It’s no surprise that housing costs can strain the average American’s wallet. But in recent years, however, those strains have become extreme burdens, making the need for affordable housing even more acute. Many people spend half of their income on housing—well beyond the 30 percent Americans expect to spend on housing. Unfortunately, rental development has not kept up with the increasing need for affordable housing.

The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies reports that the number of households with severe cost burdens increased from 12 percent in 1980 to 16 percent in 2007; those with moderate cost burdens increased from 14 percent to 19 percent during that time. Meanwhile, multifamily rental completions declined. In 1980, multifamily units accounted for 19 percent of all housing completions. In 2007, that number hit 10 percent.

The data indicates a correlation between a decrease in completions and families’ cost burdens, but it’s not that cut and dry, says Dan McCue, a research analyst at Harvard’s Joint Center. “It’s hard to tell if construction affects affordability,” McCue says. “It’s not just about supply and demand. There are a lot factors to consider. However, during those years, there were a lot of high-end units being developed instead of more affordable units.”

Danna Fischer, legislative director and counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based National Low-Income Housing Coalition, says it’s difficult to make a direct connection but notes that the data paints an even bigger picture. “It confirms a growing problem in our country—a real crisis that predates the foreclosure mess,” she says. “We have been losing affordable housing units for years: Last year, there was a shortage of 2.8 million units for affordable housing. A focus on renting policies instead of home-ownership policies … would have helped balance the market.”

Still, until something is done to stem the need for affordable housing, the number of people facing cost burdens will indefinitely rise. “It’s going to continue to be a challenge in our country,” McCue says. “People will ask: ‘If there are so many vacant units, then why is there a need for affordability?’ The markets are not connecting.”


With the decline in multifamily housing construction, the country has seen a rise in the lack of affordable housing—as well as an uptick in the number of households facing severe and moderate cost burdens.