A new report finds that, while rental markets are cooling nationally, the cost of renting is more burdensome than ever before. While pandemic funds helped support housing safety nets like federal rental aid programs, those reserves are rapidly shrinking.

In 2022, half of all U.S. renters were spending at least 30% of their income on housing and utilities — a threshold that researchers consider “cost burdened.” That figure went up by two million in just three years to a record high of 22.4 million, according to “America’s Rental Housing,” a study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

Among those renters, 12.1 million had severe burdens, paying over half of their income for housing, also an all-time high. Nearly a third of renters had household incomes of less than $30,000 in 2022.

“We’ve been in a period of time where people have routinely referred to rental affordability as a crisis,” said Chris Herbert, the Harvard center’s managing director. “But the increase we’ve seen over the last few years in rents, which hit double digits in Boston and markets across the country, put that crisis to a whole new level.”

Pandemic federal resources kept tenants housed and landlords solvent, but in many areas, those funds are mostly gone.

“As these resources have expired, however, the housing safety net is once again overwhelmed and underfunded,” Herbert said. “And while states and localities have acted to fill some of the gaps, a larger commitment from the federal government is required to expand housing supports and preserve and improve the existing affordable stock.”

The report highlights how much tougher things have gotten for middle-income renters, in particular — households that make $30,000 to $75,000 each year, up 5.4 percentage points. But that partly reflects just how poor the conditions already were for the lowest-income earners.

Many people can’t afford record rents. While federal and local protections temporarily protected tenants from evictions, now, eviction filings are up, leading to record homelessness at the national level. The report notes that homelessness has hit all-time high of 653,100 people in January 2023.

"We looked nationally and seen that the levels of evictions, which had plummeted during the pandemic because of those supports and those protections, is now back at where it was pre-pandemic and rising quickly," said Herbert.

In the Bay State, eviction filings surpassed pre-pandemic rates of more than 2,600 per month at over 3,000 monthly for 15 straight months from August 2022 to October 2023 according to a report out this month from Massachusetts Housing Partnership, a quasi-public state housing agency.
Getting back into affordable housing is proving to be difficult. Nationally, the United States continues to lose low-rent units. In 2022, just 7.2 million units had contract rents under $600, a loss of 2.1 million units since 2012, according to the Harvard report.

One way that Boston stands out, Herbert says, is that while rent levels are “astronomically high,” the renters are often much higher earners.

“So our cost burdens aren’t as high as they are in other parts of the country, but only because we have so many high-income people who are not able to make the transition to homeownership,” he said.

"We're not doing enough to provide subsidies to close the gap between what people can afford and what housing costs," he said.

Massachusetts’ MBTA Zoning Law is touted in the report as a shining light, the recent law that mandates the nearly 180 municipalities served by public transit designate at least one zone to allow multifamily buildings. Nearby Vermont also passed legislation in 2023 requiring locales to loosen zoning laws to allow average-sized multifamily buildings.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Maura Healey and her administration recently testified before the Legislature on her $4.1 billion Affordable Homes Act package. It would expand and update dozens of existing housing programs in an effort to boost home production, with a goal of creating 40,000 homes.

The administration is also stressing the economic impact of its housing bill. It would create nearly 30,000 jobs, $25 billion in economic activity over five years and returning roughly $1 billion dollars in state and local tax revenues. according to a study released Thursday by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute, commissioned by the state.