Rent takes a bigger bite out of family budgets

A 'For Rent' sign stands in front of a house on May 31, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. 

The traditional advice is you shouldn’t spend more than 30 percent of your income on housing. Well now, more than half the renters in this country do just that. The number of these "cost-burdened" renters has risen greatly, according to a study out today from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

So what’s making the rent too darn high?

Kurt Boemler and his wife are among the 20 million renters who’ve crossed that affordability threshold. The house they rent near St. Louis, Missouri used to consume 25 percent of their income.

"When I lost my job, it jumped to about 35 percent," Boemler says. "So it’s not killing us. We have had to tighten the belt a little bit though."

Still, it could be worse for Boemler.

Eric Belsky, managing director of the Harvard center, says the number of people facing severe rent burdens has grown enormously.

"Now, well over one in four Americans who rent are spending more than half their incomes on rent," he says.

That translates to more than 11 million people in 2011, the last year for which detailed information is available.

"That’s obviously a very significant number, it leaves them less to spend on lots of other things that might contribute to economic activity," he says, as well as essentials like food.

It’s no secret Americans have been renting more, driven partly by waves of foreclosures and the Great Recession. Eric Belsky says that over the last 12 years something else has happened too. While rents have increased, in real terms, the income renters bring home has dropped.

Economist Christopher Thornberg of Beacon Economics was not involved in the study. But he says another long-term factor is the movement of people towards more expensive urban areas where they can find jobs.

"That of course leads to these sort of situations where more and more households are spending more and more of their income on housing," he says.

Which may be fine if the work pays well. But if those new jobs are low wage jobs, making your rent can be a big struggle.

About the author

Kate Davidson is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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