Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A new poll suggests that millions cut spending on groceries, clothing, and even medical care just to make rent over the past year.
Households in the U.S. are having a hard time making ends meet. Even as Americans continue to recover from the hammer that hit them in the late 2000s, they face severe and rising rents and jobs that are geographically concentrated in just a handful of metro centers.
A new poll conducted by Ipsos on behalf of Enterprise Community Partners finds that 21 percent of respondents had to cut back their spending to make their rent or mortgage, or that they were unable to pay their rent or mortgage over the past year. Of those respondents who were unable to pay for their housing, more than half cut back spending on their groceries (57 percent) and/or clothing (54 percent).
Some 15 percent of respondents said that they had moved once within the past five years due to rising rent or mortgage payments. And 15 percent also said that they were “very worried” (7 percent) or “moderately worried” (8 percent) that they would have to leave their homes within the next 12 months because their housing is unaffordable.
The poll reveals the economic insecurity that continues to wrack the nation. Americans are not so much struggling with economic conditions as they are adjusting to structural changes—seemingly permanent ones—within the U.S. economy. Job growth today is concentrated in fewer than two dozen counties. Federal assistance for poor families is evaporating, while the number of households facing worst-case housing needs is soaring. And zero counties have enough affordable housing for families facing extreme need.
With the demand for rental housing reaching its highest level in more than half a century in 2015, rents are rising everywhere. To make ends meet, respondents to the poll said that they cut back on a wide variety of spending to save enough for their rent or mortgage—namely groceries and clothing, but also household necessities (43 percent), travel (33 percent), and paying credit-card debt (31 percent). Almost one-quarter of respondents said they declined medical care in order to make their housing payment.
Beyond the individual sacrifices households made, the survey also reveals some of the broader economic views produced by the affordability crisis. For example, respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the following statement: “Leaders of our community should work to create and preserve safe and affordable homes for all.” Some 75 percent of respondents “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” to that sentiment. In practice, though, Americans often fail to agree about what kind of housing should be built and where, or which housing must be preserved and why.
Respondents overwhelmingly agree that communities need more affordable housing: 77 percent “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” with the statement, “We should develop rental homes that are more affordable for families in our community.” Respondents support state and local intervention to create affordable housing (71 percent “strongly favor” or “somewhat favor”), affordable housing for families earning low wages (82 percent), affordable housing for teachers and nurses (84 percent), and more affordable housing for seniors (89 percent).
But when asked how to create this affordable housing, respondents dithered. Half support a tax on home sales that would support affordable housing; half oppose. Fees on developments to support the construction of homes for low-wage workers are popular (65 percent), just not as popular as the idea of affordable housing. And respondents were split over the cause of rising prices in the rental market: 49 percent of renters said that new developments in their neighborhoods caused rents to rise, while 50 percent disagreed.
The poll was conducted between February 29 and March 4, 2016, with 1,006 adults interviewed online in English. Because it was conducted online, it may not include the perspective of very vulnerable households that do not have internet access. Statistical margins of errors do not apply to online polls—see more on the methodology here—but the Ipsos poll has a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.5 percent.
If this poll is any measure, Americans broadly agree that the affordability crisis is real and deserves government attention. Tens of millions of Americans have experienced hardships small and immoderate, directly and indirectly, and many are apprehensive about facing hardship in the future. What the solutions will look like is harder for people to say—but people are asking for answers.