By David Z. Morris
December 17, 2017

A new study suggests that nearly a decade of housing shortages and rising rents in the U.S. may be reversing course. Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies concludes in its 2017 report that the growth of rental households has slowed, more rental homes are vacant, rents are stabilizing, and fewer Americans are putting unaffordable portions of their income towards rent.

Slowing growth in the number of rental households is the report’s headline finding. From 2010 to 2016, America added nearly a million renter households a year. But the census showed a decline in that growth rate in 2016, and some early 2017 data shows an actual decline in renters so far in 2017. Recent census data also shows a rise in vacancy rates.

According to JCHS, that’s because foreclosure numbers have declined and young homebuyers are re-entering the market. Home ownership in the U.S. took a big hit from the foreclosure crisis and Great Recession of 2007-2012, while the rental market struggled to meet the new demand.

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Other insights in the report mostly follow from that shifting reality. Rents are increasing more slowly. Fewer renter households are “cost-burdened,” or paying more than 30% of their income in rent, than they were two years ago.

However, the report says many of the changes of the last decade could remain even if these trends continue. Among those is a greater share of high-income households choosing to rent instead of buy, and a higher percentage of renters who are older, are white, or have children.

Moreover, with incomes for working and middle-class Americans still struggling to recover from post-recession declines, millions of renters are still stretching to afford housing. According to the new report, if the trends of recent years continue, it will take another 24 years to return to the number of cost-burdened renter households recorded in 2001.

“In effect,” JCHS writes, “the latest economic cycle seems to have defined a new normal for the nation’s rental affordability challenges.”

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