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Research Shows Continued Loss of Low-Cost Rental Housing

Losses Bolster the Case for Public Housing Preservation

Seth Embry, PHADA Policy Analyst

In September of 2019 researchers at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University published a working paper that detailed the long-term loss of low-cost rental units in the United States. That paper utilized Census data for the years 1990-2017 to illustrate the decrease in rental units at several cost thresholds and the accelerated losses between 2000 and 2017. Newly available data show the decline continued in 2018, further reducing the affordable housing options available for low-income households. The share of low-cost units in every states’ housing stock continues to shrink, and only a handful of states increased the number of these units overall. The increasing number of cost-burdened renters in the US highlights the need for subsidized housing options, of which, public housing preservation is a key strategy to ensure the future availability of permanently affordable rental housing.

The decrease in affordable housing units for low-income renters is a critical loss, particularly for households with the lowest incomes. Households with incomes of $24,000 a year (the median income for the country’s 53 million low wage earners) can rent units costing up to $600 a month before exceeding the 30 percent affordability threshold. Units renting under $600 (defined by the authors as “low-cost units”) declined by the largest number of any rent level – 4 million units. That decline belies the demand for those units as the share of renters with incomes under $24,000 remained steady between 1990 and 2017 at 29 percent.


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