In Philadelphia, the reality of the rent crisis hits hard for Genuine Campbell, a single mother of four, whose rent for a modest two-bedroom apartment skyrocketed from $1,300 to $1,600 within just two years. Concurrently, her hours as a hotel valet were reduced, compounding her financial woes. Faced with rising utility costs and the relentless tide of inflation, Campbell finds herself at a crossroads each month, deliberating whether to pay bills partially and cover some rent, or stretch her budget to pay rent in full at the expense of falling behind on other essentials.
Campbell’s neighborhood, despite its escalating rents, doesn’t offer the safety she desires for her children’s outdoor play. “You have to work in, like, maybe a hospital or [as a] police officer … just to keep up with the rent,” she laments, indicating the widening chasm between wages and living costs.
A recent report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University casts a spotlight on the distressing trend Campbell and countless others are experiencing. In 2022, the study reveals, a staggering 50 percent of U.S. renters were dedicating more than 30 percent of their income to cover rent and utilities, setting a new unfortunate record. Even more alarming is that nearly half of these individuals are severely cost-burdened, spending over 50 percent of their income on housing.
Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, a senior research associate at the center and the lead author of the report, expresses surprise at the findings. “We actually saw increases across every single income category that we look at, which sort of surprised us,” she notes, underscoring the pervasive nature of the affordability crisis. The report pinpoints the most significant affordability decline among households earning between $30,000 and $74,999 annually.
Renters traditionally opt for less desirable locations or endure longer commutes to find more affordable housing. However, Airgood-Obrycki points out that these sacrifices are becoming less effective in mitigating housing costs. “And often what we’re seeing is that even when people are attempting to make these trade-offs, they still end up paying too much for housing,” she adds, highlighting the diminishing returns on such compromises.
The harrowing consequence of the housing shortage is a surge in homelessness across the U.S., with rates reaching an all-time high last year. Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, directly attributes this rise to the acute housing deficit, exacerbated by soaring rents. “We simply don’t have enough homes that people can afford,” Olivet states, describing the situation as a perilous “vicious game of musical chairs.”
Despite a recent cooling in the housing market, with rent hikes slowing and an uptick in apartment constructions, the relief for those struggling appears minimal. Airgood-Obrycki cautions that the majority of new constructions cater to the high-end market, driven by increased construction costs. This trend does little to alleviate the affordability crisis for the majority of renters, as the market continues to shed units renting for $600 a month or less.
The widening affordability gap is further exacerbated by the inadequate funding of federal housing subsidies. As rents have outpaced income growth over the past two decades, millions more now qualify for federal assistance, yet the resources available fall short of the escalating need.
In Philadelphia, Campbell has taken the difficult step of moving her family in with friends as she navigates the daunting rental market. She remains hopeful, albeit realistically, about finding a more affordable living situation. “It’s like you’re dreaming of a fairy tale,” she says, “But I’m going to try to find something that I can handle.”
“We actually saw increases across every single income category that we look at, which sort of surprised us,” reflects Airgood-Obrycki.