Affordable Rental Housing Remains Out of Reach for Many Americans, New Report Shows

“Right now, our efforts to ensure that everyone has a safe, healthy home to weather the coronavirus storm are hampered by the fact that we already had a housing crisis in this country before this virus ever hit our shores”  U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown pointedly notes in the Preface to “Out of Reach: The High Cost of Housing 2020.”

Since 1989, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) has issued Out of Reach, to call attention to the gulf between actual wages and what people need to earn to afford their rents. The report affirms that even before the massive economic downturn caused by the coronavirus, housing costs outpaced what many workers could afford; more than 7.7 million extremely low-income renters were spending more than half of their limited incomes on housing costs.

According to the Report, in Massachusetts, the average or Fair Market Rent (FMR)[1] for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,847. For a household to be able to afford this level of rent and utilities, without paying more than 30% of income on housing, the household must earn a “Housing Wage” of $35.52 per hour (annual pay of $73,890). The average hourly renter wage in Massachusetts is estimated at $21.74, meaning that two incomes are required to afford the rent.  For single parent households, or other households where only one person is employed, the household income is typically not sufficient. For those making the minimum wage of $12.75, the situation is dire, as 111 work hours per week would be required to afford the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment.

In the Boston Metropolitan Area, the required Housing Wage is even higher, at $44.44 per hour.  But some communities outside of Boston face a steeper affordability challenge, as incomes are lower.  In the Brockton area, although average rents of $1,528 for a two-bedroom apartment are lower than the state average, the average renter wage is only $11.69 per hour.  At this income, even a household with two full-time employees earning the average renter wage could not come close to affording the average rent.

Of course, as noted in the Report, “the economic downturn spurred by the virus further increases the risk of housing instability for millions of low-wage renters at a time when stable housing is vital.” The unemployment rate for African Americans and Latinx Americans remains several percentage points higher than the overall rate. Low-income households are facing disproportionate hardships; the Federal Reserve’s May report on the economic well-being of U.S. households found that 39% of people working in February with household incomes below $40,000 reported job losses in March.

The Report describes the significant investment in federal rental housing programs needed to ensure that everyone has a decent and affordable home. It notes that the federal eviction moratoriums for renters in federally supported rental properties, and other state and local moratoriums, offer important protections for renters during this crisis, and should be extended. The Report adds that, since the moratoriums do not relieve renters of their obligations, significant federal assistance is needed, including the following:

  • Emergency Rental Assistance: $100 billion in emergency assistance is included in the HEROES Act, passed by the U.S. House and awaiting Senate action;
  • National Housing Stabilization Fund: Creation of an emergency assistance fund to prevent evictions and provide housing stability for families facing a sudden and temporary shock to their finances is included in the “Eviction Crisis Act,” introduced on a bipartisan basis by Senators Bennet and Portman;
  • Rental Assistance: Fully fund the Housing Choice Voucher Program, which allows households to pay 30% of their incomes for rent, as well as increased funding for Project-Based Rental Assistance. Senators Hirono, Gillibrand, and Booker have introduced legislation to fully fund Housing Choice Vouchers;
  • Increase Supply of Affordable Housing: Expanding the supply of affordable rental housing with significant increases in capital investments is necessary. For example, multiple bills have been introduced to provide additional funding for the National Housing Trust, currently capitalized at less than $1 billion per year; and
  • Capital Investments in Public Housing: NHLIC estimates that public housing authorities face a backlog of capital repair needs of $70 billion.

At its current funding levels, federal housing assistance is available to only one in four eligible low-income households (Fischer & Sard, 2017).  A sustained commitment to the investments described above are needed to make affordable rental housing, in Massachusetts and in the nation, in reach for everyone.

 


[1] Fair Market Rent:

Source: NLIHC calculation of weighted-average HUD fair market rent. Affordable rents based on income and benefits data from

BLS QCEW, 2018 adjusted to 2020 dollars