Affordable Housing Crisis Is Awful Enough That It Overrides the Rural-Urban Divide

Photo by Brian Addison. Graphics courtesy of the Urban Institute.

I’ve talked about the housing crisis and its attached affordability crisis a lot. A lot. A lot. A lot. A loooot.

One huge part of this conversation that has been missing—and one assumed by urbanists and housing advocates alike, including myself—is that the lack of affordable housing is largely relegated to our most dense, populated markets. Mainly urban centers. In other words and in the chants of countless ignorant folks, “If you want cheaper housing, go to an area that is cheaper.” And when they say cheaper, they typically mean more rural.

Well, the Urban Institute has evidence that—while the crisis is worst in urban centers—our most vulnerable populations in need of housing face shortages in almost every part of the nation. In fact, minus a handful of counties in the northeastern most part of the nation, there is not a single place in the country which provides adequate affordable housing.

We’ve been on massive decline in not only providing housing in general, but specifically affordable housing—especially for Extremely Low Income (ELI) households. (These households earn 30% or less of the median income of any given area.)

“The number of adequate, affordable, and available units for every 100 ELI renter households has increased since 2009, when 43 units were available per 100 ELI renters,” it was reported. “But it is still lower than the rate in 2000, when 47 units were available per 100 ELI renters. Since the 2007–09 recession, the number of affordable units in the private market has increased slightly, partly as a result of increased household incomes.”


Well, multiple reasons: property owners are drifting away from much-needed federal assistance programs—something the report notes as essential when it comes to housing folks, particularly through the US Government’s Housing Choice Voucher Program and Section 8/public housing, which account for 2,850,880 units throughout the country—while innovators and developers have failed in creating a cost-effective pathway to build affordable housing. Add onto this the pejorative effects of gentrification and an increasing divide between the most wealthy and most poor, harnessed by an exclusive economy, and you are set for marginalizing even further the most marginalized.

“So rural counties have about 69 adequate and affordable units available for every 100 ELI renters; metropolitan areas hover around 42 units [per 100 ELI renters],” said author Liza Getsinger. “The disparity’s primary driver is the lack of unassisted, naturally affordable units in metropolitan counties. ELI renters in metropolitan areas have less than a 20 percent chance of finding an affordable unit without a federal subsidy.”

Another culprit? Short-term rentals a la Airbnb—a note not noted in their report but rather, in an Urban Institute staff blog that broke it down like this:

Just like big cities, small towns and rural communities have different market conditions driving the affordability challenges facing each community.

In some small towns, rising rents are making the affordability crisis worse. Small resort towns, like Breckenridge, Colorado, and Traverse City, Michigan, are feeling the squeeze of gentrification. Tourism fuels the economy, opening up jobs for locals and seasonal workers, but affordable rentals are hard to find. And many landlords can earn more from short-term rentals to tourists than long-term leases to residents.

In some communities, like Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta, deep-seeded economic distress from manufacturing job loss and changes in the agriculture industry has made it harder for families to cover basic expenses. With the poverty rate and unemployment rate nearly double the national average, many Sunflower County households have too few resources to afford housing.

Some counties have seen a skyrocket in affordable units becoming accessible: El Paso, the county besting every other metro area in the nation when it comes to bridging that accessibility gap, nearly tripled its affordable units supply between 2010 and 2014, from 7,088 units to 20,522 units—which in percentage terms meant that 41.9 units per 100 ELI renters were available in 2010 while 61.3 units per 100 ELI renters came online in 2014.

Los Angeles County? 22.6 units per 100 ELI renters in 2010 with a minuscule jump to 25.6 units per 100 ELI renters. Of course, LA is dealing with over 500,000 ELI renters in the county alone—which might explain why our county ranks at a sad place of #83 in terms of the counties with the best availability of adequate and affordable rental housing for ELI renters.

The conclusion? Per the report:

Since 2000, the stock of adequate, affordable, and available rental units has not kept pace with the increase in the number of extremely low-income renters. The widening affordability gap is driven by the continued loss of affordable market-rate housing and budget cuts to rental assistance programs at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the US Department of Agriculture.

Without federal rental assistance, the magnitude of this problem would be greater. Simply put, virtually no affordable housing units would be available to ELI households absent continued investment in federally assisted rental housing. If market trends continue, funding for HUD and the USDA must increase to fill the gap in suitable units for ELI renters. If additional funding is not provided, all counties, including rural communities with vulnerable populations and Native American communities, will struggle to provide adequate, affordable housing for ELI renter households.

Want to see where every county in the nation stands? Click here for an interactive map.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.