Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
For every 100 poor families in Las Vegas, there are only 12 affordable units available.
If you are among the 11-plus million American households classified as extremely low income, finding a place to live is a tall order, anywhere in the country. No state or large metro has enough units available. But the odds of landing one vary drastically—it’s much higher in Boston, for example, than in Las Vegas.
That’s according to a new report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which calculates the deficit in housing that families earning at or below either the poverty line or 30 percent of the area median income can live in comfortably—without spending more than 30 percent of their household income on rent and utilities.
Overall, only 35 affordable units were available per 100 extremely poor households. That’s a shortfall of 3.9 million units nationwide. Note: This number excludes in-budget rentals bracket that are occupied by higher-income households. Of the 7.5 million units that extremely poor households can afford, 3.5 million are occupied by people with higher incomes.“The poorest households in our nation face the largest shortage of affordable and available rental housing and have more severe housing cost burdens than any other group,” Andrew Aurand, vice president for research at NLIHC and lead author of the report, said in a press release. “The shortage disappears for households higher up the income ladder.”
Every state is experiencing some variation on an affordable housing shortage, but Nevada has the worst. The state has seen an economic boost during the recovery, driven by Las Vegas and Reno. But the housing market hasn’t kept up with all the people moving in to grab the new jobs. For 100 extremely low income households, just 15 units exist. In Las Vegas, the scarcity is even more stark: 12 units for every 100 extremely low income renters.
At the other end of the spectrum: Alabama has 61 homes for every 100 households in extreme poverty. Among the 50 largest metros, it’s Boston, with 46 units (which is still not very much).
Check out their map to see what the affordable housing deficits looks like in each state:
Since the recession, the share of renters has risen to record levels, and so has the extent of rent burdening. A recent study by Gregg Colburn and Ryan Allen at the University of Minnesota found that more than half of U.S. renters were burdened. This includes not just low-income households, but increasingly, middle-income ones. The NLIHC study shows that this trend continues to worsen. Per their analysis, 71 percent of households in extreme poverty are severely rent burdened—that is, they pay more than half their income on rent and utilities.
Think about what that means. For a family bringing in around $1,700 a month, paying $850 in rent leaves another $850 for food, transportation, healthcare, and child care. That’s an impossible budget on which to support a family in most places. According to a recent poll, one in five Americans cut back on essentials like food and health care to make rent.
Housing assistance policies have not caught up to this new reality. Reforming the Low Income Tax Housing Tax Credit, a key program that helps build affordable housing so it better addresses the needs of the most burdened renters, is one recommendation NLIHC makes in the report. Housing advocates also argue that the Mortgage Income Tax Deduction, which is designed to promote homeownership, is ineffective. As City Observatory’s Daniel Hertz writes:
What do we get for the mortgage interest tax deduction? Not much, according to the best research available. The goal, ostensibly, is to promote homeownership. Whether or not that’s a good idea in itself—we’ve had our doubts—the fact is that the mortgage interest deduction isn’t actually effective at promoting homeownership. Why not? A big reason is that the vast, vast majority of its expenditures go to high-income households: after all, you only get it if you itemize your deductions, and you get more money for having a more expensive house. That means most of the money is going to people who would have plenty of resources to buy a home without the deduction. Instead, the evidence seems to suggest that one of the main effects of the deduction is to encourage wealthy people to buy bigger houses.
Reconfiguring this program and redirecting resources towards struggling renters is what he and experts at NLIHC recommend. From the NLIHC report:
Reducing the amount of a mortgage eligible for a tax benefit from $1 million to $500,000 and converting the deduction to a tax credit would provide a new tax benefit for 15 million lower income homeowners who currently receive none, and a tax cut for 10 million more homeowners. These changes would generate $241 billion in new revenue over ten years to reinvest into programs such as the national Housing Trust Fund (HTF), Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV) and other rental assistance programs, and Public Housing.
Republicans in Congress have been considering limiting the MITD, but that’s unlikely to go down well with homeowner constituents. It also doesn’t mean that they’re planning to boost rental assistance. If anything, GOP statements and past actions suggest the contrary; their proposed tax reforms are already causing developers to rethink their investment in the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. The future of affordable housing under the newly confirmed HUD secretary is deeply uncertain. For poor families trying to find a cheap place to live, it’s possible that the best case scenario might be status quo.