The number of people with worst-case housing needs has reached a record level.

Nearly 8.5 million families were in this group in 2011, an increase of 2.57 million households since 2007—a staggering 43.5 percent hike, reports the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

"Worst-case housing needs" are defined as renters with very low incomes (below half the median in their area) who do not receive government housing assistance and who either paid more than half their monthly incomes for rent, lived in severely substandard conditions, or both.

It is clear that the worst case is getting worse.

"These sobering numbers remind us that as we work to craft a balanced approach to our budget and priorities, we can't lose sight of those who may be teetering on the brink of homelessness," said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. "Clearly, the economic downturn that we're recovering from put tremendous stress on lower-income families who continue to be crowded out of the affordable housing marketplace. Today's report is a wake-up call to all of us working to make sure every family has a decent place to call home."

The vast majority of these renters had worst-case needs because of their extreme rent burdens. Inadequate housing caused only 3 percent of the worst-case needs.

"The number of renter households increased primarily because a substantial number of homeowners became renters as a result of the nation's economic and housing market problems—unemployment and foreclosures—and also because of new household formation," said "Worst Case Housing Needs 2011: A Summary Report to Congress." "Household formation and increasing renter share account for 210,000 and 510,000 new cases of worst-case needs, or 53 percent of the total increase of 1.38 million."

The rest of the increase in worst-case needs during 2009-2011 can be attributed to falling incomes among renters, a continuing shortage of housing assistance, and increased scarcity of affordable housing. The income of the median renter declined by 1.5 percent during this period, even as the median rent increased by 4.1 percent.

The worsening housing situation is hitting poor families in all aspects of their lives.

"When individuals or families have to pay more than 50 percent of their income for a place to live, it means they often cannot put three meals on their tables, buy essential prescription drugs, or afford critical day care for their after-school children," Eileen Fitzgerald, CEO of NeighborWorks America, told Affordable Housing Finance. "That's why it's important for NeighborWorks America and other national and state organizations to continue to look for ways to help local and regional nonprofits sustain the affordable housing that already exists in their communities and access additional sources of capital to build more rental homes for the families that need them the most."

Other housing advocates were also absorbing the data.

“It is very depressing news,” said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, noting that housing affordability and homelessness are very closely linked.

When people are paying too much for housing, they are put at risk of becoming homeless, she said.

Nationwide, approximately one in four very low-income households receive some form of rental assistance. Although the worst-case numbers show an increase in struggling families, funding for Sec. 8 vouchers and other assistance isn't keeping up with the growing need, Roman said.

The outlook continues to be troubling with the looming threat of sequestration and the possibility of across-the-board reductions to government programs, she added.

HUD reports that housing needs cut across all regions of the country and included all racial and ethnic groups, regardless of whether they lived in cities, suburbs, or rural areas. In addition, HUD concluded that large numbers of worst-case needs were also found across various household types including families with children, senior citizens, and persons with disabilities.

Hispanic and non-Hispanic white households experienced the largest increases in the number of both very low-income renters and worst-case needs since 2009. About 48 percent of new cases of worst-case needs were found among white, 28 percent among Hispanic, and 13 percent from black households.

In 2011, worst-case needs affected:

  • 3.24 million families with children;
  • 1.47 million elderly households;
  • 2.97 million other "nonfamily" households (unrelated people sharing housing); and
  • Nearly one in six renters with worst-case needs included a nonelderly person with disabilities. These households increased from 990,000 in 2009 to 1.31 million in 2011.