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Harvard study finds housing affordability a growing issue; Despite drops in home prices, many still struggle with rental costs

Written by Charlene Crowell on 12 September 2011.

While the recession has contributed to a price drop in residential homes, many consumers still lack the resources to transition from renting to homeownership.  In fact, according to a recent housing report, not only are the numbers of renters growing; but the nation’s supply of affordable rental housing is shrinking.

According to a recent report, America’s Rental Housing: Meeting Challenges, Buildings on Opportunities, from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, the number of renters paying more than half their income for housing is at a record.  A record high of 19 million American households – homeowners and renters combined – pay more than half their income for housing.

One in four renters – 10.1 million households nationwide – spends more than half their income on rent and utilities.  Workers earning $45,000-$60,000 saw the biggest increase in housing costs since 2001 with an increase of nearly eight percent from 2001-2009.

The common standard for housing affordability is that the combined cost of rent and utility costs are less than 30 percent of household income.  A housing burden connotes monthly costs between 30-50 percent; and when housing costs are more than 50 percent of household earnings, the residents are severely burdened.

By 2009, the share of moderately burdened renters stood at 49 percent and those severely burdened passed 26 percent.

With these data points, it is clear that the financial stress of housing affects middle class Americans and the poor alike.  Lower and middle income households together represent 79 percent of the nation’s renters– including a significant number of minorities.  Blacks and Latinos accounted for 89 percent of the growth in rental housing in this decade.

In the 100 largest metro areas studied, the share of severely cost-burdened renters climbed by an average of seven percentage points between 2001 and 2009.  According to the report, by the end of this decade the shares of renters spending more than half their incomes on rent and utilities will be a financial challenge in 73 metros areas.

As the rental market grew from 2000-2010, there was no comparable increase in the supply of affordable housing.  By 2009, for every 100 low-income renters, the competition was keen for the 64 available and adequate housing units.  The gap between available units and the number of renters contributes to overcrowded housing.

Miami had the largest share of severely burdened renters in 2009, followed by McAllen (TX)and Detroit.  Two Connecticut metros (New Haven and Bridgeport) and two Ohio metros (Toledo and Akron) also had shares above 30 percent.  New Orleans, Orlando, and Memphis rounded out the list of the 10 least affordable metros.

According to the report, “With millions of homeowners delinquent on their mortgages, further increases in the renter population are likely,” advises the report.  “Owners that have gone through foreclosure are especially like to remain renters for a number of years to come.”

With mortgage lenders now favoring would-be buyers who can offer larger down payments, higher credit scores, and verified incomes, few families will readily make the transition to homeownership and the opportunity to build wealth.  Remaining current on high rental housing costs removes the ability to save aggressively for a home on the current national median income of $64,200.

The irony is that right now, mortgage interest rates remain historically low and home prices are down in most areas of the country –even for high-end homes. In 2010, says the Joint Center, the median home price fell to about 3.4 times the median household income– the lowest since 1995.

Even so, for the foreseeable future – housing costs for purchase orrental will continue to challenge many American households.

Charlene Crowell is the Center for Responsible Lending’s communications manager for state policy and outreach. She can be reached at: Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org.

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