The Rent Is Too Damn High!!

Remember the candidate who ran for Mayor of New York some years back whose single-issue political party and campaign slogan were both “the rent is too damn high”?”

What made me think about him was a recent meeting I sat in on, with Senate candidate Marc Carmichael and a couple of local experts on housing. Marc wanted to be brought up to speed with what has become a significant national issue: the cost of housing (and especially the lack of housing for low-income renters) and the range of national policies that might address the problem. (The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Jim Banks, has been too busy waging culture war against abortion and trans children to bother with legislation that might actually help people; Carmichael actually wants to “do the job.”)

Marc wasn’t the only one who learned a lot in that meeting. I did, too. So I was interested in a recent publication by the Brookings Institution titled “Ten Economic Facts About Rental Housing.”

The publication reports what most of us know: rental housing has become considerably less affordable over the past several years. We have low vacancy rates and high rent inflation, resulting in housing costs that strain the budgets of lower-income households.

The very low unemployment rate and recent strength in wages makes clear that housing instability in the U.S. is, in large part, a structural problem, one that will not be fully solved by a strong economy. Fiscal support for federal housing benefits is inadequate, eligible households wait years for benefits, and the number of single individuals experiencing homelessness has risen. Any effective solution will require policy actions by lawmakers.

Brookings research shows that approximately one-third of U.S. households rent, although the share of renters varies considerably by age of the head of household, ranging from 21 percent of households headed by someone 65 and older to 58 percent of households headed by someone ages 25 to 34. Renting also varies depending upon the head of household’s education, income, and race or ethnicity.

The paper identifies the ten facts that influence housing costs, and the link includes explanations of each. The explanations are well worth pondering, and if you want to gain a broader understanding of these complex issues, I encourage you to click through and read the entire report. But here, in brief, are the factors Brookings identifies:

  • 1. Households are more likely to rent if the household head has no college degree, is in a lower income quintile, or is Black.

  • 2. One-third of rental units are single-family rentals.

  • 3. Rental vacancies have returned to pre-pandemic levels, while multifamily housing starts have leveled off.

  • 4. Rental housing vacancy rates are highest in the Southeast.

  • 5. Rental price inflation is declining to pre-pandemic levels.

  • 6. Rent inflation looks similar across U.S. metropolitan statistical areas.

  • 7. For renting households with low earnings, rent is consistently more than one-third of their total expenditures.

  • 8. Federal housing assistance consistently falls short of housing needs.

  • 9. Single adults are driving the rise in unsheltered homelessness.

  • 10. Families wait years to receive a housing choice voucher.

A number of these structural causes are related to policy choices at both the state and federal levels. Housing assistance is part of America’s tattered and bureaucratic social safety net–and the failure of that assistance to materially address the problem is one more “data point” that should be considered in a much longer-range discussion about the holes in that net. That said, there are clearly areas where a renewed focus on actual governance would ameliorate at least some of the problems renters face.

At the end of the day, voters need to recognize the differences between culture warriors and policymakers–between candidates focused on the often-boring, day-to-day “grunt work” of actual governance, and the antics of the rabid Christian Nationalists who have neither the knowledge of nor interest in the mundane but incredibly important details of economic and social policy.

The embarrassing television ads being run in Indiana’s primary contests tell me that–at least on the Republican side–candidates are confident that voters fail to recognize that distinction–or, for that matter, the distinction between genuinely local issues and those requiring a national response.

In November, Americans will choose between serious candidates who are willing to educate themselves on the issues and committed to actual governance–to doing the job– and performative buffoons like Banks whose messaging is intended to inflame and divide– the culture warriors who have absolutely no interest in the complexities of the day-to-day issues with which so many Americans struggle.

It is said that in Indiana, an R next to a candidate’s name is sufficient to elect a turnip.

I am cautiously optimistic that this year will be different.

15 Comments

  1. In Indy we are seeing endless R ads every day. They all seem to be largely fact free and hateful. They seem to believe IN Voters are stupid and racist. I hope they are wrong.

  2. Well over two years ago my neighbor and I discussed the extreme rise in real estate listings on houses in our small low- to middle-income development. A few sold in bidding wars, escalating purchase amounts on surrounding homes. He pointed out that the unreasonable, and apparent lack of control on rental amounts could be the reason. Googling houses for sale and those not on the market around me, I noticed that Realtors were including the unfinished basements included as the living area description. The fact that they are selling at these escalated prices will result in purchased homes as rental properties; how will this effect our property tax rates for all home owner residents?

    The number of “Trump for President” yard signs in 2016 was a surprise; as older home owners died and rental properties increased, the lack of basic property maintenance increased with frequent short-term rental residents. No Trump signs or any other candidates (except for my own) in 2020. The “R”s are costing us who are stable home owners who now cannot afford the move to homes better suiting our needs for more, or less living space or are finding the maintenance and upkeep on older homes difficult on limited income and can’t afford to rent at the rates which continue to increase. The “R”s are invading our lives in all areas like a flesh-eating virus, with no escape in sight.

  3. I am cautiously optimistic too. I feel that many people are beginning to realize what a t*ump re-election would mean for the country, and are opting to sit this one out. But we must not become complacent. It is important to get involved by donating and participating in grass-roots efforts to get out the vote.

  4. Our understanding of the homeless is woefully inadequate and thus our remedies for this problem continue to fail. We deliberately put on blinders so as not to see the reality around us.
    The homeless just don’t need housing; the majority need serious help of a psychological and social kind. While many can be lifted out of homelessness and into independent self sufficiency, there will always be persons who will need to be “taken care” of for the rest of their lives.
    It isn’t that we do not know what to do… the problem is that we as a society do not want to sacrifice the time and money to do the good and decent thing to help our fellow human beings.

  5. I don’t think Sheila was talking about homelessness, but the cost of rent for available homes is way beyond the industry standard of 25%. I know many people working around minimum wage and higher who are spending 50% on rent which leaves them very little room to afford anything else. The working poor.

    Rent prices are partially inflated by institutional investors buying properties and setting out For Rent signs. BlackRock is one of the culprits. Banks are also investing in single-family homes and renting them out because they can make a higher return on investment.

    This allows the rest of rental property owners to increase their rents as well. As Sheila discovered, there are no rent controls in Indiana. Housing vouchers are a federal program I believe.

    This is one scenario where both parties let the “market decide.” It’s rugged individual capitalism for renters. We need to intervene in the “market.”

    Glad Marc is learning about this issue. I’m not sure voters will sit on the sidelines for this election. It’s a presidential election so Indiana voters will show up and pull the lever for all R’s. The question is, “Will Democratic voters show up for Biden?” Will Biden hurt the lower races in November?

  6. Todd, you are right that Sheila did not mention homelessness directly in her comments today. But there is a direct connection between homelessness and high rent prices. We all need to be looking at the big picture, not just the edges.

  7. Our society is still too focused on winning, a zero sum game, rather than being, and those who, for whatever structural, and sometimes personal reasons, can not maintain their own housing, are seen as losers, not worth society’s support.
    Serious help has to come from legislators who are not intertested in anything but sending further billions of dollars to the already wealthy.

  8. Just passed by Indiana Senate; this will effect landlords who must pay full property taxes on rental homes not their primary residence. This will be followed by more reason to increase rents which are already too high. It adds to my previously referred concerns regarding property tax increases on those of us who are primary residents in our homes.

    “Honest To Goodness Indiana” WTF!!!

    “SB 147: increases property taxes on residents by eliminating property taxes paid by for-profit entities that provide on-site childcare services as a benefit to their employees. This bill does not address childcare deserts and shifts the responsibility from the state to local governments, shrinks the local property tax base without providing relief for homeowners or local governments, subsidizes profit margins for large corporations while ignoring small businesses, and does not require reducing the costs of childcare for families as a result of the property tax exemption received.”

  9. There is something structurally broken in America when it comes to investing in housing stock. About 20 years ago my wife and I took a two week vacation to Sweden. We had been driving around the country for about 12 days when one day we drove by a house that looked like it had a recent fire. We realized that it was the first time we had seen an abandoned building on the entire trip.

    When an investment company can buy a property with a thriving business in it that had been in operation for ten years, double the rent, force the business out of the location, board up the building, let it sit vacant for ten years, tear down the wonderful art deco commercial building, then let the lot continue to sit vacant for what is now ten more years, SOMETHING IS BROKEN! This example is from NW corner of 16th and Capital where you can still see the vacant lot sitting across the street from a new $4.3 billion hospital complex now under construction.

    The same forces working in the commercial market are now being brought to the residential real estate market with big investment capital firms buying up houses and turning them into expensive rentals. The problem seems to be spreading in Indiana particularly, since the state laws are very favorable toward landlords.

    I don’t know exactly how tax loop holes or depreciation laws are manipulated to make it worth while to sit on an abandoned property. But I do know that our property tax laws have perverse incentives to encourage empty lots, parking lots, and abandoned buildings over developed occupied buildings.

    Additionally, I have seen studies in the past that say our homeowner mortgage deduction laws raise house prices by about 20%.

    On top of that, restrictive zoning laws strongly discourage multifamily housing almost universally, creating less more expensive housing. In 2000, I was on city steering committee guiding the development of new urban neighborhood, now called “Fall Creek Place”. It was an area that in the 1960’s once had 500 houses and though “urban renewal” policies, by 2000, had less than a dozen houses. We focused on building urban style (front porches, garages on the alley) single family houses. Looking back, the one big failing we had in our vision was to not plan for multi-family housing. Finally in 2022, a developer proposed some multi-family housing (40 units in a nice building) and it was met with howls of protest. It did eventually get approved, but zoning, and NIMBYism are strongly bent against multifamily housing.

  10. One thing that often gets in the way is our focus on home ownership. It’s been made out to be the American dream, the goal we should all aim for. Why should we offer a 400 per month subsidy for new home buyers and nothing to resolve the much more pressing issue of the cost of rental properties.

    Let’s give developers more incentive to build what we need. Think about the current crisis in commercial real estate. Many buildings are going bankrupt because of the work at home boom brought on by the pandemic. Buy those buildings at fire sale prices and turn them into rentals with prices based on income. Have a minimum number required for low income workers. Just a thought.

  11. I am left wishing today’s post included three things that can be done (and might get passed) on a state level to help with the rental problem (forget Federal these days).

  12. Our neighborhood association became aware that the original covenant had not been updated for several decades and did not reflect the current market standards. In the process, we became aware that rentals had increased significantly, with almost every rental owned by an out-of-state owner, out-of-country or institutional investment firm (also out-of-state). None of the properties are maintained, often with no yard or structural maintenance. Zoning violations abound. It definitely affects the adjoining properties. When trying to educate homeowners, we are often met with complete dismissal or pushback. Some are resentful of any interference with seller’s decisions. Others consider the neighborhood a starter market and have no long term intentions of residency. They have interest in improving the area only if it has short term benefit to them.
    Infrastructure is another issue as most homes are on septic that will be changed to sanitary sewers at some future date.
    The cost of the rentals has skyrocketed to unaffordable levels for most working class families. The multi-family buildings in our area are in constant turnover of ownership or have been built by forcing through zoning by the city, with decades-old covenants broken.
    Interesting to note that several of the recent home sales in the area have gone to single individuals.
    While looking to downsize, I found that most of the units available for my needs are well beyond my means or are outside of my county, limiting my social and medical network.
    Indiana law favors unregulated markets.

  13. I live in an older residential neighborhood that once was a great place to live. We are not at over 55% of rental properties, owned mostly by these out of state landlords. Their lack of attention and maintenance to their properties has caused decline in property values for those of us who own our homes. In addition, crime rate is up, including violent crimes. So discouraging for property owners who , like me, in my 70’s, cannot afford nor want to move. Disgusting !

  14. We need to come up with a new line in re “that all Republicans will vote for any candidate who has an R beside his or her name.” We should rather point out that the R party has been captured by fascists and that there should be an F beside their name(s) since the “Republican Party” has gone the way of their predecessor Whigs and is defunct.

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