Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Harvard’s State of the Nation’s Housing report reveals exactly where, and why, the rent is too damn high.
Ten years out from the start of the Great Recession, the housing market in the U.S. has finally returned to normal. Home prices in 2016 eclipsed the pre-crisis highs from about a decade ago. The number of homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages continues to plummet. Homeowners are making back some (but not all) of the wealth they lost to the mortgage foreclosure crisis.
The nation may be free of one housing crisis, but it’s still deeply mired in another one. That’s one jarring conclusion from the State of the Nation’s Housing report for 2017. Produced by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, the report highlights a rental affordability crisis that shows little sign of abating.
Across the nation, just 39 percent of renters make enough money to afford a house payment in their area. On average, 45 percent of the renters living in any given metro area can afford the monthly payment on a median-priced home where they live—less than half the renters in any city. While renters are hurting everywhere, the pain varies widely from metro to metro, and even from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Nationwide, most households living in metros (59 percent) can afford housing payments on a median-priced home for their area. Low-interest rates and Federal Housing Administration home-purchase mortgages have bolstered homeownership rates in recent years. The map above, however, shows something else—that’s the share of renter households who can afford a median house payment in the 100 largest metro areas. (The redder the shade, the lower the figure.) It’s a picture of a nation divided by income and locked in an affordability crisis.
While 72 percent of all households in St. Louis can afford the monthly housing payment there, just 51 percent of renter households can say the same. In large swaths of coastal California and the Pacific Northwest, less than one-third of renter households can afford house payments. Just 12 percent of L.A. renters meet that mark.
This is a worrying concern, since just this week, the Federal Reserve moved to slow down the economy by raising interest rates (despite the fact that the needle hasn’t budged on inflation). Moves in this direction have a big impact on would-be homeowners.
“A one percentage point hike in mortgage interest rates would raise the typical monthly payments on a median-priced home by about $130, reducing the share of households able to afford homeownership in their respective metros from 59.0 percent to 55.7 percent—a decline of 3.3 million households,” reads the Harvard report.
With prices and now interest rates rising, credit standards tightening, and demand persistent—the number of renter households rose by 600,000 from 2016 to 2016—the rental affordability crisis may be here to stay. Demand for rental housing has decelerated, but it is still growing, and the rental-housing vacancy rate is at a 30-year low. That’s why apartment prices are appreciating faster than the prices for either single-family homes or commercial property.
Housing affordability is a profound problem, one that is reshaping the way the country looks and lives. Multifamily construction now outpaces single-family homes as the prime source for rental housing (since 2013). Cities such as Austin look nothing like they did a decade ago: A surge of renter demand has packed its skyline with soaring new residential towers.
Different kinds of families are renting now, too: Households over the age of 55 accounted for nearly half of the growth in renter households between 2005 and 2016. According to Harvard’s report, “the share of renters in this age group increased to 27 percent last year—up from 22 percent in 2005.” As these Boomer renters reach retirement, they may do so without the cushion of home equity to rely on.
For years, echoes of the mortgage foreclosure crisis rang out in any conversation about housing. When will the housing bubble return? Is it already back? It seemed for a time to be the nation’s destiny, to be locked in a vicious cycle of reckless expansion and despairing collapse. Ten years out from the mortgage crisis, things look different. Better days are back for homeowners, but for renters, it’s a long slog that isn’t getting much easier.