As a general rule of thumb, you don't want to devote more than a third of your pay to housing. Spend much more than that, and your mortgage payment or rent check starts to cut into your grocery bills, or your car payment (or transit fare), your student loans or your children's education. Spend more than half of your income on the roof over your head, and you're really starting to get in trouble.
Housing wonks refer to this last group of people as having a "severe housing cost burden," and their numbers offer a good indication of the twin problems of rising rent costs and falling incomes. Today, more than one in four working renter households in the U.S. (defined as households that work at least 20 hours a week, with an income below 120 percent of the median in the area) meets this criteria. And that share (now at 26.4 percent) has been inching up every year since the start of the recession. These figures come from a new report from the Center for Housing Policy looking specifically at housing affordability for working households. There were about 44.5 million such working households in the U.S. in 2011 (slightly more renters than homeowners).
This map from the report shows where those households are devoting a majority of their income to housing, by state:
At the metropolitan level, that percentage is the highest in Miami and the lowest in Pittsburgh.
There are a lot of different ways to measure the problem of housing affordability (or the lack thereof), and this particular metric obviously tells us nothing about those households that are unemployed entirely. But this is a helpful snapshot of the troubling trend that even workers making above-median incomes may be spending a dangerous amount of it just to have a home.