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Housing Perspectives

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

Even Fully-Employed and Moderate-Income Households Struggle to Pay the Rent

The nation’s almost 21 million cost-burdened renter households are not just low-income or unemployed. Rather, as the Joint Center documented in its latest America’s Rental Housing report (and accompanying interactive tools), a growing number of moderate-income and fully-employed renter households are also cost-burdened, spending at least 30 percent of their income on rent and other housing costs.

Cost burden continues to be most common among lowest-income households making less than $15,000 per year. In fact, 83 percent of these households were cost burdened in 2016, including 72 percent with severe burdens, which meant that they paid more than 50 percent of their income for housing costs. This figure has increased modestly since 2001, when about 80 percent of households were cost burdened and about 68 percent were severely cost burdened.

In contrast, since 2001, the fastest growth in cost burden shares has been among moderate-income renters. For example, the share of cost-burdened renters making $30,000-$45,000 (in constant dollars) rose from 37 percent in 2001 to 50 percent in 2016. During the same time frame, the share of cost-burdened renters making $45,000-$75,000 nearly doubled from 12 percent to 23 percent.

Additionally, almost one-third of all renters who worked 35 hours or more per week for at least 48 of the previous 52 weeks were cost burdened in 2016. Moreover, as the interactive chart below shows, cost burden rates are particularly high for fully-employed renters in occupations with lower wages and where hours can be unpredictable or vary by season. These occupational fields include personal care and service, food preparation and serving, and building/grounds cleaning and maintenance (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Cost Burdens by Occupation

People working in the personal care and service occupations include personal care aides, childcare workers, flight attendants, hairdressers, and fitness workers. Fifty-six percent of fully-employed renters in this occupation category were cost burdened in 2016, including 28 percent who were severely cost burdened. Within this category, childcare workers, who had median incomes of $2,670 per month and housing costs of $1,020, were most likely to be cost burdened.

Similarly, 55 percent of renters in occupations related to food preparation and service—which includes cooks, waiters, bartenders, and dishwashers—were cost burdened. Within this occupation category, renters working in food concession jobs such as counter staff in coffee shops and cafeterias were most burdened. Seventy percent of the renters working full-time in those jobs were cost burdened. Finally, just over half of fully-employed renters working in building and grounds maintenance were burdened. This category consists of janitors and housekeepers, grounds maintenance workers, and lawn service professionals. Renters working full-time as maids and housekeeping cleaners had the highest rate of cost burden at 56 percent.

Looking forward, renters in these occupations are unlikely to see a substantial increase in their wages while their housing costs will probably continue to increase. As a result, cost burden rates among these renters are likely to remain high and may grow larger.

Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that most job growth in the next ten years will be in occupations with incomes that are less than $37,300, which was the median income for renters in 2016. For example, the number of jobs for home health aides and personal care aides—occupations where reported median incomes are around $22,000—is expected to increase 37 and 47 percent respectively. The number of jobs in food preparation and serving—where median incomes are only about $19,000 per year—is also projected to increase by 17 percent. Given the current lack of low-cost, affordable units, many renters in these fields will continue to be cost burdened despite working full time.