We’ve mapped America’s rental housing crisis

By Graham MacDonald and Erika Poethig :: March 3rd, 2014

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Many Americans struggle to afford a decent, safe place to live in today’s market. Over the past five years, rents have risen while the number of renters who need moderately priced housing has increased. These two pressures make finding affordable housing even tougher for the very poor households in America. For every 100 extremely low-income (ELI) renter households in the country, there are only 29 affordable and available rental units. Extremely low-income households—a definition used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—earn 30 percent of area median income or less. Depending on the area of the country, for a family of four, this translates into incomes of less than $7,450 to $33,300.

Not one county in the United States has an even balance between its ELI households and its affordable and available rental units. As a result, ELI households have to search harder for a place to live, spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, or live in substandard housing.

Some markets are tighter than others. Of the top 100 U.S. counties in 2012, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, has the smallest gap in units that are affordable and available for ELI households; Cobb County, Georgia, has the largest. But does this mean ELI households in Suffolk County have it easy? The answer is no. Even in Suffolk County, which is home to Boston, only 50 units are affordable and available for every 100 families earning $29,350.

This situation would be much worse without HUD rental assistance, which we estimate provides almost 3.2 million affordable and available units to ELI households. HUD assistance comes in three forms: public housing, Housing Choice Vouchers, and privately owned but federally assisted housing. Without HUD rental assistance, we estimate that there would be 1 affordable and available rental unit for every 100 ELI households in the United States. The number would drop from 50 to 7 rental units for every 100 ELI households in Suffolk County, where an estimated 85 percent of the affordable and available rental housing for ELI households is federally assisted.

Why isn’t the private market filling this gap? The answer is relatively simple. With a few exceptions, the economics do not pencil out. Without subsidy, private developers cannot build or operate a new unit of rental housing at a cost ELI households can afford to pay.

The good news is some counties have been closing the affordability gap, including places like Suffolk County, Massachusetts, and Hennepin County, Minnesota, which is home to Minneapolis and its surrounding suburbs. Over the past decade, these two communities have engaged in intensive state and local efforts to preserve existing federally assisted housing that have stemmed the tide of losses. In addition to federal assistance, stakeholders in these communities invest significant state, local, and philanthropic resources in affordable housing serving ELI households.

Other counties have been losing significant ground. Wayne County, Michigan, and the District of Columbia offer two examples of how the affordability gap can widen under two dramatically different sets of market conditions: a really weak market, where incomes are low and lower-cost units are dropping out of the stock, versus a hot market where incomes are better but rents are rising faster. Wayne County (where Detroit is located) lost just over 22,400 rental units that are affordable and available to ELI households, likely due to demolitions of rental housing, but added approximately 10,700 ELI households competing for the units that remained. Between 2000 and 2012, DC lost approximately 8,000 units that are affordable and available for ELI households, likely due to gentrification, while losing just over 2,000 ELI households. DC’s overall affordability gap worsened during this period; in 2012, 23 percent fewer units are affordable and available for every 100 ELI households. That said, it is still near the top of the largest 100 counties with the highest number of units that are affordable and available for ELI households.

To zero in on trends for your own region, we encourage you to explore this new interactive map.

The Urban Institute will update this map periodically. And, as data become available, we will track the affordability gap for ELI households, as well as very low-income and low-income households.

The Assisted Housing Initiative is a project of the Urban Institute, made possible by support from Housing Authority Insurance, Inc. (HAI, Inc.), to provide fact-based analysis about public and assisted housing. The Urban Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan research organization and retains independent and exclusive control over substance and quality of any Assisted Housing Initiative products. The views expressed in this and other Assisted Housing Initiative commentaries are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute or HAI, Inc.

19Comments

  1. D.C. Stacks Up Well on Affordable Housing, Per Report – Housing Complex  ::  4:55 pm on March 3rd, 2014:

    [...] against the rest of the country when it comes to housing affordability? The Urban Institute has a report out today that answers this question by tracking housing affordability in the country's 100 biggest [...]

  2. This Month’s Housing News  ::  12:20 am on March 4th, 2014:

    [...]  We’ve mapped America’s rental housing crisis. Urban Institute MetroTrends Blog, Mar. 3, [...]

  3. Forward Lookout | Affordable Housing Pawn  ::  8:47 am on March 4th, 2014:

    [...] http://blog.metrotrends.org/2014/03/america-rental-housing-crisis/ [...]

  4. Will  ::  12:43 pm on March 4th, 2014:

    If I am reading the report correctly there are 45 available units for every 100 low income renters in D.C. IF you have a subsidy. If you do not have a subsidy- there are only 2 available units for every 100 people. The problem in D.C. is the wait-list for subsidized housing is closed and numbers 70,000 people. Therefore, DC really does not measure up well because it currently provides no subsidies. Not sure why the Urban Institute choose to release findings this way. Seems a little misleading.

  5. Minding Your Business » Blog Archive » Map illustrates affordable housing gap in Kitsap  ::  5:18 pm on March 4th, 2014:

    [...] according to analysis by the nonprofit Urban Institute, which compiled a county-by-county map illustrating the nationwide affordable housing [...]

  6. Market Update: Urban Growth, Larger Buildings, and Competing for those “Savvy” Renters | Seattle Rental Group Blog  ::  1:00 pm on March 7th, 2014:

    [...] Low-income Americans have struggled to find housing in recent years; now, Metrotrends has mapped the shortage of affordable housing for extremely low-income households (ELIs). The biggest gaps between need and availability were found in counties in Georgia, Florida, and Texas; the smallest gaps were found in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. According to the article, for every 100 ELI households across the US, there are just 29 affordable units available. That number holds true for King County as well. Read more. [...]

  7. Friday news roundup 3/7/14 | Nan McKay and Associates  ::  2:03 pm on March 7th, 2014:

    [...] MetroTrends: America’s rental housing crisis, mapped [...]

  8. The Current Affordable Rental Housing Crisis | LDG Consulting | Blog  ::  10:34 pm on March 9th, 2014:

    [...] A very intriguing and sad analysis of the current state of affairs by the Urban Institute. [...]

  9. Meryl  ::  2:06 pm on March 20th, 2014:

    Will:

    Although the District of Columbia Housing Authority wait list is closed, it only means that new applicants will not be added to the waitlist until such time as they have cleaned it up (removing those who have died, are otherwise housed, etc.). They are still serving those already housed under their programs, so your post is inaccurate. Additionally, there are other agencies through which District residents can seek housing or housing subsidies besides the Housing Authority.

  10. Forward Lookout | Input on the Cities Priorities  ::  9:33 am on March 21st, 2014:

    [...] ·         – In Dane county we have 23,829 extremely low-income renter households (24,850) and only 5,003 affordable rental units, which leaves a gap of 18,826 affordable units.  For every 100 ELI household, there are only 21 affordable and available rental units.  (America’s Rental Housing Crisis) [...]

  11. Housing for Extremely Low Income (ELI) Families | Capital Region Sustainable Communities  ::  10:39 am on March 24th, 2014:

    [...] Urban Institute’s blog Metro Trends published an interesting article and interactive map a few weeks back on the gap between available affordable housing for Extremely [...]

  12. Thornton Hall  ::  1:33 pm on March 30th, 2014:

    The private market does not supply the needed housing because the economics “do not pencil out.” It’s awesome to see this acknowledgement of the reality that economic forces beyond the control of regulations are at work here.

    The problem is the lack of critical thinking about the next sentence: “Without subsidy, private developers cannot build or operate a new unit of rental housing at a cost ELI households can afford to pay.”

    That is not a scientific conclusion. It’s a policy choice that assumes that subsidies are the only way to change the economics. But supply and demand tells us that the price of something goes down when supply goes up. Furthermore, lowered demand makes prices go down. The answer is obvious: a large supply of housing that is in low demand.

    Currently, we make housing undesirable by moving it away from jobs, transportation, and government services. Thus the poor live where they are doomed to stay poor.

    How do we generate undesirable units that are close to jobs and services? We can’t because zoning laws require that a. you are not allowed to add housing units in desirable areas, and
    b. if you do, they must be extremely desirable (i.e., expensive).

    How do you make undesirable housing that is not sub-standard? You make it small. We need laws that allow for the construction of units too small to attract the rich, but in neighborhoods where the rich already live.

    Big buildings with lots of too small units are economically viable for developers even without subsidies.

  13. What the 2014 Rental Crisis Means for Property Managers | Property Management Blog | SnapInspect  ::  3:29 am on April 7th, 2014:

    [...] recent recession and foreclosure crisis has led to a spike in rentals that has not seen its equal in several decades.  Particularly in metropolitan areas like San [...]

  14. Eduardo  ::  6:48 am on April 25th, 2014:

    The situation is very dramatic, in Dallas cashiers can only afford to live in very few areas

    http://www.fixr.com/tx/dallas/#g=32.8576716,-96.7473221,11&fp=41-2011&sp=00-0001&hm=30F&hra=737&fpl=MCP&st=48113009402

  15. One in four: America’s housing assistance lottery  ::  9:00 am on May 28th, 2014:

    [...] lottery isn’t the only housing challenge that low-income families face. Across the country, only 3.2 million housing units are available at rents that are affordable for more than 11 million extremely low-income households. This leaves 8 million [...]

  16. Could our super-sized rental market be crowding out affordable housing opportunities?  ::  8:12 am on June 17th, 2014:

    [...] the same time, it’s pretty clear that we don’t have enough affordable homes to go around. I often hear about the need to build more affordable rental units, particularly for [...]

  17. Report: Cobb County tops the list of places where the rent is too damn high for poor people |  ::  9:38 pm on July 17th, 2014:

    [...] the report’s authors note on the Urban Institute’s Metro Trends blog, this is a category of housing private developers stay clear [...]

  18. The Washington DC area needs more affordable rental housing  ::  9:09 am on July 24th, 2014:

    [...] Rental housing affordability is a big problem in the area. Nearly half of all renters (regardless of income level) in the Washington region were cost burdened in 2009-11. That means almost 315,000 households were paying more than 30 percent of their monthly income on rent and utilities. To give you a sense of the magnitude of the problem, there were about 300,000 households total in Prince George’s County, Maryland. [...]

  19. CityStat: In American Cities, There Are Only 29 Affordable Units for Every 100 Low-Income Families « coUrbanize Blog  ::  10:37 am on September 24th, 2014:

    […] low-income families (those making under 30% of the median income in their local area), there are only 29 rental units that are affordable and available to them. There just simply isn’t enough supply to meet the […]