With so many eyes focused on home sales and mortgage
rates, it is easy to forget that 34 million U.S.
households—one-third of all
Americans—currently rent. The fact is that nearly
all of us are renters at some point in our lives.
The rental market is critically important, yet the
supply of affordable units is on the decline. A new report
by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing
Studies and funded by the MacArthur Foundation shines light
on the significant loss of America’s affordable
rental housing stock. For every new low-cost unit that is
built, two are razed, abandoned, or turned into
condominiums or high-end rentals, according to the study,
titled “America’s Rental Housing: Homes
for a Diverse Nation.” Over the past decade, the
nation has lost 2 million affordable rental homes as
markets soared, federal subsidies waned, owners divested,
and aging properties deteriorated beyond repair.
It’s not just housing that’s at stake;
it’s also the collective investment of American
taxpayers. Over the past 50 years, billions of public
dollars encouraged the private market to build and operate
many of the homes that are now disappearing.
More important than the money are the people. Renters
come from all economic levels and all walks of life. Some
choose to rent because they want to maintain a flexible
lifestyle or live close to downtown amenities.
Others—from students and young families to
teachers and city workers to new immigrants—may be
saving money to buy a house, or need to live close to work
or school. For people with low-wage jobs, elderly or
disabled people on fixed incomes, and anyone with little or
no savings, renting is not a choice but a necessity.
Many renters face serious challenges in finding housing
they can afford. An apartment renting for $800 a month
requires an annual income of $32,000 to be considered
affordable; that puts it well beyond the means of more than
half of all renters nationally. Nearly 15 million
low-income households spend more than 30 percent of their
income on housing, leaving little for other necessities
such as food, health care, and education, let alone
Recent studies have found that decent, stable housing
improves the ability of individuals to get and keep jobs,
increases psychological and physical health, and leads to
better social behavior and school achievement among
children. Vibrant, competitive cities require stable,
affordable, quality housing—including rental
Increasingly, policymakers across the country agree that
preserving affordable rental housing is sensible public
policy. On average, it costs half as much to acquire and
improve an existing rental apartment as to build a new one.
To increase the net supply of affordable housing, new
construction must be accompanied by the preservation of
existing properties. Only by combining these strategies can
we meet our nation’s growing need for decent homes
at a reasonable cost.
Fortunately, there are many new preservation efforts
underway nationwide. The MacArthur Foundation is promoting
the preservation of affordable rental housing through a $75
million initiative to facilitate new ownership, call
attention to the importance of rental housing, and
stimulate new policies that preserve and expand the
nation’s stock of affordable rental units.
The National Housing Trust documents more than 40 cities
and states that prioritize preservation projects when
granting housing assistance. These new initiatives resulted
in the preservation of almost 50,000 affordable rental
homes in 2004 alone. Continuing on that path, New York City
just made an ambitious 10-year commitment to preserve
73,000 affordable housing units for 200,000 low- and
moderate-income residents. More efforts like these are
needed if we are to make significant headway toward
improving the state of the nation’s rental
Jonathan Fanton is president of the John D. and
Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.