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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Are Renters and Homeowners in Rural Areas Cost-Burdened?

As our latest report and interactive map illustrate, housing affordability is one of the biggest challenges faced by owner and renter households in most metro areas across the US. However, maps that use metro areas to display the local-level story miss the fact that cost burdens are also a major concern in non-metro/rural areas and are severely high for millions of low-income rural households. To address this gap in visibility, we created a set of interactive maps (Figure 1) using 2010-2014 American Community Survey (ACS) estimates. In doing so, we found that housing cost burden rates in some rural counties are significant. We also learned that rural counties of the Northeast and west, that are adjacent to high-cost metros, have even higher cost burden rates than those in parts of the Midwest.

(Click to launch interactive map; may take a moment to load.)

 Housing cost burdens are particularly stark for rural renters. Indeed, fully 41 percent of all rural renters are cost-burdened (meaning they spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing), including 21 percent who are severely cost-burdened (spending 50 percent or more of their income on housing). Among owners, 22 percent are cost-burdened including nearly 9 percent who are severely cost-burdened. Overall, nearly 5 million rural households pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income toward housing and more than 2.1 million rural households spend more than half of their income on housing.

And cost burdens have been growing in rural areas (Figure 2). Since 2000, housing costs in rural areas have increased over 5 percent and one in every four rural households is now cost-burdened. Comparing burden rates from 2014 to those from 2000 in the maps above shows the increasing cost burdens in many rural areas over the last decade, including areas in and around the traditional Black Belt counties of the Southeast and areas in the west and Northeast that are contiguous to areas that had high cost burdens in 2000.

Source: JCHS tabulations of US Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2010-2014 and census 2000 for all non-metropolitan census tracts.

Rural affordability issues tend to receive less attention due to a perception that housing costs are lower in rural areas, which is true as compared to metro areas. According to the 2013 American Housing Survey (AHS) the median monthly rent in metro areas is $800, while the median monthly rent in non-metro areas is $530. Monthly owner costs are also fully 43 percent lower in non-metro areas than in metro areas. However, low incomes and poverty are prevalent in rural areas. According to estimates from the American Community Survey, fully 15 percent of all households in non-metro area census tracts earn less than $15,000 annually and nearly 36 percent earn less than $30,000. Poverty is a widespread problem in rural areas, with 18 percent of population living in poverty compared to 15 percent in metro areas.

In addition to poverty and affordability, rural areas face several other major housing challenges. The share of housing stock that would be considered inadequate, as measured by the number of units lacking complete plumbing or a complete kitchen, is higher in non-metro areas. The share of units lacking complete plumbing is 4 percent in non-metro areas, compared to 2 percent nationally.

Among units in non-metro areas that lack complete plumbing facilities, 10.3 percent also have more than one occupant per room (compared to 8.2 percent in metro areas). This suggests that in non-metro areas there is likely to be overcrowding in the same units that lack adequacy. It is probable that the households facing affordability problems are dealing with it alongside other issues.

While it is true that cost burdens are high and a growing problem in most metro areas across the country, it is important to remember that non-metro areas also face increasing housing affordability issues, in addition to other housing-related challenges and should not be forgotten in policy discussions of a comprehensive approach to the escalating housing affordability problem.