The “Housing Affordability Crisis”: Affordable Low-Income Rentals Without Federal Assistance?

Recently there has been some discussion of rental affordability and the increasing share of income that American households pay for rental units. Back in January, we examined rent as a share of income in adding that data as well as income data to our maps. Since then, some have discussed the particular hardships faced by low income renters, such as in a wonderful interactive map and report by The Urban Institute on the evolving housing availability landscape for extremely low-income (ELI) households. The bleak housing outlook for low-income households has led some to theorize on the culprit of the “housing affordability crisis.” Some argue that the supply of apartment units has simply not kept pace with the trend of Americans increasingly choosing to rent, causing low income renters to spend increasingly large portions of their income on housing. Meanwhile, Next City, in an interesting analysis of the Philadelphia market, concludes that poor housing affordability in Philadelphia is a symptom of low income rather than of insufficient rental supply.

As we do not gather public housing or Section 8 information, we can’t and won’t speculate on the causes or the magnitude of a dearth of low-income housing. That said, it is clear that households are paying a more sizeable fraction of income toward housing than in previous years, and that finding a rental for less than 30% of income is increasingly challenging. Given that we have a large database of rental listings, we decided to investigate the following: all things being equal, how difficult would it be for an extremely low-income household to find an affordable rental without federal assistance?

To answer this question, we first have to set out the assumptions we are making:

  • Households are four-person households as in The Urban Institute study.
  • The per-county ELI cutoff levels for household income are the same 2012 values used by The Urban Institute.
  • Rent above 30% of annual income is considered burdensome, as commonly defined.
  • Given a household of four, it was assumed that any unit needed at least 2 bedrooms.
  • Lastly, assuming “all things being equal”: it is possible that market-clearing prices would change if federal assistance did not exist.

Above: The ELI cutoffs for a four-person household in various counties around the U.S.

Given these assumptions, we set out to find just how many listings in a county could satisfy our criteria. For each county under consideration, we looked at listings from the past three months where the listings satisfied the price and bedroom parameters set out above. We then compared the number of these listings to the number of ELI renter households in the respective county to find the ratio of ELI listings to ELI renter households.

Above: The maximum monthly rent a four-person ELI household could pay to not exceed 30% of income by county.

As it turns out, these rentals are indeed very rare. In all 16 counties we examined, none of the counties had more than 1000 such units. Furthermore, the proportion of the number of these cheap listings to the number of ELI renter households did not exceed 1% in any of the 16 counties under consideration

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Incidentally, the proportion of listings to ELI renter households appears to buttress Next City’s determination that Philadelphia’s problem rests with income more than with rental supply, as Philadelphia has more than twice the proportion of ELI rentals compared to comparable cities (again, this is strictly private housing and does not include Section 8). According to The Urban Institute, of the top 100 counties in the U.S., Suffolk County (Boston) had the smallest gap between the number of affordable listings and the number of ELI renter households. Why then is the gap larger in our data? The Urban Institute figure includes federal housing assistance, which ours does not. Thus, once again, these figures on affordable listings should be understood with the knowledge that the presence of federal housing assistance can vastly affect the number of affordable units. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see how scarce many of these units on the low end of the market would be relative to the number of households potentially looking to rent them if there were no federal assistance.

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