Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Tackling Rising Rents

By Brad DeSanctisPublished October 19, 2017

With 6.6 million Americans severely rent-burdened, many U.S. cities are struggling with rising rents and affordable housing. A patchwork of federal, state, and local policies, both old and new, attempt to address the issue.

Throughout the United States, cities have struggled to deal with rising rents and affordable housing. While homelessness is decreasing nationwide, the number of severely cost burdened poor renters - those who spend more than half their income on rent - has increased over the past decade. As of 2014, 6.6 million Americans fit into this category, constituting an increase in 27.7% from 2007. 2 to 3 million more Americans are expected to be severely cost burdened in the next ten years. Furthermore, 52% of American renters, mostly concentrated in cities, are considered cost burdened, paying more than 30% of their income on rent.

These rising rents lead to many social issues. Those who cannot continue to pay their rent are forced to leave their apartments and perhaps even their cities, while others are unable to move into areas with more and higher-paying jobs. Additionally, higher rents threaten the small gains made against homelessness in the U.S., potentially putting low-income households with no recourse on the street.

The federal government provides affordable housing through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD aids approximately 5 million Americans, most through the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, and funds the building of public housing. Combined, these programs cost the federal government over $40 billion. However, this is not nearly enough to meet demand for the program. In cities throughout the US, waitlists for Section 8 vouchers are so long it takes over a decade to get off them, if they are even open for new names at all. In New York City, for example, there are more people on the waitlist than there are public housing units in the city in total.

Because federal aid does not fully address the problem, cities and states across the country have implemented many different policies aimed at keeping rents down, or increasing the number of affordable units built. For example, New York State renewed the 421-a tax abatement program in its most recent budget agreement, which promises to create 2,500 units of affordable housing per year by giving a 35 year property tax exemption to developers who set aside 25 to 30% of units for low and moderate-income tenants. New York City, meanwhile, has either created or preserved around 75,000 units of subsidized housing, and this May added $1.9 billion in funding to further increase affordable housing units by an additional 10,000 for low-income families.

Other cities have used other approaches. New Orleans has used so-called "inclusionary zoning," which requires a minimum percentage of units for low-income renters in new building proposals. A similar approach was implemented in Chicago, where developers who take advantage of zoning changes or receive city financial assistance must make 10% of their units affordable. San Francisco, also, started this year allowing extra floors to developers who make 30% of units affordable.

While policies to control rent costs have long existed, these various recent measures taken throughout the country will need to be given time before their effectiveness is judged. But given the lack of attention from the federal government - as the $6 billion cut to HUD funding from the White House's proposed 2018 budget suggests - cities and states will need to learn from each other and update their programs to ensure the possibility of affordable housing remains for Americans who need it.