Why middle class can't afford rents

Construction of luxury condos in Brooklyn, New York, in 2009.

Story highlights

  • In numerous cities, rents are becoming unaffordable for middle-class families
  • Robert Hickey: Part of the problem is demand for rental homes has skyrocketed
  • He says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners
  • Hickey: One solution is to set a portion of new developments to be affordable
A decent, safe and affordable home is something all Americans need to thrive. While the lowest-income households continue to lack access to affordable rental homes, increasingly, middle-income households are also shut out.
A new analysis by Zillow finds that the typical renter can no longer afford the median rent in 90 cities across the United States. Many Americans are severely cost-burdened: 4 million working renter households pay more than half of pre-tax income on rent.
Rents are consuming large shares of income. In Boston, for example, the median rent hit $2,458 in March, up 24% from three years ago. A household would need to earn at least $96,000 annually to afford this, based on the standard definition of affordability, in which one should pay no more than 30% of income for housing. Consider that in Boston an elementary school teacher makes approximately $58,000 per year and a registered nurse $73,000, and you get the picture that the middle class is getting squeezed. Similar median rents are now the reality in Los Angeles ($2,383) and Washington ($2,453).
Robert Hickey
The housing recovery is a few years old, and home prices have started to rebound. But why isn't the rental market fixing itself?
Demand for rental homes has skyrocketed
We are seeing a major demographic convergence on the rental market. Demand is fueled by an exploding population of 20- to 30-year-old millennials looking to rent their first homes, baby-boomer retirees choosing to downsize to apartments, former homeowners exiting foreclosure, and would-be homeowners who can't access mortgages in the tightened credit market. Everyone is eyeing the same locations: cities, transit-friendly suburbs, and town centers that are walkable and close to jobs.
We're not building enough housing in desirable places