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Rising Rents and High Mortgage Rates: Housing Costs Squeeze Budgets to the Brink

Housing is the biggest expense for those living paycheck to paycheck. Here's how families adjust.

For Rent sign with house in background
Design by Zooey Liao/CNET

This story is part of Priced Out, CNET's coverage of how real people are coping with the high cost of living in the US.

When Billie McClure's landlords in southwest Colorado told her they were selling the apartment building in summer 2019, she had 45 days to pack up her family and find a new place to live. 

Brandon Douglas/CNET

Rentals were getting snatched up far and wide, but McClure found something for $550 more per month. To cover the deposit, first month's rent and moving costs, she had to take out a loan. Given McClure's federal disability income -- equal to about $13 per hour -- and mountains of medical and student debt between her and her partner, the higher rent and a new loan payment put an undue strain on their household budget. 

The average rent nationwide hit a record at 24% higher this past summer than it was two years ago. A recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, or NLIHC, showed that a full-time, minimum-wage worker cannot afford a two-bedroom rental anywhere in the country and that every state in the US lacked an adequate supply of affordable housing. 

Housing is the biggest expenditure for families living paycheck to paycheck. 

"The rent eats first," said Nick Graetz, postdoctoral research associate at the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. Over the last few decades, wages haven't kept up with soaring rent growth, leading to an increase in cost-burdened renters across the country. In 2018, some 10.9 million households in the US were paying more than 50% of their incomes for rent. Higher rents make it harder for families to cover other essential needs, let alone save or invest. That impact is enduring, undermining financial stability for years to come. 

A variety of housing coalitions, nonprofits and grassroots groups are working on legislation and initiatives to address the national housing shortage, to bring down skyrocketing costs and to prioritize stable housing for marginalized communities. But more work needs to be done. 

"We're not investing in solutions at the scale that's needed," said Sarah Saadian, senior vice president of public policy and field organizing at the NLIHC. 

In the meantime, families are finding ways to make it work: buying homes together, relocating to cheaper areas, reaching out for financial assistance and working with legal advocates to get housing protections.

Read more: Military Families Are Facing Their Own Housing Crisis

Balancing housing costs with other necessities 

With the rent on McClure's new place now slated to increase another $100 per month, budgeting has become a belt-tightening challenge. In order to manage, the family started to cut outings like dinner dates and family movie nights. They also skip healthier groceries and reduce their heat and air conditioning use. 

The latest blow was a membership to a local rec center where the family could access movement classes and equipment, especially during the winter months. "We dropped it in early September," she said. McClure knew they could continue their evening walks but only until wintry weather set in.

Though there is some local income-based housing in the area, the need is so high that the waiting lists are years long -- a common problem for communities in need. 

After paying for housing, the majority of low-income renters, like the McClures, and many middle-income renters, have little or insufficient money left to cover other needs, such as food and health care, according to research by The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. Material hardship is greater for Black and Latino households, families with children, and individuals on fixed incomes or out of the labor force. 

Risking eviction or homelessness

Rising housing costs have left more Americans at risk of eviction, homelessness or living in shelters nationwide, said Saadian. One study from the US Government Accountability Office found that average rent increases of $100 a month were associated with a 9% increase in homelessness in several areas. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic and mass unemployment put even more pressure on the nation's unstable housing situation, protections were implemented at the federal and state levels to curb evictions. But those moratoriums have since expired. The NLIHC is behind a coordinated effort, called ERASE, to end rental arrears and stop evictions for the lowest income and most marginalized communities through coordinated programs, as well as to accelerate equitable distribution of emergency rental assistance funds. 

"We live under a system that makes it difficult to retain our housing whenever we experience a problem," said Graetz. If an unexpected expense pops up -- from a sudden health issue to a car repair -- struggling families have to choose between next month's rent and the emergency. Sometimes the only alternative is to move in with family or double up with other households. 

Economically and socially disadvantaged communities are more likely to fall behind in rent payments, putting them at greater risk of losing their housing. In a 2021 Harvard study, 29% of Black and 21% of Latino renters had fallen behind, compared with 11% of white renters. 

Evictions are not only a consequence of poverty, but they are also a cause, Graetz said. Tenants who have been evicted are more likely to lose their jobs within a year and experience other major setbacks, setting off a vicious cycle. Having the "scarlet E" also impacts your rental history, making it harder to get new housing. 

Earning $55,000 a year and still stranded

In some rental markets, it's tough to find anywhere to live due to the lack of vacancies. In Asheville, North Carolina, which recently was deemed the least affordable city for renters in the state, a huge tourism boom has prompted many landlords to convert their property into short-term rentals, exacerbating the housing shortage. 

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Deanna Clark

Courtesy of Deanna Clark

As a result, residents like DeAnna Clark, a restaurant manager, started looking for a place to live six months before her lease was set to expire in June 2022. In October, she was still searching. "I've been couch-hopping and getting hotels when I can," Clark said. 

Even with Clark's average monthly income of $4,600, she hasn't been able to compete with other applicants. With mortgage rates soaring in recent months, there's been a slight decline in the number of home buyers, which in turn puts even greater pressure on the rental market, as renters try to outbid one another to score a unit.

Purchasing a home, but barely 

In a competitive housing market, Anna Janssen, a 25-year-old who works for a software company, couldn't even consider buying a home without substantial financial help from her in-laws. When she and her husband started looking in late 2020, houses were going fast in bidding wars, with prospective buyers waiving inspections and offering cash to get first dibs. 

After several months, their real estate agent found sellers who were sympathetic to the Janssens -- the couple was at that time facing an emergency medical situation with their 7-month-old. The house on offer was farther away and smaller than the Janssens wanted, but out of desperation, they offered $20,000 above asking price without seeing the place in person. 

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The Janssen family

Courtesy of the Janssens

The strategy worked. They locked in a mortgage just above 3%, which is less than half what home loans are today. Though her husband got a pay bump, they're still not as far ahead as they hoped to be, especially with two kids.

 "Between the cost of living going up and the cost of medical care, we're still playing catchup," Janssen said. 

A family would have needed an average income of $58,000 to qualify for the median-priced home at the average mortgage rate in September 2021, according to the National Association of Realtors. One year later, that same family would need an income of at least $91,000 to qualify. In many metropolitan areas, a median-priced home requires an annual income of over $200,000. 

Resources for affordable housing 

Though it's not always an option to move in with parents or roommates to lower housing costs, more young Americans are doing it because of costs. Especially during the pandemic, many families moved out of cities to find cheaper housing, and some enrolled in incentivized relocation programs to receive bonuses to move. 

"It's going to take a lot of resources to fully address the housing crisis," said Saadian. To that end, the NLIHC encourages local governments to implement better zoning, land-use regulations and renter protections and also campaigns for more federal funds to build affordable housing. Much of the organization's lobbying effort focuses on getting Congress to allocate more to the National Housing Trust Fund, which would provide grants to build affordable housing, and to expand federal, state and local rental assistance to the most vulnerable populations. 

Many local housing advocates, outreach programs and legal aid organizations work to improve access to low-cost housing and to protect tenants when faced with eviction. Legal aid attorneys are incredibly important, Saadian noted, and tenants provided with legal counsel have greater odds of remaining in their residences. 

To learn about your rights or get legal counsel for a housing issue, Graetz recommends looking at state bar associations, the American Bar Association and LawHelp.org, or creating a tenants' union. The Eviction Lab at Princeton also has a sister organization called Just Shelter, which offers an interactive map that connects people to local housing-related resources.