A gap too big to miss

Shocking, isn’t it?

That’s just a short excerpt from the new data-packed issue of  Housing Spotlight: The Shrinking Supply of Affordable Housing. Advocates should check out this important resource; it is the second in a series of research briefs that uses data from different sources to highlight a variety of housing issues. (And it’s newly released today!)

In Housing Spotlight: The Shrinking Supply of Affordable Housing, NLIHC uses new data from the 2010 American Community Survey (ACS) Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) to examine the disparity between the current supply of homes for rent and the number of low income households who need rental homes they can afford. You can download your own copy of the report from our website.

This is such an important issue, so we wanted to sit down with the person behind the report, NLIHC Senior Research Analyst Megan Bolton, and pick her brain a little more!

Our very first issue of Housing Spotlight focused on the American Community Survey (ACS) data. This new issue, “The Shrinking Supply of Affordable Housing,” does as well. Why was it important to take a second look at the ACS?

The ACS is an incredible resource for people who like data because it contains information on such a vast array of topics, and it’s released every year! The first edition of Housing Spotlight looked at some general trends in incomes, rents and cost burdens based on predefined tables from the ACS. However, in order to do a deeper analysis of the data it’s necessary to use the Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) file that the Census Bureau releases a couple months after the release of the standard tables. We used the PUMS data in this new Housing Spotlight because it allowed us to group renters into different income groups, such as extremely low income, very low income, etc., and then determine if the units they are renting are affordable to them or not. The gap analysis that we do in this Housing Spotlight is only possible because of the availability of the PUMS data, and we think this analysis is key to illustrating the affordable housing crisis in the United States today.

Can you explain the difference in comparing affordable units and affordable and available units? Why is it important for readers to note this difference?

Let me provide a more concrete example of this situation to provide clarity around this comparison. Suppose you earn a gross annual income of $60,000, which translates to $5,000 per month ($60,000/12=$5,000). This means that you could comfortably afford $1,500 per month in rent and utility costs without spending more than 30% of your income ($5,000 x 0.3= $1,500). In reality, let’s say you only spend $1,000 a month on those costs because you found a great deal on rent. This is nice for you, but now that apartment is no longer available to the household for whom it is affordable (a household making $40,000). As we can see from this Housing Spotlight, this happens all the time, and it most greatly affects the lowest income renters.

There are 5.5 million units that are affordable to extremely low income (ELI) renters, but only 3 million of these are either actually occupied by ELI households or are vacant and for rent. This means that 2.5 million higher income households are getting pretty good deals on their rent and subsequently, 6.8 million ELI renters are forced to spend a substantial portion of their very limited incomes on housing costs. We should also remember that even if all 5.5 million units were actually available to ELI renters, this would not be nearly enough to house all 9.8 million of them.

It is very important to note this difference so we understand the true number of affordable units needed to meet the current demand.

The report describes the affordable housing shortage as a “crisis,” saying that with America’s high unemployment and poverty rates, an increase in homelessness will ensue if this shortage isn’t addressed. When reviewing the PUMS data, what finding startled you the most?

The most startling finding was that for every 100 ELI renter households there are only 30 units affordable and available to them. This is the most severe shortage we have ever seen and with higher rents, recent cuts to HUD programs that create affordable housing, and proposed cuts to project based Section 8, it is hard to see how we can reverse this trend. This is the time to focus our attention on creating and preserving affordable housing for the lowest income Americans, not on scaling these programs back.

The National Housing Trust Fund is presented as a solution to increase the supply of affordable and available units. How can advocates use this research to help make a difference?

Numbers like these are an extremely powerful advocacy tool. This Housing Spotlight provides data at the state level, and we can assist advocates in finding more localized data to take to their members of Congress. Advocates must make it clear to their members of Congress that this huge mismatch between the supply and demand for affordable units is unacceptable and urge them to finally take the necessary steps to invest in the National Housing Trust Fund. NLIHC members should contact me at megan@nlihc.org if they want to discuss the data in more detail, and they should use other NLIHC resources at www.nlihc.org to make their voices heard!

This is some powerful information. Above all, what do you hope readers take away from it?

The most important thing for readers of this Housing Spotlight to understand is how incredibly difficult it is for low income households to find affordable housing in this country. Many people think that it is easy to get into subsidized housing without realizing that in most communities across the country there are years-long waiting lists for public and assisted housing, and the stock affordable to the lowest income households is being depleted year to year.

Too often ELI households who cannot get into subsidized housing are forced to double up with friends or family, live in substandard housing, or pay the vast majority of their limited income on rent, leaving almost nothing left for other basic necessities and putting them at great risk of becoming homeless should they lose their job or have any kind of emergency. These are families earning low wages, and elderly or disabled households on fixed incomes, and it is critical that we help ensure they have decent, affordable places to call home.

Download Housing Spotlight: The Shrinking Supply of Affordable Housing.

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