The number of cost-burdened renters — or people who spend more than the recommended 30% of their income on housing each month — is at a record high as affordability declines nationwide, according to a report from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies published Wednesday.

In 2021, the report said, there were a record 21.6 million cost-burdened renter households in the U.S., increasing by 1.2 million from 2019’s pre-pandemic levels to hit the highest recorded level since 2001. And while the share of cost-burdened renter households had previously been declining, that trend also turned around during the pandemic: 49% of renter households were cost-burdened as of 2021, inching toward the Great Recession-era peak of 51% in 2011. 

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The jump in the number of cost-burdened households during the pandemic was driven by households that would be considered “severely” burdened, or those spending more than half of their income on rent. Some 11.6 million U.S. households fell into that category in 2021, up by 1.1 million households from 2019.

“With such high housing costs, many households with lower incomes may struggle to pay for other necessities like food, clothes, and healthcare, which have become more expensive as inflation has risen,” the center said in its annual “State of the Nation’s Housing” report. “In 2021, the median renter and homeowner households with incomes under $30,000 had just $380 and $680 per month, respectively, after paying for housing to cover other necessities — the lowest residual incomes in two decades.”

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Renters with low incomes and Black and Hispanic renters are more likely to be cost-burdened, the report said.

Spending too much of one’s income on rent can be disastrous, leaving already-vulnerable households with little wiggle room for emergencies. Rent-burdened families may be at higher risk for eviction, and a 2018 study sponsored by Zillow found homelessness increases faster in communities where renters spend 32% or more of their income on housing.

So far, “overall homelessness has remained steady,” the Joint Center for Housing Studies report said, though unsheltered homelessness has worsened.

Yet “the nation continues to face critical housing challenges,” the report added. “There is a significant housing shortage, and affordable housing programs pale in comparison to the need. Housing insecurity and homelessness are on the rise as pandemic-era programs expire. The existing housing stock requires investment to meet the needs of an aging population and to address climate change. Meanwhile, racial segregation and inequities persist. Programs and policies at the federal, state, and local levels are making incremental progress toward addressing these various challenges, but more resources are needed.”

Rents surged to new highs in some big cities earlier in the pandemic, fueling inflation, though that price growth has since slowed considerably. Even so, many renters are still facing higher-than-normal prices when compared to pre-pandemic levels, and may not be able to graduate to homeownership anytime soon due to increasing costs there, as well.

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And finding a place to rent may continue to be especially difficult for lower-income tenants, as new housing construction has been targeted at “the high end of the market,” the report said, even as the number of units affordable to people making very low incomes has declined. 

“The market has lost 3.9 million units with contract rents below $600 in the last decade, and the loss has been accelerating,” the report said. “This low-rent segment declined by 1.2 million between 2019 and 2021 alone, to 8.0 million units.”

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