A significant chunk of Americans spend more than half their incomes on rent or home mortgage payments. Here’s the data on the severely housing-burdened.
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Paying rent or a mortgage is never easy. But in thousands of neighborhoods across the country, it’s a burden of epidemic proportions.
More than 10 percent of U.S. households spend at least half their total income on housing costs—far more than the one-third that financial experts advise as a maximum limit. These severely housing-burdened households can be rich or poor, but around half of them are located in neighborhoods where at least one neighbor in three is facing a similar housing burden, according to a CityLab analysis of U.S. Census data obtained from the National Historical Geographic Information System.
Severe housing burden is far more common among African-American households, where nearly one-in-four pay a majority of their income on housing, according to 2019 County Health Rankings by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And renters tend to have considerably higher rates of housing burden than people who have bought their home.
This isn’t just a pocketbook issue, either. Areas with high housing burdens tend to score worse on a host of public health issues than similar areas where homes are more affordable, according to the county health rankings.
Where are these neighborhoods where it’s a monthly struggle just to stay housed? They’re all over the country, but are more common on the West Coast and the South than in the Midwest or New England.
But the real centers of severely housing-burdened neighborhoods can be hard to see on a national map because they’re geographically small: urban areas. That’s because of the pernicious nature of housing stress. It’s not just about poverty, though poor households are absolutely more likely to spend a majority of their income on staying housed. Rather, housing burden is a function of both income and cost. The nexus of low incomes and high costs tends to happen when wealth is located near poverty—and that happens most often in America’s cities.
For example, compare two suburban neighborhoods, both with identical median household incomes of $50,000 per year. One, in the Cincinnati suburb of Erlanger, Kentucky, has average monthly housing costs of around $860 per household. Another, in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, has average monthly housing costs around $1,100, $250 per month higher with the same median income. In the Erlanger neighborhood, just 6.3 percent of households spend a majority of their income on housing, while nearly 98 percent of the Silver Spring neighborhood is severely housing-burdened.
Some upper-income households face burden, too
At extremes, this creates situations where even well-off households struggle to pay for housing. Overall only a small percentage of households earning at least $50,000 per year are severely housing-burdened, and almost no one earning more than $100,000 is spending half their income on rent or a mortgage. But the highest-cost areas, especially in California and the New York City metro, have plenty of neighborhoods where middle- and even high-income households struggle to pay for their home.
California’s Santa Clara County, the home of Silicon Valley and San Jose, is the poster child for this situation. It has the third-highest median income of any county in the U.S., but its typical neighborhood has housing costs of around $2,200 per month. Even the wealthiest neighborhoods in Santa Clara County often have 15 or 20 percent of households paying a majority of their income toward housing, while in “poorer” Santa Clara County neighborhoods where the median income is only $60,000 or $70,000 per year, more than two-thirds of households are severely housing-burdened.
In the highest-cost areas, the lowest-income families face even bigger struggles than they do elsewhere. Richer families tend to do alright even when housing costs are high (though there are 31 neighborhoods around the country, mostly in New York and California, where more than one-third of households earning above $100,000 are housing-burdened). The biggest difference in these expensive neighborhoods is that middle-income households start to face the same housing squeeze that low-income households do in cheaper areas.
This is not to say that rural areas aren’t facing their own housing burden. Another new analysis by Stateline found that nearly a quarter of the most rural counties have seen a “sizeable increase” in the number households that are severely housing-burdened. But rural areas haven’t yet caught up to their denser counterparts on this particular metric.
The County Health Rankings analysis also found that the racial gap in housing burdens was largest in more segregated counties where white and black households tend to live in different neighborhoods. In the most segregated counties, black households were 14 percentage points more likely than white households to face severe housing burden, while the least segregated counties saw a 9 percentage point gap.
These more segregated counties aren’t just worse for African American households, though. White households were also more likely to face severe housing burden in highly segregated counties than in integrated counties.
All this hurts Americans not just financially, but also physically, especially for the housing-burdened families with lower incomes. Nationwide, the County Health Rankings analysis found that a 10 percentage point increase in severe housing burden is associated with 29,000 more children in poverty, 86,000 more people who have difficulty getting enough food, and 84,000 more people who are only in fair or poor health.
“If you’re spending too much on housing, you don’t have money left over for things like healthy foods,” said Marjory Givens, deputy director of Data & Science for the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program. “As the severe housing cost burden increases across counties, there are more people who are food insecure, there’s more children in poverty, and more people reporting fair or poor health.”
Download the raw data behind this analysis on CityLab’s Github page.