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A steep roof over their heads

Housing is taking bigger bite of income

By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / February 25, 2012
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Nearly a quarter of working households in Massachusetts and across the United States spend more than half their income on housing, according to a study released yesterday by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Housing Policy.

More than 231,000 Massachusetts households, or 24 percent of working families, suffered from a “severe housing cost burden’’ of spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing in 2010, up from 22 percent in 2009, according to the center, which based its analysis on recent census data.

Nationwide, the percentage of working households that spent more than half their income on housing grew to 23.6 percent in 2010, up from 22.8 percent in 2009, the study said.

The report emphasizes what many working people know firsthand: They are increasingly struggling to keep a roof over their heads and cover other expenses. The task is even harder for many tenants, who have seen rents rise despite the sluggish economy and high unemployment rate, the report said.

“In Greater Boston we are seeing huge challenges in rents rising at the same time that incomes are stagnating,’’ said Sean Caron, director of public policy at the Boston-based affordable housing nonprofit, Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association. “Working people are struggling.’’

Housing specialists generally agree that people should not spend more than 30 percent of their household income on housing, Caron said. “The fact that one in four is spending more than 50 percent is troubling,’’ he said.

Indeed, homeowners in general are doing better than tenants. The report found that nearly 22 percent of working homeowners were paying more than 50 percent of their income toward housing while almost 26 percent of renters were doing so. The report defines working households as those who work at least 20 hours a week and earn no more than 120 percent of the area median income.

Even many homeowners have seen a decline in affordability because of a drop in incomes, said Jeffrey Lubell, executive director of the housing center. Incomes for working homeowners fell more steeply than incomes for working tenants, dropping about 5 percent between 2008 and 2010, the report said. Also many homeowners purchased their properties at higher prices and do not benefit from a drop in values.

“Homeowners have been hit hard by the housing crisis in more ways than just lost equity,’’ said Lubell. “Many working homeowners have been laid off or had their hours cut.’’

If there is good news to be found in the report it is that despite the relatively high cost of housing in Massachusetts, local residents do not appear to be more burdened, on average, by housing costs than the rest of the nation, the report shows.

The four states with the largest share of households with high housing costs - 30 percent or above - are California, Florida, New Jersey, and Hawaii, the center said.

Barry Bluestone, dean of the School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, said Massachusetts residents also generally have higher incomes than workers around the country. Unemployment also is lower than the national average. “Right now we are doing significantly better than the rest of the country,’’ Bluestone said.

At the same time, Bluestone agrees that tenants are the hardest hit. Nationwide, the median income for renter households dropped by 4 percent between 2008 and 2010 while housing costs rose by the same amount, the report said.

“The real problem in Greater Boston is low-income people are overwhelmingly renters and have seen no decline in rents,’’ he said. “The poor have been very badly hit by this great recession.’’

Clark Ziegler, executive director of the public nonprofit Massachusetts Housing Partnership, said the state needs to expand its affordable housing to remain competitive in drawing workers from out of state. “Even with the drop in housing prices, we are still a very expensive state,’’ he said.

Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com.

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