Deep Financial Woes Portend Rent Crisis

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The economy shows some signs of improving. More than 1 million people went back to work last month, pushing the unemployment rate down to 8.4 percent.

But housing experts say a sure sign of trouble ahead is the crisis unfolding among the third of U.S. households who are renters. Things can only get worse for them, because so many were already vulnerable prior to the pandemic after many consecutive years of rising rents that strained their budgets.

Prior to the pandemic, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies estimates that more than 40 percent of U.S. renters paid more than 50 percent of their incomes for rent – far more than is affordable for most workers. And these rent-burdened households aren’t confined to the lower-income brackets; they extend into the middle class.

The end of the federal government’s $600 weekly supplement to unemployment benefits in July will increasingly strain renters too, said Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, a researcher at the center.

COVID-19 and the resulting recession “is piling on top of an existing affordability crisis,” she said.

This gloomy assessment is backed by other evidence that residents of the four largest metropolitan areas – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston – are running out of resources and face “serious financial problems,” warns a report by NPR and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Over a third of the households in these four cities have already plowed through most or all of their savings to cover rent, mortgages, credit card bills and necessities, raising concerns they will not be able to “weather long-term financial and health effects of the coronavirus outbreak.” The situation is particularly bad for low-income families.

In early September, 10 percent of renters said they had missed their monthly housing payments, according to the University of Southern California’s tracking poll. This has held fairly steady in recent months. But many people have been taking advantage of landlord’s and the federal government’s permission to defer their rents on some properties. The deferred rents will eventually have to be repaid, and it’s unclear how the unemployed or workers getting back on their feet will do it.

Like renters, homeowners are increasingly challenged in this recession too. Homeowners earn more on average than renters, but more than a third of homeowners blamed the pandemic – layoffs, furloughs, fewer hours, smaller commissions – for the difficulties they had paying mortgages in August, according to a LendEdu survey. And nearly a third of homeowners who bought houses during the pandemic regret the decision due to financial problems that have surfaced later.

COVID-19 hasn’t gone away, and Americans’ financial woes may get worse.

Read more blog posts in our ongoing coverage of COVID-19.

Squared Away writer Kim Blanton invites you to follow us on Twitter @SquaredAwayBC. To stay current on our blog, please join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here. This blog is supported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.