Urban Wire High Rents Are Posing Financial Challenges for Renters at All Income Levels
Jung Hyun Choi, Elizabeth Burton, Kathryn Reynolds
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Despite a strong economy and labor market, renters in all income groups are feeling financially squeezed as rental prices have outpaced income gains. Those with lower incomes are facing the greatest strains.

Many renters, especially those with low incomes, struggle with the cost of rent, but the COVID-19 pandemic and recent rent increases have intensified those struggles. It’s affecting renters’ ability to save, forcing them to reduce their spending on other essentials, and pressuring them to move.

That’s what we learned from evaluating renters’ financial challenges using data from two recent surveys: (1) a December 2023 national tenant survey with 2,241 respondents conducted by Avail, an online platform that supports mom-and-pop landlords in managing their rental properties, and (2) the US Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey covering March to April 2024. The Urban Institute partners with Avail to design survey questions.


Results from both surveys highlight that multiple policies are needed to support financially struggling renters. Policymakers can look to our analysis and policy recommendations to understand the economic challenges renters are facing, ways to alleviate renters’ financial burdens and enhance their housing stability, and mitigate the effects of rental prices climbing faster than incomes.

Almost 70 percent of renters are saving less than they were a year ago

The number and the share of renters who spend more than one-third of their income on rent (i.e., cost-burdened renters) have reached historic highs, with renters in all income groups facing increased rent burdens. This situation is reflected in the Avail survey results, which show that 68 percent of renter households were saving less at the time of the survey than they were 12 months earlier.

Additionally, 73 percent of renters said they save less than $500 a month. Although most renters in all income groups said they were saving less, renters in the lowest-income group (earning less than $25,000 annually) faced the worst financial strains: they had the highest shares who saved less than they did a year ago (72 percent) and who saved less than $500 a month (82 percent).

The price of rent forced more than 75 percent of renters to cut back spending in other areas

Renters are adjusting their household spending to deal with rising housing costs. For the three lowest-income groups we analyzed (earning less than $75,000), 80 percent said they were cutting back spending because of rent increases. Those who said they were cutting back were most likely to reduce their spending on entertainment (81 percent) and food (78 percent).

Among renters earning the least (less than $25,000), 82 percent cut back spending on food and groceries. They were also more likely than all other income groups to cut health care and transportation and car costs (33 and 52 percent, respectively), showing that high housing costs are posing challenges for paying for other essentials. 

Renters often feel pressured to leave their homes, but they don’t have many affordable options

In the newest Household Pulse Survey, 44 percent of renters said they felt pressured to move for such reasons as a potential eviction, missed rent payments, and a landlord not making needed repairs. But this share generally declines with income: working-age renter households with incomes below $75,000 were more likely to report feeling this pressure than those with higher incomes. Forty-eight percent of households with the lowest incomes (below $25,000) felt pressure to move.

Across the income spectrum, about 23 percent of renters who felt pressure said they moved as a result. That means nearly 80 percent of households feeling pressured to move have stayed, likely because of a lack of affordable options in the housing market.

Households with low incomes may be feeling the pressure more acutely. Among renters who felt pressured to move, 20 to 27 percent across income groups moved, with the highest share being among the lowest-income households. Lower-income households who moved are also more likely to have moved involuntarily. Among renters with the lowest incomes, relatively high shares moved because they felt pressure from missing rent payments or from landlords threatening eviction (44 and 52 percent, respectively).

What support do renters need to overcome increased financial challenges?

Our findings suggest renters with the lowest incomes have ongoing needs for financial assistance and that households in all income groups would benefit from alleviated rent burdens. Policymakers can take the following steps to support these aims:

  • Offer housing assistance tailored to the needs of different income groups. Households with the lowest incomes need highly subsidized housing, such as housing choice vouchers or a public housing unit. Yet these federal housing assistance programs reach only one in four eligible households, showing a need to dramatically increase federal funding. Households with low and moderate incomes also need access to shallow subsidies to offset financial pressures. Emergency rental assistance, for example, helps people stay housed when they face unexpected financial emergencies.
  • Develop and fund state and local housing programs. Though the housing assistance mentioned above requires federal resources, states and local jurisdictions also have a role to play. They could create and better fund housing programs to reduce financial burdens for households who can’t afford the high cost of rent.
  • Increase the long-term supply of affordable housing. The Biden administration has recently proposed programs designed to produce new housing units near transit and amenities, adding needed housing to the market for renters across income levels. But most of these initiatives require congressional authorization.

Together, these policies could reduce the rising number of renter households experiencing financial pressure and threats of eviction and homelessness and improve housing stability for millions of Americans.


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Research Areas Housing
Tags Economic well-being Families with low incomes Family and household data Family savings Federal housing programs and policies Financial stability Housing affordability Food insecurity and hunger Housing markets Housing subsidies Income and wealth distribution Public and assisted housing
Policy Centers Housing Finance Policy Center Research to Action Lab Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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