The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines a “housing-cost burdened” household as one that's spending more than 30% of its income on rent. As that percentage grows, food, utilities, and other life necessities become more difficult to afford, and yet the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University estimates that nearly half of all U.S. renters across all income levels are housing-cost burdened.

In response to this alarming statistic, apartment-search firm ABODO asked, where does this widespread housing-cost burden come from, and who is affected? Are many renters living beyond their means, or is housing just too expensive? Are only low-income renters cost burdened? How does an area's median income compare with that area's cost of living, and what subsidies exist to alleviate some of the financial pressure?

In order to answer these questions, ABODO used the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey data to select the 100 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with the most renter units, and then calculated the percentage of those rental units that spent 30% or more of their 2015 income on rent (excluding “zero or negative income” or “no cash rent” households). The company then ranked those MSAs by their percentage of cost-burdened residents.

The top 19 cost-burdened cities as measured by this metric are presented in the table below, right.

In all of these cities, at least 54% of the renter population is facing a cost burden, with the Miami–Fort Lauderdale–West Palm Beach metro far ahead of the curve, at 63.89%. The vast majority of these cost-burdened renters make under $35,000 in a city where the average median income exceeds $50,000. (ABODO notes that if the population limits in the study were removed, Atlantic City, N.J., would top this list, as 65.54% of its renters are cost burdened.) The vast majority of the cities on the list are in either California or Florida.

In most of these cities, the majority of cost-burdened renters make less than $20,000; Springfield, Mass., has the highest proportion of low-income cost-burdened renters, at 57.63%. But that's not the case in all cities on the list: In urban Honolulu, for example, only 20.99% of cost-burdened renters make under $20,000, a lower percentage than that of all three categories recorded between $20,000 and $74,999. This difference can be explained, among many other factors, by urban Honolulu’s high median income and cost of living.

ABODO has sorted each MSA’s cost-burdened renters by their income levels and compared those levels against the MSA’s average median income.

In every instance, 80% to 90% of renters who make under $20,000 per year are cost burdened: 96.60% of Orlando–Kissimmee–Sanford, Fla.’s under-$20,000 renters are cost burdened, followed by Los Angeles, at 93.84%. In the next income bracket, at least 77% of all renters with incomes between $20,000 and $35,000 are cost burdened in each of these 19 cities. The next three income brackets—$35,000 to $50,000, $50,000 to $75,000, and $75,000 and up—begin to meet median area incomes, and, as such, fewer renters at these income levels are cost burdened.

The three metros with the highest median incomes—Bridgeport–Stamford–Norwalk, Conn.; Oxnard–Thousand Oaks–Ventura Calif.; and urban Honolulu—also have some of the highest percentages of cost-burdened renters with median incomes above $75,000. Urban Honolulu tops this chart, with 23.23% of renters making over $75,000 cost burdened there.

HUD offers subsidies to help cost-burdened renters pay rent, though the agency's low-income ceiling is based on the area median income, not on the cost of rent. (The current ceiling guideline is 80% of the local AMI.)

By comparing the number of HUD-subsidized units in an MSA with the total number of renters who are cost burdened, ABODO has charted the total possible HUD coverage in each MSA for cost-burdened renters. Springfield, Mass., has enough HUD-subsidized units to serve 47.9% of cost-burdened renters, while Orland–Kissimmee–Sanford has enough for only 6.21% of its burdened renters.

Taken together, these cost-burden data not only shed light on the factors that lead to cost burdens, but also on the resources that may or may not be available to renters. Importantly, the ABODO report notes that not all cost-burdened renters qualify for subsidies, and not all those who benefit from subsidies are cost burdened.

Surprisingly, high-rent cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Houston did not make the top 19. (Philadelphia was No. 25, Boston No. 39, Chicago No. 40, and Houston No. 58.)

“Some of the largest cities in the U.S., those that usually have the highest rent, actually have [fewer] cost-burdened renters than we initially thought,” says Sam Radbil, ABODO’s senior communications manager. “And while it’s clear that a huge number of renters are cost burdened across the country, in both large and small cities, HUD subsidy benefits are limited to just a small number of the burdened renters.”