The rent is still too high

“How we gonna pay last year’s rent?” the chorus implores in the song “Rent” from Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical of the same name.

It’s the same refrain for many Americans today. A new Harvard study found that half of U.S. renter households now spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities. And rent increases continue to outpace their income gains.

With other studies confirming that homelessness grows alongside housing costs, this means many more people are vulnerable. Last year, homelessness hit an all-time national high of 653,100 people.

In the wealthiest country on the planet, this is unacceptable.

The pandemic revealed the full extent of the U.S. housing crisis, with roughly 580,000 people in 2020 living unhoused during “stay at home” orders. But it also proved that federal intervention could ease the crisis. Eviction moratoria and unemployment relief helped keep more people housed, fed, and secure.

But these initiatives ended too quickly. With homelessness spiking alongside hunger and child poverty, we need to bring those programs back — and more. We need to prioritize making housing affordable, accessible, and habitable for everyone.

Over the past decade, according to the Harvard study, the majority of growth in renter households has come from Millennials and Gen Zers who continue to be priced out of homeownership while also paying more for a declining supply of affordable units.

Meanwhile, construction in the high-end “luxury” rental market, which drives up rents for everyone else, remains in an upward trend. And private equity firms like Blackstone, the largest landlord in the U.S., have been expanding their real estate portfolios. These trends have fueled increased housing costs and evictions across communities.

The Harvard study revealed that our nation’s aging rental stock also needs crucial investment. Nearly half of renters with disabilities live in homes that are minimally or not at all accessible. Further, around 4 million renter households live in units with structural problems and lack basic services like electricity, water, or heat.

The lack of decent, affordable housing is a policy choice that can be overcome if our federal, state, and local governments prioritize taking much-needed action. Increasing the supply of affordable housing and expanding rental subsidies for lower income renters will help address this housing crisis. But they will not fully resolve it.

Ultimately, it is long past time for our country to change its approach to housing. We need to recognize housing as a human right fundamental to every person’s life, health, and security — instead of as a luxury commodity limited to those who can afford it.

International law already recognizes housing as a human right. Countries are legally obligated to respect, protect, and fulfill this right by enacting relevant policies and budgets to progressively realize adequate housing for all.

What might that look like? Possibilities include rent controls, housing assistance programs, reining in corporate landlords, and creating community land trusts and housing cooperatives to build permanently affordable rental units and homes.

These affordability measures must be combined with legal protections against forced evictions and housing discrimination, along with regulations to ensure that housing is physically habitable and connected to essential services.

The housing justice movement keeps growing, thanks to the sustained advocacy of community groups across the country.

In California, Connecticut, and elsewhere, they are pushing for legislation that would recognize the right to housing at the state level. Colorado lawmakers are considering legislation that would offer tenants “just-cause” eviction protections. In Congress, the “Housing is a Human Right Act” introduced last year would provide over $300 billion for housing infrastructure and combating homelessness.

The song “Rent” concludes, “Cause everything is rent.” But it shouldn’t have to be.


Farrah Hassen, J.D., is a writer, policy analyst,

and adjunct professor in the Department of

Political Science at Cal Poly Pomona.


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