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A record number of U.S. renter households — 21.6 million, or nearly half of all the nation’s tenants — were spending 30% or more of their income on housing in 2021, according to a new analysis from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Those tenants are considered “cost-burdened,” a term used by experts and advocates to describe renters who spend more than the commonly recommended portion of their paychecks on shelter, and may be at greater risk for eviction, debt and delays in healthcare. Yet there’s never been more of them at any point in the past 20 years of data collection, the Joint Center for Housing Studies said.
The previous record high for cost-burdened tenants was in 2014, at 21.3 million households, though that had fallen slightly to 20.4 million in 2019, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies’ analysis, which was based on American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The majority of the 1.2 million renters who became cost-burdened in the two years that followed were “severely burdened,” devoting more than half of their pay to housing.
Because more homeowners were also experiencing cost burdens in 2021 — 22.8% of them, or about 19 million households, spent more than 30% of their income on housing, an increase of 2.5 million households since 2019 but still lower than the 2008 high of 22.9 million — that means that nearly a third of all U.S. households were spending a precarious share of their income on housing.
“Taken as a whole, the data indicate the importance of programs targeted towards lower-income renters such as rental assistance and income supports,” Peyton Whitney, a research assistant at the Joint Center for Housing Studies, wrote in an article about the analysis Wednesday. “At the same time, there is clear need for strategies to increase the existing housing supply, which would keep housing costs in check and ultimately benefit households at all income levels.”
The increase in tenants spending more than 30% of their income on rent in 2021 was due in part to a 2.3% decline in median incomes among renter households after adjusting for inflation, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies. Median income for renters dropped from $44,500 in 2019 to $43,500 in 2021, according to the center’s analysis, while there was a jump in low-income renters making less than $30,000 a year, despite previous growth in higher-income tenants among the renter population.
Still, middle-income households experienced rent burdens, too. The share of renter households with incomes between $45,000 and about $75,000 experiencing burdens increased by 3.5 percentage points from 2019 to 2021, reaching 34.3%, according to the analysis, though households with the lowest incomes continued to shoulder the highest share of rent burden, with eight in 10 paying 30% or more of their income toward rent in 2021.
Importantly, 2021 was also a year marked by massive increases in rents: The average annual growth in median asking rents was 10.1%, compared 1.9% growth in 2020, according to a Realtor.com report from January of last year. (Realtor.com is operated by News Corp
subsidiary Move Inc., and MarketWatch is a unit of News Corp subsidiary Dow Jones.)
Rent growth has slowed since then, but the ramifications of high housing costs are still being felt by some, with eviction filings reportedly on the rise in some cities.