Paying the rent: America’s crisis in the shadows


Eighteen years. That is how long the city of Providence, Rhode Island’s waiting list for housing vouchers had been closed. This November the list opened.  In less than a week, over 13,000 people signed up. The city gives out roughly 300 vouchers a year – leaving most of today’s list intact for another decade.

Providence is not unique. Nationally, more than 53% of the voucher waiting lists are closed. Applicants typically wait at least three years.

In a post-recession America, as we hope for an economic resurgence, a return of manufacturing jobs, and restoration of our crumbling infrastructure, we should know: the most dramatic recovery will not eliminate these waiting lists. In swathes of the country, desperate people will still queue.

They are queuing for a subsidy. A household with a low income can sign up for help: the renter will pay 30% of income toward the rent; the government will pay the rest, up to a “fair market” figure. Today three-quarters of households on waiting lists report “extremely low incomes” (up to 30% of area median income). (In Orwellian jargon, we tier the poor into low-income, moderately low income, and extremely low income.)

Almost two-thirds of extremely low-income renters pay over 50% of income for rent.  On the upper-income side, the percentage paid for housing is not crucial. A household netting $200,000 annually can pay half for housing, leaving enough for food, health care, transportation, even private schools for children.  On the lower end, try to pay half of $30,000 a year for housing: the rest will barely cover food, transportation, or emergency medical expenses. Indeed, when landlords evict tenants, the cause is often that they did not/could not pay the rent on time.

The plight of desperation-renters –10.5 million extremely low-income households – did not capture headlines in this long political campaign. The candidates did mention the homeless, who are visible, camping out beside bridges, highways, and city parks.  Officials at all levels worry about them.  They constitute a crisis.

Officials do not worry so much about the desperation-renters. After all, those renters have a roof over their heads. The roof may be in a crime-ridden neighborhood, in a substandard building, near failing schools – but it is a roof. So our political discourse, and our will, move on to more pressing issues. The Terwilliger Foundation calls it the “The Silent Housing Crisis.”

Yet these renters need help.

We have no single-bullet solution. Higher wages would help, but only marginally. With two children, a couple, each earning the minimum wage, cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment in much of the country. (Indeed, in parts of the country, like Portland, Oregon, rents are so high that the “fair market rent” exceeds government limits; and renters cannot easily use vouchers).

More housing would help: we don’t build much new housing for low-to middle-income renters. We ended the construction of pubic housing in the 1960s.  Experts suggest we need an additional 7.2 million “affordable” rental units. A developer faces the same costs for land, labor and materials, whether building luxury or modest housing. To build the latter, he needs either a social conscience-spur (behind the nation’s nonprofit developers) or a governmental monetary spur, such as the low income housing tax credit. To some extent, any new rental housing  – whatever the income level of renters – will help, in that it will free up housing down the chain. Yet many communities fight “multi-family” apartments, erecting zoning barriers, as residents argue that those developments will destroy the “nature” of their communities.

More housing vouchers would help. Currently more than 3 million households hold vouchers; but they reach only a quarter of the low-income population. The word “entitlement” is anathema to many politicians; yet the Bipartisan Housing Commission recommended making these vouchers available for all extremely low-income families.

More jobs obviously would help.  In parts of the Rust Belt, rents are affordable, vacancies high. Once jobs return, people can live comfortably. Yet for much of the country, jobs will not be a panacea. Some conservative legislators want to tie subsidies to work, adding time limits as a further incentive. We do it for welfare; we could do it for housing. Yet even if this policy-prod encouraged tenants’ entrepreneurial oomph, jobs won’t necessarily reduce the gap between income and rents. If tenants earn too little to pay the rents, they will still queue for vouchers.

The desperation-renters yield no campaign sound-bytes, no photo-ops. They live a catastrophe away from eviction, dreading a broken car, an illness, or a pink slip. Will helping them cost money? Absolutely. But most of us are well-housed. Homeowners get a $77 billion dollar subsidy, in the form of the mortgage interest deduction. Surely we can help the desperation-renters. 

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