What's Rent Got to Do With It?

© Unsplash/Hernan Sanchez

© Unsplash/Hernan Sanchez

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 metro 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 folks were willing to pay close a 1K for and 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 where rent was somewhat in proportion to average salaries earned. Again truth be told, the overall size of those Japanese apartments were microscopic in comparison to the pre-war classic 6 (apartment with six separate rooms including a formal dining room, two bedrooms and a home office/den/maid’s quarter depending on your lifestyle) I still fantasize about. Nonetheless, the sting of being virtually priced out of my home still hurts.

© Unsplash/Roberto Nixon

© Unsplash/Roberto Nixon

Rising rent burdens have turned many people in the United States into economic hostages. With more than 10 percent of U.S. households spending at least half their total income on housing costs, the rent burden is increasingly becoming an intersectional conversation of economy, housing capitalism and social justice. 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, as well as among men and women. Simply put, if you are a single woman, mother or person of color, 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.

The rent burden is not 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. The face of rent burdens are also varied and often unexpected - well educated Boomers with PhDs, newly divorced middle-income single parents and student-loan baggage millennials. Whether its low incomes being stretched to meet high standards of living, excessive debt, sudden illness striking or some unexpected events occurring, rent burdens transform into huge rocks pressing them between and already hard place. They may find themselves facing eviction and displacements under worrisome circumstances.

© Unsplash

© Unsplash

Homeownership – 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 and Brown households are at their wit’s end in this quagmire.

According to Smart Asset, the cost of buying a home in metro area of Philadelphia, NY, and DC is $224,600, $403,900, and $417,400 respectfully. Renting isn’t necessarily less expensive. A two-bedroom apartment in DC can run you $1545/month. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if that 2-bedroom was tiny house sized or a 1-bedroom with loft or large utility closet with a mattress added. Now you might be thinking that’s not too bad - I can get a roommate and my costs will come down to a bit less than $800/month plus utilities. There are a few things to consider - 1. What constitutes a 2-bedroom (my NYC sisters know what I mean), 2. Where in the city is this apartment located (is it accessible to good public transit, healthy and affordable food options, safe), and 3.What are the risks of cohabitation with others; both financial and psychologically?

©Katie Harp

©Katie Harp

What was once a simple equation of work + good salary = good home has broken down into a very complicated version of deconstructed math where the ability to live well and safely, own a home, have assets, have a sense of community doesn’t add up.

The green rent burden solution has also manifested in the use of interior spaces as much as the eco-minded placement of housing options and gentrification movements. The minimalism movement and rent hacking has presented options to eliminate the need for more space, more house. If I Marie Kondo my 5-bedroom, 3-story brownstone, then I can downsize to a 3-bedroom, 2-story townhome. The size of house is decreased, so by intelligent calculations, the cost should be the same. Yet that townhome, depending on the neighborhood can run as much as the brownstone. At least with the extra 2 bedrooms, I could host Airbnb guests, take in a university student boarder, have my in-laws move in to cover costs or save, convert a bedroom into an office and write it off as a tax deduction. There are options. The burden of rent/mortgage still exists and if my job is eliminated, illness falls on my family, or my landlord decides to sell to developers or raise the rent, I’m pardon my French, screwed.

Sustainable and green living is always a result of a balance between income/s and expenditure. Additionally, 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 renting and green living.

© Unsplash/ Victoria Bilsborough

© Unsplash/ Victoria Bilsborough

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:

  • Housing costs need lowering or rate revisions at regular intervals (think NYC’s rent stabilization and rent-control programs).

  • Americans, in general, must have higher minimum wages and save more. This points to our habits over consuming at the sacrifice of financial priorities like a few month’s rent saved.

  • State and federal governments should re-examine what affordable and sustainable housing actually looks like.

  • Housing subsidies need wider disbursements.

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, multi-department and trans-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.