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Here’s What U.S. Cities Gain If Housing Is Affordable

Op-Ed: "If no renter households paid more than 30 percent of income on rent, they would have an extra $124 billion."

Demonstrators protest against evictions in San Francisco in 2015. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

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This week, as part of the #RenterWeekofAction, September 18 to 23, renters in over 45 cities will take to the streets to demand better protections from displacement and more community control over land and housing.

Recognizing the severity of the housing affordability crisis facing renters from Oakland to Miami and the need for policy solutions, the National Equity Atlas, a partnership between PolicyLink and the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, analyzed the growth of renters in the nation and in 37 cities, their contributions to the economy, and what renters and the United States stand to gain if housing were affordable.

We found that renters now represent the majority in the 100 largest cities in the U.S. and are growing as a share of the population nationwide, comprising 35 percent of the population — a 27 percent increase since 2000. Renters also make tremendous contributions to economic, social and political life. They bring vitality, culture and connection to their neighborhoods and cities; they vote and volunteer in local schools; they bring dollars into their communities. Nationally, they spend $1.5 trillion per year after paying for rent and utilities, contributing billions to local economies across the country.

But that spending power has been shrinking. Renters, in many cities, are also facing a toxic mix of rising rents and declining incomes. Since 2000, median rents increased by 9 percent while median renter household incomes decreased by 11 percent. And these are real, inflation-adjusted changes. Given these circumstances, it’s not surprising that more than half of renter households now spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities, up from 39 percent in 2000. Today, nearly 50 million people nationwide live in rent-burdened households.

If no renter households paid more than 30 percent of income on rent, they would have an extra $124 billion to put back into their family budgets where they could pay for the basics like healthcare, child care, transportation or food. This $124 billion in renters’ pockets averages out to roughly $6,200 per rent-burdened household. This is enough for 90 percent of an entire food budget, nearly two-thirds the cost of child care, almost all transportation costs, or two-thirds the cost of tuition at a public four-year university (living expenses are based on a three-person household). Across the largest 100 cities, the average gains per household range from roughly $13,000 in Irvine, California, to $4,000 in El Paso, Texas. In all cities, it would provide an opportunity for families to save and invest in their futures.

It would also improve the health and livelihoods of the nation’s most vulnerable renters. Nearly one in five households is paying more than half of their income on rent nationally. Studies have shown that these severely rent-burdened households spend less than half others do on food, which is often cheaper and less nutritious. And when those families are finally able to secure housing vouchers (often after years on a waiting list), one of the largest spending categories of the additional cost savings is food.

What’s Holding Us Back?
Every year, renters are evicted from their homes by the millions. And landlords and corporate investors are profiting off of these evictions. One of the major findings of Matthew Desmond’s research in his bestselling book, “Evicted,” was that evictions are not just a condition, but a cause, of poverty. After evictions, families are often compelled to accept substandard housing, and dealing with the aftermath of an eviction can lead to job loss. Eviction and housing instability also have serious mental health consequences. Recently, there have even been cases of landlords threatening immigrant tenants with deportations if they refuse to leave, if they make complaints about housing conditions, or if they challenge rent increases.

The housing affordability crisis is not only taking a toll on renters, it’s also impacting municipal pocketbooks. Research from the Urban Institute shows how renters’ economic and housing insecurity drains city budgets: In a typical year, one in four households experiences an income disruption due to job loss, health or a pay cut of 50 percent or more. And this has major cost implications for cities when it comes to homeless services, unpaid utilities and uncollected property taxes. One remedy is reducing evictions by providing legal counsel to tenants facing eviction. Just this year, NYC became the first city to guarantee lawyers to tenants who are facing eviction.

This affordability crisis is particularly wearing on black and brown women and their children. Desmond’s research also found that one in five black women renters report being evicted at some point in their lives. For white women, it was one in 15. Families with kids were also three times as likely to get evicted than those without kids (even after controlling for how much money they owed a landlord).

Our analysis found that women of color are the most impacted by the renter crisis. Six in 10 women of color-headed households are rent-burdened nationally while the number drops to four in 10 among white men-headed households. Importantly, there are roughly the same number of renter households headed by white men (11 million) as there are renter households headed by women of color (10.8 million).

Women of Color Continue to Face the Steepest Rent Burdens
Share of renter households paying more than 30 percent of income on rent, 2000 and 2015

There Is a Better Way
Evictions and displacement are violent and disruptive. They cut tenants off from their communities, schools, doctors, services, places of worship and their homes. Policymakers at all levels need to address the renter affordability crisis. They should support policies that strengthen the social and economic vitality of our communities. These policy opportunities include:

  • Tenant protections like just cause eviction and rent control ordinances, as well as eviction prevention. New York City was the first to provide legal counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction, the vast majority of whom go to eviction court without a lawyer. Baltimore and Philadelphia are among a growing list of cities considering similar tenants’ right to counsel laws.
  • Full funding for HUD: There are multiple federal funding sources for direct housing assistance (including public housing, Housing Choice vouchers and Section 8), but only one in four eligible families actually receives any kind of assistance. In many cities, the waiting list is measured in decades or closed. Each year, federal expenditures for direct housing assistance is just a fraction of what is spent on homeowner tax benefits (most of which go to wealthy families). Still, President Donald Trump’s administration and HUD Secretary Ben Carson are attempting to drastically cut the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget.
  • Community ownership of land and housing through the creation of community land trusts, as well as ensuring that public land is used for the public good, and not just sold to the highest bidder.
  • Diverse affordable housing strategies: The production of affordable housing (via affordable housing linkage/impact fees or inclusionary zoning), as well as the preservation of single-room occupancies (SROs) and “naturally occurring affordable housing.”
  • Living wages: The other piece of the housing crisis puzzle is stagnating wages and the need to raise the floor on low-wage work. From 2000 to 2015, median renter household income declined in real terms in 88 of the 100 largest U.S. cities. Policymakers and employers should support minimum wage increases and living wage ordinances.

The direct actions and mass renter assemblies taking place this week across the U.S. are demanding these policies. Join the movement by visiting, Right to the City and CarsonWatch, and following #RenterWeekofAction and #RenterNation on social media.

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Ángel Ross is a program associate at PolicyLink, where they research and collaborate with local and national partners through the National Equity Atlas and the All-In Cities initiative. Ángel specializes in leveraging data to support advocacy and to build the case for equity and racial economic inclusion.

Tags: affordable housingreal estatehudprotests

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