How ‘Rental Deserts’ Perpetuate Inequity

Close to one-third of American neighborhoods have very few housing options for renter households, who tend to be disproportionately people of color and low-income families.

Read Time: 2 minutes

August 8, 2022, 9:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


For rent sign with blurry house in background

zimmytws / For Rent sign

An article by Whitney Airgood-Obrycki and Sophia Wedeen for the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University highlights the lack of available rental housing in many suburban, higher-income neighborhoods, as revealed by a new analysis of data from the American Community Survey.

This matters because “Exclusionary land use quite likely contributes to the presence of these rental deserts and the resulting patterns of socioeconomic and racial segregation, since renters are disproportionately lower-income and people of color,” the authors write.

According to the authors’ definition, ‘rental deserts,’ which make up roughly 31 percent of residential neighborhoods in the United States, exist when less than 20 percent of housing units in an area are available or occupied as rentals. “With few affordable options for lower-income renters, the median household income in rental deserts is $86,000. Median incomes in high-rental neighborhoods, however, are less than half that at $42,000, while mixed-tenure neighborhoods fall in the middle at about $60,000.”

In rental deserts, less than 21 percent of household heads were people of color, compared to 67 percent in high-rental neighborhoods. “Increasing the multifamily supply and increasing rental options in neighborhoods where few exist can help expand the geographic options available to renters, and reducing zoning barriers is a step in the right direction.”

The report recommends zoning changes, but cautions that they’re not a silver bullet. “Building homes at lower price points and expanding housing subsidies in a range of neighborhoods will also be necessary to create socioeconomically integrated, mixed-tenure communities.”

Thursday, August 4, 2022 in Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University

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