It's Tough Out There for Renters, But Most Americans Still Want More Options to Buy a Home

Just about everybody thinks they'd be better off with more housing to buy than more apartments to rent, according to the State of the City poll.

Image Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Few Americans today like their chances when it comes to renting an apartment. Chalk it up to the housing crisis or the credit crunch or the slow recovery. Blame it on the Google buses in the cities or rising poverty in the suburbs. Wherever you look, you're bound to find frustrated renters.

Yet it also appears that hardly anyone wants to do the thing that might alleviate rental stress: build more apartments. While more apartment buildings might give renters a wider range of housing options to suit their immediate needs, Americans are largely holding out to buy homes, according to respondents in the Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City poll.  

Across the board, respondents said they find it difficult to rent an apartment where they live. By nearly every category—race, class, gender, age, region, education, and location—half or more of respondents answered that it was somewhat or very difficult to "find rental housing where you live that is affordable and of good quality."  

Even the people most satisfied with the costs and quality of rental housing were not very satisfied. Of the 1,656 adults interviewed this summer for the poll, college-educated whites living outside of cities were most likely to say it was very easy or somewhat easy to get a good apartment—at 51 percent. Overall, whites, who reported the most happiness with their renting situation, were nevertheless slightly more likely to express dissatisfaction (49 percent) than satisfaction (45 percent).  

Despite this widespread frustration with the rental-housing scene across the United States, relatively few people think that adding more rental units would help them out. Respondents were much more likely to answer that they'd be better served by an increase in the number of houses to buy. 

Some people have an easier time of it, of course. Respondents in the Midwest said they find it easier than not to find an apartment that makes them happy (with 54 percent answering very easy or somewhat easy, and 38 percent describing it as somewhat difficult or very difficult). But that's only true in the Midwest. In the Northeast, South, and West, near super-majorities confirmed that it's hard to find good rental housing. 

The regions that report the most difficulty getting a good apartment were the least likely to recommend building more apartments. In the South, where the single-family home typology is the norm, 51 percent of respondents said that building more houses would increase their quality of life, more so than in other regions. The enthusiasm for building new apartments in the Northeast, however, is roughly the same as that in the South: low. 

So it appears the desire for better, cheaper apartments is not translating into demand for better, cheaper apartments. At least, that's not what respondents say they want. And nowhere is the disparity between the lack of affordable, high-quality rental units and demand for building more of them as plain as in cities. 

About two-thirds of urban U.S. renters say that it's hard to find a good apartment. Respondents living in non-urban areas registered nearly the same degree of discontent. Yet urban renters aren't convinced that building more apartments will help. 

Among all renters (urban and non-urban), less than half (48 percent) said that new rental housing would do the most to improve their quality of life. Among respondents making less than $30,000 per year, just 43 percent argued for more apartments (compared with 38 percent in favor of new houses to buy). 

Now, some respondents may have been thinking less about themselves than about their neighbors. Asked what would do the most to improve their quality of life, homeowners were much more likely to say the answer is to build more homes to buy (50 percent) than apartments to rent (28 percent), which could speak to a lingering stigma about renters. Non-urban parents and urban homeowners were especially inclined to suggest new housing over new apartments. (Although, to be fair, these groups found it slightly more difficult than not to find new housing to buy.)

The findings speak to the stickiness of the American Dream: Even after a Great Recession triggered by mortgage hanky-panky, and despite a herky-jerky housing market ever since, Americans are holding fast to the vision of investing in a home. Or perhaps it's that people think they're so close: A report released by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies earlier this month shows that many renters who can afford mortgages in their areas can't actually get them in real life.

Multifamily housing is booming around the country: According to the National Association of Home Builders, single-family housing starts were up 8.3 percent in July, compared to a 28.9 percent climb for multifamily units. (Multifamily residential construction is driving architecture, too.) In absolute terms there are still more single-family units going up (656,000 in July) than multifamily (437,000). But building permits for multifamily units rose 21.5 percent in July, outstripping single-family units (which rose by less than 1 percent). 

Multifamily construction still isn't what it could be, especially in the hottest metro areas. Yet with U.S. apartment construction hitting a 25-year high in July, the market seems to answering: You can't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.

The Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,656 U.S. adults by telephone between July 23 and August 4. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. For more details on the poll's methodology, go here

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