The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 10, 2012

Moving To Opportunity Without Subsidies: Expanding Options In A Tight Housing Market

January 10, 2012

Concentrated poverty is on the rise. The population living in extreme poverty neighborhoods—where at least 40 percent of individuals live below the poverty line—has risen more than 30 percent in the past decade. And we know that living in these neighborhoods has adverse consequences for residents, for everything from employment to health and school achievement.

And yet, many Americans’ housing options are already limited because they can barely afford the housing they have. According to the 2009 American Community Survey, more than half of all renters (18.5 million) already spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and 26 percent of renters shoulder housing costs exceeding half their earnings. To make matters worse, only about a quarter of eligible households can expect to receive any federal housing assistance.

Under these circumstances, families who want to move to better neighborhoods only have a few options: raise their household income, move into a smaller place, or both. “Doubling-up” with a working friend or family member is one way to quickly boost household income and multiply housing options. And many people might consider renting a more modestly sized apartment if it meant living close to work, in a lower-crime neighborhood, or near a school that is a better fit for a child.

Unfortunately, these choices are often not available to low-income folks because of inflexible rental occupancy standards. The two-person-per-bedroom convention, which tends to be more strictly followed in better neighborhoods, essentially denies many families the right to trade off size for location and quality. The only way many low-income families can access better housing options is to pay more, which may make rent burdensome or simply put the unit out of reach altogether.

All things equal, more space is always desirable. But should size always trump affordability, neighborhood quality, or location? Maybe it’s time to better understand what that trade-off actually means for the housing options of struggling Americans.

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