The lack of affordable US homes is turning high-earning Americans into renters, too

The end of the American homeowner.
The end of the American homeowner.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Until recently, affordable housing was mentioned only in conversations involving low-wage or unemployed workers—or the homeless. The only groups that focused on rising rental costs were low-income housing advocacy groups.

That has now changed.

For the first time since possibly the Great Depression, the lack of affordable housing is being viewed as a crisis that affects Americans of all ages, races and income groups.

While the US Supreme Court spotlighted the issue in Thursday’s ruling allowing parties to challenge housing practices even if they do not (or cannot) prove there was intentional bias or discrimination, the mainstream media is finally catching on as well.

In the last three weeks, the Washington PostNew York Times, and Wall Street Journal have all sounded the alarm about the country’s looming affordable housing crisis. In addition, well-heeled non-profit groups—like the foundation recently formed by the former CEO of the nation’s largest apartment developer—have begun urging politicians to address the growing problem of rental housing unaffordability.

Growing more somber

Some of the recent media attention on the unaffordability of housing was triggered by the 2015 state of the nation’s housing report, just released by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS). While the JCHS has issued a similar report every year since 1988, the latest edition opens with an unusually somber tone about the state of housing in this country.

“Homeownership at 20-year lows,” bellows the opening line of the 2015 report.

By comparison, the first line in 2013 highlighted the “housing market revival,” while the 2014 report only hinted at the growing problems with “single-family slowdown.”

This change in tone was very slow in coming. The 2013 report optimistically reported that “the long-awaited housing recovery finally took hold in 2012.” The 2014 report, while less rose-tinted, still noted that “the housing market gained steam in early 2013.”

The 2015 report strikes a decidedly different and more alarmist tone by emphasizing that the housing recovery lost momentum as homeownership rates continued to fall. This report then chronicles the increase in the number of renters who are cost-burdened and cannot find affordable housing and the number of minority neighborhoods that still have not recovered from the recession.

Who’s struggling

While news sources have intermittently reported on housing affordability issues since the recession, what is new about the current affordable housing reports is who is struggling to find affordable housing. It’s no longer just millennials or the poor or homeless people.

Prior accounts have described the low homeownership rates of cash-starved millennials who live with their parents because of high student loan debt and low-wage jobs.

The recent New York Times article discusses former homeowners who are now forced to rent because they lost their homes to foreclosure and cannot qualify for a mortgage loan because of blemished credit. Likewise, the Washington Post article discusses middle and even upper-income renters and the fact that many parents of millennials are now struggling to find affordable housing.

The JCHS report explains that homeownership rates for Americans aged 35 to 44 have now dropped to levels not seen since the 1960s. In describing the housing affordability crisis for renters, the report shows that from 2004 to 2014, older Americans (aged 45 to 64) became renters at greater rates than millennials households under the age of 35.

Today’s rental crisis

Housing affordability is no longer limited to the lowest-paid workers. The JCHS report stresses that renters whose earnings place them in the highest-income quartile now account for more than 20% of new renters.

Renters are no longer the low-income, working-class Americans typically featured in news reports. Today’s rental crisis is now affecting just about everyone but the really rich.

The Wall Street Journal article assumes that policymakers are either blissfully unaware of the affordable housing crisis, or they are unwilling to do anything about it.

Politicians have not been willing to make changes to popular housing laws or policies that benefit upper-income homeowners, like the mortgage interest deduction. And they haven’t been willing to provide additional relief to lower-income renters by, for example, expanding the low income tax credit.

Politicians may be unwilling to do anything to solve the affordable housing crisis. But, after these recent reports, they can no longer say they don’t know the crisis exists.