Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Friday December 11th, 2015, 4:58pm

Record Number Of Renters Were Burdened By Housing Costs Last Year

The number of U.S. renters burdened by housing costs hit another high last year as rents increased while earnings stayed flat, a new report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University shows.

There were 21.3 million cost-burdened renters in 2014, meaning they paid more than 30 percent of their income on housing. That's up from the previous high of 20.8 million cost-burdened renters in 2013.

What's worse, there were 11.4 million severely cost-burdened renters last year who paid more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

In all, 46 percent of U.S. renters were cost-burdened last year, while 26 percent had severe burdens.

"More families are renting and too many of them are struggling as supply fails to meet demand and stagnant incomes fail to keep up with rising rents," said Julia Stasch, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which provided funding for the report. "The affordability of rental housing is a critical national issue that deserves more attention and more action from policymakers."

The tally of renter households is now at 43 million, up nearly 9 million since 2005, the research showed. 

As strong rental growth continued last year, the national rental vacancy rate dropped to 7.1 percent in the first three quarters of 2015. The vacancy rate hasn't been that low in three decades, according to the report.

"With vacancy rates now at their lowest point since 1985, rents are rising 3.5 percent annually in real terms--the fastest pace in nearly 30 years," the researchers wrote. 

Meanwhile, renter households saw their real median income increase slightly -- from a low of $31,600 in 2011 to $34,000 in 2014. Still, that figure is "slightly below the 2008 level and fully 9 percent below the 2001 level," the report said.

Higher rents, plus incomes that have yet to bounce back to pre-recession levels, mean millions of Americans are grappling with housing cost burdens. 

"Record-setting demand for rental housing due to demographic trends, the residual consequences of the foreclosure crisis, and an increased appreciation of the benefits of being a renter has led to strong growth in the supply of rental housing over the past decade both through new construction and the conversion of formerly owner-occupied homes to rentals," explained Chris Herbert with the Joint Center For Housing Studies at Harvard. 

"Yet the crisis in the number of renters paying excessive amounts of their income for housing continues, because the market has been unable to meet the need for housing that is within the financial reach of many families and individuals with lower incomes," he added. "These affordability challenges also are increasingly afflicting moderate-income households."

Affordable housing also remains in short supply for very low-income renters, or those earning up to 50 percent of the Area Median Income.

Only 7.2 million affordable units were available as of 2013 for the 18.5 million renter households with very low incomes. 

Additionally, federal housing assistance is not keeping pace with the growing number of low-income renters in need. Only 26 percent of eligible households received federal rental assistance in 2013, according to the most current figures cited in the report.

"Housing assistance programs have been unable to fill the gap, with some core programs subject to draconian reductions," Herbert said. "The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, which has not suffered the same cutbacks, remains critical to addressing both production and preservation of affordable rentals but by itself cannot address all need."

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