded into the rental market after 2007.”

The result of the spike in rental demand is a seller’s market: “From a record high of 10.6 percent in 2009, the vacancy rate turned down in 2010 and has continued to slide, averaging 8.4 percent in the first three quarters of 2013.”

As usual, the pinch is hardest on the poor, those with incomes under $15,000 a year who pay at least half their incomes on rent. “With little else in their already tight budgets to cut, these renters spend about $130 less on food—a reduction of nearly 40 percent relative to those without burdens.”

The problem would get worse if Congress, in its zeal to eliminate loopholes from the tax code, were to rid of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. That tax credit provides incentives for construction or preservation of affordable housing units—about 2.2 million since 1986.

Deterioration is another potential enemy of affordable housing. According to the center’s study, more than one in five mobile homes was removed from the housing stock from 2001 to 2011.

Coy_190
Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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