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America’s housing crisis, summed up in 3 charts

Rents are rising while incomes stagnate. It’s an “unprecedented” situation, as a new Harvard report details.

America’s housing crisis, summed up in 3 charts
[Source Image: sk/iStock]

Every year, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies releases a detailed report about the state of American housing. This year’s document, released yesterday at an event in Atlanta, contains some positive news—alongside harrowing numbers. At one point during the event, Chris Herbert, managing director of the center, jokingly described himself as “a member of the joint center for doom and gloom.”

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Rents are rising. Land prices are rising. Homelessness is rising, especially in booming areas like California and Seattle. Crucially, severe weather is increasing, further increasing the cost and scarcity of housing. What isn’t rising? For starters, the amount of affordable housing available in the United States. And perhaps more importantly, average income is falling for some households.

“There’s a fundamental market dynamic here that’s been going on for decades that’s really impervious to change: Incomes have been largely flat—or falling, for low income folks—and housing costs have been rising, driven by the cost of materials and the cost of land,” Herbert explained.

The situation is “unprecedented,” the report’s authors state. Three maps explain why.

Most people are spending more of their income on housing

There’s some good news in the report: “Cost-burdened” families, a term that describes anyone who pays more than 30% of their income for housing, decreased a tiny bit in 2017 (about .5%, to be exact).

Also some bad news: Almost half (47%) of people who rent are cost-burdened, and that number barely changed at all. Meanwhile, low-income people are the most cost-burdened (83%). But the number of middle-income people who pay more than 30% of their incomes for rent is increasing too, especially in cities where housing is expensive: In high-cost areas, a whopping 46% of people, who make $45,000 to $ 74,999, were technically cost-burdened.

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Low-income housing is disappearing

Pair those numbers with the fact that the amount of low-rent housing in America is dropping rapidly. About 4 million low-rent units (or those which cost $800 per month or less) disappeared between 2011 and 2017. Some areas of the country, like Seattle, Austin, and the Bay Area, have seen as much as 67% of their low-rent housing stock disappear during those six years. Only a tiny amount of new rental units being built are low-rent.

Add to that the fact that most of the dwindling low-rent housing left in America is old—43% of it was built 50 years ago or more, according to the report—and you’re left with a picture of a housing market where people are paying more of their incomes for housing, while the amount of housing available to them decays or disappears.

Home ownership is out of reach for many (and it has a lot to do with wages)

A bit more good news: Homeownership is increasing, thanks to an economy that’s recovering from the Great Recession, and it’s projected to keep growing rapidly over the next decade. However, that growth may be unequal. Over the past 30 years, the report notes, the incomes of people who are in the top quarter of the country’s earners rose by a huge 38.5%. How much did incomes rise in the lowest quarter? Just 2.3%.

“[A] rise in interest rates and home prices plus a tightening of credit, on top of the limited supply of entry-level housing, could put homeownership out of reach for many more households,” the authors explain. “[F]or the millions of families and individuals that struggle to find housing that fits their budgets, much greater public efforts will be necessary to close the gap between what they can afford and the cost of producing decent housing.”

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Herbert summed it up concisely during the report’s launch: “In many places, that’s a question of: How do we get incomes up?”

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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