HUD released an Executive Summary of its biennial Worst Case Housing Needs report on August 22. The report is expected to be released in full in September and proves that millions of low-income households are on the brink of homelessness. In particular, the report finds that in 2021, 8.53 million renters with very low-incomes – those earning no more than 50% of area median income and without housing assistance – were severely housing cost-burdened, living in inadequate housing conditions, or both. According to the Executive Summary, this is the highest number of households with “worst case housing needs” since HUD began collecting these data in 1978.
Yet even as renters struggled with historically high rents and severe housing cost-burdens, fewer households experienced homelessness. According to HUD’s 2021 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report (AHAR): Part 2, in 2021 sheltered homelessness decreased by 17% compared to 2019, and family homelessness decreased by 25% over the same period.
While these findings at first seem contradictory, the explanation is clear: during the year covered by the reports, the federal government provided historic protections and resources to get and keep people with the lowest incomes housed, including over $46 billion for emergency rental assistance, funding for 70,000 Emergency Housing Vouchers for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, and a national moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent. While these resources were never meant to address the root causes of the affordable housing crisis – the nation’s severe shortage of affordable, available housing for people with the lowest incomes, and the growing gap between wages and rent – they did help stave off a catastrophic wave of evictions and, in the worst cases, homelessness.
Our country faces a shortage of more than 7.3 million homes affordable and available for renters with the lowest incomes, a shortage that worsened significantly during the pandemic. Moreover, nationally, 60% percent of all workers earn an hourly wage that is less than the 2023 national Housing Wage – the hourly wage a full-time worker must earn to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent, without spending more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities. The 2023 national Housing Wage is $28.58 per hour for a two-bedroom rental home – nearly four times greater than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. A full-time worker paid minimum wage cannot even reasonably afford a modest one-bedroom rental home in over 92% of U.S. counties.
Without affordable, available housing options and absent adequate pay, over 8.1 million (73%) of the nation’s 11 million extremely low-income renter households are left severely housing cost-burdened, spending more than half their income on rent and utilities alone. Decades of racist and discriminatory housing policies have led to the overrepresentation of people of color, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community among people experiencing severe housing cost burden, eviction, and homelessness.
HUD’s reports show what happens when the federal government invests in safety net programs that help keep households living on the edge of homelessness afloat. However, as pandemic protections expire and resources are depleted, more households already teetering on the edge will be pushed into homelessness. Increased homelessness is the tragic, yet predictable, consequence of underinvesting in the resources and protections that help people find and maintain safe, affordable housing. To fully address the affordable housing and homelessness crises, Congress must provide the significant, long-term investments needed to make rental assistance universally available; preserve and expand the existing affordable housing stock; fund a permanent emergency rental assistance program; and implement robust tenant protections.