Everyone knows the economy has been rough on homeowners lately. But for people who rent -- especially for people who rent and don't make very much money -- things may be even worse. For Americans of modest income, it's "incredibly difficult" to afford rental housing right now, according to Megan Bolton, a senior research analyst at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
That's because more and more people are entering the rental market -- driven out of their homes by foreclosure, or just shying away from buying a house until prices improve. And rents are climbing higher as a result.
The average renter makes just $14.15 an hour, according to a report released Tuesday by the NLIHC. With real estate prices the way they are, though, you'd need to earn at least $18.25 an hour to be able to rent a typical two-bedroom apartment and still have cash left over for other expenses.
So, $4.10 an hour -- that's what stands between many renters and an affordable place to live.
It's a small sum. But at a time when poverty is at an all-time high, and more and more people report not having enough money to put food on the table, it's also a serious problem. And it seems to be growing more pronounced, according to Bolton.
"Rents are really rising right now," she told The Huffington Post. And, she said, workers' wages nationwide are either stagnant or dropping, as they have been since the economy ran into choppy waters a few years ago.
"There's definitely an indication that things are going to get worse," said Bolton.
Renters have responded in a number of ways, though "none of them are ideal," she said. Young adults are moving back in with their parents, and more families are living doubled up with friends or relatives -- a condition that often precedes a period of living on the streets or in a shelter.
"That's our real concern here," Bolton said, "is that these folks are going to end up homeless if we don't take action."
For the moment, though, Bolton said that most low-income renters are simply moving into places they can't really afford -- and "spending huge amounts of their paycheck on housing."
That's not a solution that will work out in the long term, said Sheila Crowley, president and chief executive of the NLIHC.
"They don't have enough money left to do the basic things," Crowley told HuffPost. "They have to skimp on food, or they have to skimp on medicine, or they don't have enough money left for transportation."
Such deprivations are a concern for millions of people now.
Part of what led to the current mess, said Crowley, is that federal policy was focused for so many years on making a homeowner out of every American.
"For the '90s and the 2000s, under both President Clinton and President George W. Bush," owning your own home was held up as "the right thing to do," Crowley told HuffPost. There was a perception that "renting was somehow unacceptable."
The result, many argue, was the speculative housing bubble that almost took down the economy in 2008.
What's called for now, Crowley told reporters at a press conference Tuesday, is a more flexible approach to housing policy, one that recognizes that "people are at different stages of their life cycle, people have different needs, people have different incomes."
Raphael Bostic, assistant secretary for policy development and research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, agreed with Crowley, telling attendees at the press conference that "in our society's collective psyche, the notion that homeownership is a no-brainer that everyone must do" is an idea that "doesn't prevail anymore."
Crowley told HuffPost that among policymakers, there's currently a "great disagreement about whether or not the federal government should do anything to increase revenue," making it difficult to know whether federal housing programs will get the funding they need to make affordable rental units available.
Remarks from HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan included in the latest NLIHC report note that HUD is currently undertaking efforts to "build or preserve more than 70,000 affordable rental homes," although by most estimates this would only be a drop in the bucket.
A previous report from the NLIHC estimated that in order for every family of low-earning renters to have a place to live, 6.8 million new rental units would need to be made available. And a report last year from Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies estimated that the number of renter households could grow by as much as 470,000 every year for the next decade.