A nationwide trend of evictions, the result of high rents and low wages, were the talk of last week's Renter Week of Action. Next City proposes some measures that would take some steps toward solving this urgent crisis.

Recognizing the severity of the housing affordability crisis facing renters from Oakland to Miami and the need for policy solutions, the National Equity Atlas, a partnership between PolicyLink and the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, analyzed the growth of renters in the nation and in 37 cities, their contributions to the economy, and what renters and the United States stand to gain if housing were affordable.

We found that renters now represent the majority in the 100 largest cities in the U.S. and are growing as a share of the population nationwide, comprising 35 percent of the population — a 27 percent increase since 2000. Renters also make tremendous contributions to economic, social and political life. They bring vitality, culture and connection to their neighborhoods and cities; they vote and volunteer in local schools; they bring dollars into their communities. Nationally, they spend $1.5 trillion per year after paying for rent and utilities, contributing billions to local economies across the country.

But that spending power has been shrinking. Renters, in many cities, are also facing a toxic mix of rising rents and declining incomes. Since 2000, median rents increased by 9 percent while median renter household incomes decreased by 11 percent. And these are real, inflation-adjusted changes. Given these circumstances, it’s not surprising that more than half of renter households now spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities, up from 39 percent in 2000. Today, nearly 50 million people nationwide live in rent-burdened households.

These policy opportunities include:

  • Tenant protections like just cause eviction and rent control ordinances, as well as eviction prevention. New York City was the first to provide legal counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction, the vast majority of whom go to eviction court without a lawyer. Baltimore and Philadelphia are among a growing list of cities considering similar tenants’ right to counsel laws.
  • Full funding for HUD: There are multiple federal funding sources for direct housing assistance (including public housing, Housing Choice vouchers and Section 8), but only one in four eligible families actually receives any kind of assistance. In many cities, the waiting list is measured in decades or closed. Each year, federal expenditures for direct housing assistance is just a fraction of what is spent on homeowner tax benefits (most of which go to wealthy families). Still, President Donald Trump’s administration and HUD Secretary Ben Carson are attempting to drastically cut the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget.
  • Community ownership of land and housing through the creation of community land trusts, as well as ensuring that public land is used for the public good, and not just sold to the highest bidder.
  • Diverse affordable housing strategies: The production of affordable housing (via affordable housing linkage/impact fees or inclusionary zoning), as well as the preservation of single-room occupancies (SROs) and “naturally occurring affordable housing.”
  • Living wages: The other piece of the housing crisis puzzle is stagnating wages and the need to raise the floor on low-wage work. From 2000 to 2015, median renter household income declined in real terms in 88 of the 100 largest U.S. cities. Policymakers and employers should support minimum wage increases and living wage ordinances.
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