The number of renters with unaffordable housing cost burdens—those spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities—increased from 16.8 million to 17.4 million from 2006 to 2008, reports the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC).

In a separate study, the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO) found that more than half of Chicago’s 1.3 million renters are allocating 30 percent or more of their income toward housing.

At the national level, the NLIHC analysis of data from the 2008 American Community Survey (ACS) reveals that more families at every income level are facing housing cost burdens. Lowest-income renters are the hardest hit, with nearly 88 percent of renter families earning $20,000 or less experiencing an unaffordable housing cost burden compared with 15.3 percent of those earning $50,000 or more.

In addition, median gross rents increased from $763 to $824 between 2006 and 2008. The share of units renting for under $500 fell from 16.9 percent to 16.3 percent, as the share renting for $1,500 or more rose from 10 percent to 11.2 percent.

In another notable finding, NLIHC points to a shift from owning to renting since 2006, a time that many families lost their homes to foreclosures or postponed buying a house. The result is some families are doubling up, taking in tenants, or moving into smaller, more affordable units.

The average household size of a rental unit increased from 2.41 in 2006 to 2.44 in 2008. The percentage of occupied housing units with 1.51 or more occupants per room grew from 1.52 percent to 2.35 percent.

“The new ACS data validates the reports we are getting from across the country. More families are renting, rents are going up, and the lowest income households are struggling to pay for the most basic necessities. These data were collected before the rapid rise in unemployment, which means the situation today is even worse. As Congress considers giving even more tax breaks to support homeownership, equal attention must go to the diminishing housing choices of low income renters,” said NLIHC President Sheila Crowley in a statement.

To help ease the nation’s housing crisis, NLIHC has been calling on Congress to fund the National Housing Trust Fund with at least $1 billion. The fund was created in 2008 but has not yet received funding.

Chicago’s growing rent burden

Several of the national findings can be seen at the local level in Chicago.

The percentage of households in the city paying 30 percent or more of their income toward rent grew from 40 percent to 53 percent between 2000 and 2007, according to The State of Renters in the City of Chicago. The MTO looked at its own tenant-rights hotline data and Census data to paint a picture of the conditions that renters have faced over two decades.

Renters paying 50 percent or more of their income to housing grew from 20 percent to nearly 30 percent.

The study also found that rental housing has grown in neighborhoods traditionally occupied by homeowners, including the Northwest, Southwest, and South Sides, showing that renters are dispersed more broadly throughout Chicago. Renters have also increased in the area from the South Loop to the near West Side.

“Many of the geographic areas with rental unit increases are away from central parts of city, where jobs, servicesm and transit are concentrated,” reported MTO. “As renters move to the periphery of the city, a greater proportion are living in properties with three to four units; these properties are often owned by individuals or couples who depend on continuous streams of rent. Relatively fewer live in properties with 10 to 49 units that are more likely to be held by institutional investors and operated by professional management companies.”

Chicago lost more than 125,000 affordable rental units between 1990 and 2005, said the report.

Poor housing conditions are the largest complaint reported by renters to the MTO hotline.

MTO pointed out that 70 percent of the hotline callers are women. “Women may face gender-specific housing problems, such as familial status discrimination, as well as economic conditions that make them vulnerable to the rental market,” said the report. “New housing policies and program should specifically consider and target this population.”

MTO makes several other recommendations, including capitalizing the National Housing Trust Fund, requiring the one-for-one replacement of public housing units that are demolished, and increasing the number of vouchers available to low-income renters.