My love affair with renting was not always harmonious. I had favor with the housing Gods - almost always finding the right apartment at the right time (thank you universe), but the rate in which my rent would often skyrocket had me question if I was in the wrong housing relationship. After 9-11, I did what virtually every New Yorker does at some point in their mad housing experience. I sublet my bedroom in my one-bedroom Central Park South apartment. Now truth be told, my apartment was more CPS to the left (between 9th and 10th Ave), but it was nonetheless prime real estate that I wasn’t ready to let go of, even if I had to sleep on my sofa for months at a time. Eventually, I escaped the rent burden by moving out of the country, but the sting of being virtually priced out of my home still hurts. Rising rent burdens have turned many people in the United States into economic hostages. What’s worst is that studies and surveys periodically taken by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, and the Pew Journal show a striking picture of rental disparities that exist among White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans. Simply put, if you are marginalized, you get the shortest end of the housing stick.
What does “rent burden” actually mean? In Mathew Desmond’s New York Times best-selling book, “Eviction:Poverty, Profit, and the American City” an ethnographic study of how eight families in one of the US’s most impoverished cities struggle to essentially stay housed. Desmond’s book is full of heartbreaking anecdotal data that cannot be denied and reminds readers that the rent burden problem lay not in flawed people but in biased and corrupt systems. Let these statistics speak for itself: More than half, around 51% of the city’s major populations have rent burdens. Almost 2/3rd of all Black women have very burdensome debts. Latin American women are not very well off either. It effectively means that these people are unable to spend much on anything else.
We are speaking of public housing tenants, rather, regular renters whom receive no federal assistance for housing but are required to spend at least 70-80% of their already limited income to have a roof over their head. Whether its low incomes being stretched to meet high standards of living, excessive debt, sudden illness striking or some unexpected events occuring, rent burdens transform into huge rocks pressing them between and already hard place. They may find themselves facing eviction and displacements under worrisome circumstances.
Home ownership – a distant dream
Research done by Michigan University shows that more and more of the population, especially women, are unable to afford a home. In 2015, around 38% of people had signs of economic trouble; in 2001, the percentage was 19.
Financial insecurity for many African American women who had rent burdens was alarming. Around 84% of people who were respondents had bank balances of less than $400.
Renting is also at an all-time high, especially since 2007-09’s economic meltdown. Demographic data of rent-burdened individuals indicates that more Black households are at their wit’s end in this quagmire.
Interference with Green living
Sustainable and green living is always a result of a balance between income/s and expenditure. While sustainable housing developments like tiny homes or eco-minded structures should lend itself to more affordable housing, the social status attached to green living and proximity to green space has actually contributed to a housing economy where sustainable development justifies inflated rents. Clearly this creates barriers to accessible green living.
Studies show that in places like the Bronx, extremely high rents take a toll on mainly African American kids as their parents are unable to make ends meet. This is according to data made available by the NCCP. Children in rented households are more than two times likely to grow up with some sort of trauma, whose symptoms will rise in their adulthood.
Moreover, studies that HUD, (Housing and Urban Development), carries out indicate legislature in place do not have the desired effect in reducing debt traps and instances of unhealthy living.
Landlord as Adversary
For most, home is a sacred place, a peaceful communal space to share with family and friends, a pause from the noise of the outside and the crazy making it feeds off of. But for many, home is another inequitable dangerous, unhealthy space to navigate. Everything from domestic violence, lead in the paint, a teething baby who keeps the neighbors up, a month’s rent skipped to buy groceries, or a multi-generational living arrangement, can compound the stress of being at a home one can barely afford. And landlords are not always understanding as they quickly and easily pass the buck of nuisance citations (too many DV 911 calls), lead removal fees and health authorities (from lead poisoning), and home repair fees and fines (higher occupancy equates higher wear and tear).
Is there any way out?
Sociologists, activists and legal advocates say that the road to recovery is present, but is a long one. Four areas on which all experts agree are:
The Eviction Lab, Desmond’s Princeton University based social action incubator, has made nation-wide eviction, residential instability, and housing trends accessible to the public. Their intersectional and multi-department and industry research offers statistical mapping and narrative data that could lead urban planners, landlords and policy makers to rethink their approach and practice to rent-friendly housing. We did a tri-city comparison of the eviction rates and persons affected. See how Philadelphia, Atlanta, and New York City are impacted by the burden of rent.