Ain’t Nothing Going On But the Rent

The title of this post is taken from a song popularized by the late Gwen Guthrie that made it to the top of the R&B charts in 1986. In the song, Guthrie sings about the reality of paying the rent and that money talks. “No romance without finance,” she croons. “You’ve got to have a j-o-b if you want to be with me.” Such is the reality for too many low-income Americans whose lives are shaped by their ability to pay their rent. Longtime New York Times poverty reporter Jason Deparle reports in Monday’s news that, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, nearly two-thirds of households in the lowest 20 percent of income earners face “severe cost burdens” which means that more than half of their income goes to paying the rent.

Among working-class renters—those in the next 20 percent level of household income—nearly 17 percent face similar cost burdens, a figure that has almost tripled over the past two decades. The federal government says shelter is affordable if it requires no more than 30 percent of household income, a percentage only about half of the nation’s 44 million renters rent pay. Devoting half of one’s income to rent is not sustainable and leads to housing instability for millions of rent-paying Americans. Even as the problem worsens, federal housing assistance—public housing, Section 8, and Housing Choice Vouchers—has decreased by six percent since 2004. Social workers have been arguing for years that child neglect is often due to burdensome realities such as this rather than irresponsible parents.

Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his 2016 book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, has been sounding the alarm about the growing crisis of evictions in the United States, a natural consequence of the inability to afford adequate housing. As principal investigator of The Eviction Lab, Desmond tracks the number of evictions in the United States while making nationwide eviction data publicly accessible. Using Census data, he estimates that between 2007 and 2016, 7.6 million individuals were threatened with eviction each year, including 2.9 million children. More than half of evictions (51.1%) were filed against black renters, compared to one in 24 white renters. Young children are the most vulnerable and the most likely to be threatened.

The eviction process varies by state. The Times article focuses on South Carolina, where landlords can evict any tenant five days late on a month’s rent. In most states, tenants have one to four weeks to vacate the premises. Landlords are usually prohibited from using self-help methods, such as changing the locks. Often, landlords must obtain a court order and rely on law enforcement to execute the evictions.

Rental rates are rising because of the shortage of new housing construction, which plummeted during the decade following the Great Recession in 2008. New housing construction also slowed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other factors such as gentrification and corporations acquiring large numbers of rental properties, have exacerbated the crisis. Corporations began buying foreclosed single-family houses after the 2008 housing collapse and turning them into rental properties, often raising rents and adding additional charges. Democrats have introduced legislation prohibiting hedge funds and private equity companies from purchasing single-family housing.

The lack of affordable housing in the United States is colliding with our growing aging population. According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, Americans more than 65 years old increased by 34 percent in the last decade, from 43 million in 2012 to 58 million in 2022. Elderly people over 80 are expected to be the fastest-growing segment in the coming decade. Many elderly will live on fixed incomes and require support and services at home. The country is not ready to accommodate this population.

While the nation struggles to meet the needs of older Americans, children are often left behind. Funkadelic, an eccentric band of the 1970s, popularized the song, American Eats Its Young, to bring attention to the plight of many children who fall through the cracks into child protective services, foster care, and the juvenile justice system. It’s a no-brainer that stable housing is crucial to the well-being of children. Too many are denied that. According to the Urban Institute, the United States spends 10 percent of the federal budget on children compared to 30 percent on adults. As wealthy as this nation is, we should be able to house every child.

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