If you rent a home or apartment and feel like you can barely keep up with your monthly payments, you’re not alone. An affordable housing crisis is squeezing people all across America, and it’s getting worse.
Access to secure, affordable, high-quality housing is an issue that touches many aspects of a person’s well-being. “It’s the foundation for success at work, at school, and in one’s life,” said Stockton Williams, executive director of the nonprofit National Council of State Housing Agencies. “Without it, all of those basic elements of a good life are much harder to realize.”
Rental costs are rising faster than wages, putting enormous pressure on people who earn the least amount of money. This has been a problem since the 1960s, but it’s accelerated in the last 10 to 15 years, Williams told HuffPost.
Renting a modest two-bedroom apartment in any county, state or metro area is unaffordable for people working full-time, minimum-wage jobs, according to a report published this month by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
The NLIHC report found that a full-time worker would need to make $22.96 an hour on average to afford a modest two-bedroom rental. The federal minimum wage, however, is just $7.25 an hour.
Middle-income people are also struggling to make rent, the report found. The national average renter’s hourly wage is $17.57 ― well above minimum wage yet below the threshold needed to afford most places without straining their pocketbooks, meaning they don’t spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs.
To understand how this crisis got so out of control, let’s take a look at three major factors that are driving up rents across America:
1. The Great Recession threw the rental market out of whack.
When the real estate bubble burst in 2007, it tanked home prices and plunged the economy into chaos. The effects of this chain reaction can still be felt in the rental market today.
Foreclosure rates soared between 2007-2010, and millions of people who had previously been homeowners suddenly found that their only option was to rent. The Great Recession happened right as older millennials were reaching the age where, under normal economic circumstances, they might have considered buying their first home; many were forced to rent instead.
It was a perfect storm. New construction practically ground to a halt, so not enough new units were created to accommodate all the new renters. This helped drive up rental prices, especially in big cities.
Construction is booming again, but developers aren’t building affordable rental units fast enough to keep pace with demand. Though the economy has largely recovered from the recession, as many as 6 million would-be homeowners are still renting, according to a study by the Mortgage Bankers Association in 2016. And with millions of baby boomers now entering retirement, selling their homes and renting houses in more walkable neighborhoods, there is even more demand in the rental market.
Financial institutions have severely tightened credit requirements on home loans to prevent another real estate bubble, and this abundance of caution might be trapping people in rentals longer than they want to be.
The Urban Institute think tank found in 2016 that overly strict lending rules had locked lower-income people out of the housing market at a time when it would have been economically advantageous for them to buy. Though lending rules have relaxed slightly in the last couple years, they’re still extraordinarily strict, said Sheryl Pardo, a spokesperson for the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center.
“Mostly, you have to have pristine credit to get a loan,” Pardo said. While stricter lending standards aren’t necessarily a bad thing, especially in the wake of an economic calamity like the recession, making them too tight can be bad for people with less-than-perfect credit who want to buy their first home.
And the current real estate market is especially disastrous for African Americans, who have already faced decades of institutional racism that allowed officials to segregate their neighborhoods and lenders to deny them traditional home loans.
“Some black families were hit twice ― by first losing their home to foreclosure, and then entering a rental market where costs have escalated far faster than their income,” said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the NLIHC.
“If you’re renting for 10 years at a higher rate, you can’t afford a down payment on a house,” said Pardo.
2. It costs too much to build housing.
The last few years have seen a construction boom — but for luxury apartment buildings.
“It’s not that developers or realtors want to serve the upper end of the market,” said Williams, but the high costs of building and renovating make it much more appealing. “It’s very difficult to profitably deliver high-quality housing that’s not aimed at the upper end of the income spectrum.”
A huge part of the problem is a shortage of construction workers across the country. The number of workers in this sector still hasn’t recovered to pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, Americans are aging out of construction jobs, and Trump’s hardline stance on immigration is likely helping to stymie the flow of new workers into the sector.
In addition, prices for construction materials like lumber and cement have risen in the last couple of years, and higher fuel prices are adding to transportation costs. Trump’s tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, as well as wood, caused suppliers to hike their prices too.
3. Lawmakers could fix the problem, but they haven’t.
The federal government has neglected programs that could help reverse the affordable housing crisis. Housing experts say the government should promote more construction and preservation of affordable units, as well as increase rental assistance and emergency money for cost-burdened renters.
Currently, the government underfunds or avoids contributing to all these efforts, the bulk of which comes through the Housing and Urban Development department.
Due to budget constraints, only about 1/4 of the households that qualify for federal rental assistance actually get the help they need, according to a 2017 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities think tank.
“Rather than working to increase funding for solutions to the housing crisis, [the Trump administration has] proposed again and again deep cuts or to entirely eliminate programs that keep people housed,” Yentel said.
There are problems too at the local government level. Restrictive zoning laws, which essentially ban multi-family homes in some neighborhoods, can drastically limit the construction of rental apartments that low- and middle-income people could afford.
The scale of America’s housing crisis, however, is leading to a greater focus on housing policy at the state and local level.
“We are reaching a tipping point,” said Yentel. “Public opinion and public pressure for solutions are growing. Policymakers increasingly are heeding that call.”
Earlier this year, Oregon became the first state to implement a rent control law, capping how much landlords can jack up rents each year and making it harder to evict tenants. California also looks poised to enact a rent cap. In June, New York’s governor signed a rent control package that included sweeping protections for renters. And exclusionary zoning rules are now facing a “reckoning” in cities across the country, according to the New York Times.
Affordable housing has even taken center stage during the run-up to the 2020 election. Three-quarters of voters say they’re more likely to choose a presidential candidate who has a plan to fix the crisis, per NPR. Several of the Democratic hopefuls ― Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro ― have unveiled plans to tackle the affordability crisis.
Opinions are mixed as to whether these efforts and proposals will help build and preserve affordable housing and genuinely tackle the crisis. But it’s a start, said Williams. “The know-how and commitment are there. Now we just need to bring the political will to bear to get to the kind of scale to solve this.”
Laura Paddison contributed reporting.
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