Shortly before the Census Bureau issued its new poverty/income report, the Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released figures from their latest housing survey. Bad news about the affordability of rental housing, especially for households below the federal poverty line.
In 2009, about 18.6 million renter households paid 30% or more of their current income for rent,* i.e., at or above the HUD cutoff for affordability. That’s 52.6% of all renter households. Close to a third paid at least half their current income for rent, aptly characterized by HUD as a “severe rent burden.”
As we’d expect, housing costs were a greater challenge for low-income households. About 73% of them — 6.8 million households — paid at least 30% of their current income for rent. Rent consumed half or more of all current income for 5.6 million households — just under 60%.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the severe rent burden figure for low-income households represents a 17% increase since 2007 — 800,000 more households in just two years. Compared to 2003, the increase is a whopping 45% or 1.7 million more households.
These figures reflect at least four converging factors.
One is the continuing shrinkage of affordable housing stock. Earlier this year, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that 6.3% of affordable units had been lost between 2001 and 2007.
Shrinkage in the District of Columbia has been more dramatic — more than a third of low-cost rental units lost during about the same time period.
Two other factors are both impacts of the recession. One, of course, is the prodigious number of jobs losses, which have left many households with less or no current income. What might have been affordable for them a couple of years ago now leaves them without enough ready cash for basic needs.
The other, related impact is foreclosures, which have increased competition for the limited number of moderate and low-cost rental units available. CBPP reports a nationwide 11.3% increase in rental costs since 2006. The old law of supply and demand at work.
A fourth major factor is government housing policies. At the federal level, rental assistance for low-income families has failed to keep pace with rising needs. Last year, CBPP reported that total funding for low-income housing programs in 2008 was $2 billion (5%) less than in 2004.
For 2009, Congress appropriated several hundred million dollars less for housing vouchers than agencies would have been eligible for if allocations been based on use and costs — this notwithstanding enormous waiting lists and rising rents.
CBPP estimates that funding for the current fiscal year is just about enough to renew all the vouchers families were using in 2009. The same is true for the President’s proposed Fiscal Year 2011 budget, though it would also provide funding for about 10,000 new vouchers for people with disabilities and families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
So we’re looking here at about 2.2 million vouchers, assuming (as we shouldn’t) that Congress goes along. That would leave an enormous gap between families in need of housing assistance and the help the federal government will provide.
Here in the District, the waiting list for affordable housing has reportedly grown to more than 26,000 households. The Fiscal Year 2011 budget will provide local funding for about 80 more units. Not a penny more for the tenant-based vouchers that allow households to live in apartments with market-based rents.
Even in better times, the District never came close to the targets or funding levels recommended by the Comprehensive Housing Task Force — a diverse group of experts commissioned to produce a long-range housing strategy for “an inclusive city.”
So the Census/HUD figures aren’t just a recession-caused blip. They’re the cumulative results of long-standing failures to give affordable housing the priority it deserves.
* The survey figures include households that reported paying 100% or more of current income for rent. The spreadsheets note that these may reflect a temporary situation, living off savings or a response error. I have followed CBPP in including them in my calculations.