‘The Rent Is Too Damn High’ for Grandpa and Grandma

Older Americans living on fixed incomes are feeling the pinch more than most.

(Photo: Flickr)

Sep 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Last fall, 80-year-old Diego Deleo became the face of rising housing costs and gentrification in San Francisco when the story of the attempt to evict him from his rent-controlled apartment became national news. Deleo, who lives on a fixed income, couldn’t afford market-rate rent in his North Beach neighborhood and wasn’t sure where he would go. “What can you do? That’s capitalism, that’s reality,” Deleo told Newsweek in October.

The landlord’s efforts to oust Deleo were shut down in court in December. But according to a new report from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing and community development organization, older Americans like Deleo will increasingly find themselves priced out of the market nationwide as rents continue to outpace income. It’s no wonder, then, that the founder of the New York City–based The Rent Is Too Damn High political party is 68-year-old Jimmy McMillan.

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The number of people overall who will be severely rent burdened—spending more than half of their income to pay for housing—is expected to grow from 11.8 million in 2015 to nearly 15 million by 2025. Although minority households and millennials often struggle to find affordable housing, elderly renters are hardest hit. Thirty percent are forking over more than half their income for housing, according to the report.

Things will only worsen over the next decade as the population of people 65 and older increases to 74 million by 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 National Population Projections. Because older adults may have “little wealth or savings when they retire,” wrote the report’s authors, the number of severely cost-burdened households of people ages 65 to 74 is expected to jump 42.1 percent, from 830,000 to 1.2 million, while folks 75 and older will see a 38.9 percent increase, from 890,000 to 1.2 million.

Even if a person isn’t renting a traditional apartment but is looking to live in a nursing home, he or she will still have a tough time. The median older renter can only afford the cost of one month in a nursing home, according to the report.

At the heart of the problem is the reality that as rents have increased since 2001, incomes have dropped or stagnated.

(Photo: Harvard)

Our analysis shows that even in the unlikely event that income growth greatly outpaces rent gains, the number of severely cost-burdened renters will remain near current record levels,” Christopher Herbert, managing director of Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, said in a statement.

Previous research from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that there is no county in the U.S. where a minimum-wage worker working full time can afford a one-bedroom apartment at fair-market rent. Developers simply aren’t giving the green light to housing priced within reach of low-income tenants. The median rent of $1,290 for a newly constructed apartment is about half the median renter’s monthly household income, according to the report.

If folks hope to qualify for government subsidized housing, good luck with that. The report’s authors wrote that 11.2 million extremely low-income households are competing for 7.3 million homes.

“Given these data, it is critical for policy makers at all levels of government to prioritize the preservation and development of affordable rental housing, as there are simply not enough quality, affordable rental units to provide housing for the millions of households paying over half their income in rental costs,” Herbert said.