Higher-Income, Suburban Neighborhoods More Likely to Be Rental Deserts

A report published by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, “Rental Deserts Perpetuate Socioeconomic and Racial Segregation,” examines the composition of “rental deserts” –  neighborhoods where less than one-fifth of the housing stock is occupied by or available to renters. The report finds that rental deserts are more common in suburban neighborhoods, neighborhoods with high median incomes, and neighborhoods with higher concentrations of white households. The report notes that policies such as exclusionary zoning help maintain rental deserts and are contributing to ongoing segregation.

The authors define “rental desert” as a neighborhood where less than 20% of the housing stock is currently rented or available to be rented. They find that over 22,000 census tracts – or more than 30% of all census tracts – qualify as rental deserts. Far more rental deserts exist than high-rental areas, which are defined as neighborhoods where at least 80% of the housing stock is being rented or is available to rent. Only 5% of census tracts are high-rental areas.

The report finds that rental deserts are more likely to be suburban and have a large share of single-family homes. Sixty-four percent of rental deserts are suburban neighborhoods, yet these neighborhoods make up only 54% of all census tracts. Urban neighborhoods are far less likely to be rental deserts. While 29% of census tracts are urban, only 9% of rental deserts are in urban neighborhoods. Rental deserts are also less likely to include multi-family housing. Eighty-five percent of housing units in rental desert census tracts are single-family homes, compared to 17% in high-rental neighborhoods.

Rental deserts also have higher concentrations of white residents and house higher-income households. Nearly 80% of households in rental deserts have a white head of household, compared to 33% in high-rental neighborhoods. Rental deserts have a median income that is more than double that of high-rental neighborhoods: the median income in rental deserts is $86,000, compared to $42,000 in high-rental neighborhoods.

The report suggests that rental deserts perpetuate both racial and economic segregation by offering few housing options for renters, who are more likely to have lower incomes and be people of color. The authors emphasize that current policies of exclusionary land use regulation that prevent multi-family housing from being built in certain neighborhoods perpetuates these inequities. While less restrictive zoning and increased multi-family housing supply could help reduce the prevalence of rental deserts, the authors also recommend expanding housing subsidies.

The report can be found at: https://bit.ly/3JNObZs