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Nearly half of Boston-area tenant households ‘cost-burdened,’ report says

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The study found that in 2018 some 49.6 percent of renter households were paying at least 30 percent of their household income on housing

A row of three-story apartment buildings along a mostly empty street. Shutterstock

Nearly half of Boston-area renter households in 2018 spent at least 30 percent of their income on housing, according to a report from listings and research site Apartment List.

The exact share of 49.6 percent represents a 0.7 percent increase from 2017, and is in line with the overall 49.7 percent of renter households nationwide that were cost-burdened last year—or spending 30 percent or more of income on housing.

What’s more, a further 24.7 percent of Boston-area renter households were severely cost-burdened, meaning they spent at least half their household income on housing.

Among the nation’s 100 largest metros, Boston had the 45th highest share of cost-burdened tenant households. Miami was tops with a cost-burden share of 62.7 percent in 2018.

And the burden is not only falling on the less affluent, as the Apartment List analysis makes clear. In several prominent metros—Boston included—the median renter household income does not allow very many households to pay under 30 percent of their income on housing.

The study pegged the median renter household income at $51,804 in 2018, adjusted for inflation and based on census data. The median rent was $1,501, again adjusted for inflation. See the chart below for a starker picture.

“In spite of a low unemployment rate and increasing wages, virtually half of American renter households struggle with their housing costs,” Chris Salviati, a housing economist at Apartment List, wrote in the report. “Although the rate is still well below its 2011 peak, that improvement has been primarily driven by compositional changes in the rental market, namely, an influx of high-income renter households.”

The Boston area has one of the highest shares of such households: tenants making sometimes over $100,000 annually, and able to pay the region’s famously high rents. That drives up asking rents as landlords, burdening those further down the economic ladder, Salviati wrote.

“Housing costs have amplified growing economic inequality in recent years—those at the low-end of the income distribution have seen their housing costs grow disproportionately fast, while the highest earners have actually seen their housing costs fall.”

The data on cost-burdened renter households also comes as officials and private industry grapple with developing more multifamily housing across the region. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, for instance, urged business leaders during an October 8 speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce to help develop more mid-priced housing in the area.

For the time being, however, demand is surpassing the supply of available rental housing, and much of what’s going up new is on the costlier higher end. A September 2018 study from listings and research site RentCafe concluded, for instance, that most of the larger apartment buildings built in the Boston area since the start of 2017 could be considered luxury.