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Harvard (Mis)Leading Housing Study


February 15, 2024

 Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies is back with its annual State of the Nation’s Housing report—and once again it reaches a bleak conclusion based on a loaded and leading question designed to sound an alarm for more federal housing subsidies. Its key metric is what it calls “cost-burdened renters”—those spending more than a third of their income on rent.

“The number of cost-burdened renters reached an all-time high: 21.6 million households (49%). Of this total, 11.6 million spent more than half of their income on housing (26.4% of all renters). The Center, supported by such left-liberal foundations as Open Society, Hewlett and MacArthur, regularly tracks that metric and has highlighted it previously, as per “Millions of Americans Burdened by Housing Costs” (2015).

It’s a finding that seems to point to what subsidized housing advocates have believed since the Depression: that the private market inevitably fails the poor. The report itself included an explicit call for more government housing aid: “There is an urgent need to expand subsidy programs and improve their efficiency.” The report was quickly promoted by the National Coalition for Low-Income Housing, which champions government housing subsidies.

But Harvard’s choice of questions and conclusions open it to skepticism. Indeed, there’s another question the Joint Center should ask that leads in a different direction: Are more Americans living alone or with just one other person? More broadly, are we creating so many more households that we are adding pressure to the housing market that leads to burdensome rents?

In fact, that’s exactly what we’re doing—and disproportionate growth in the number of households is fueled by misguided government policies.

Census data tells the story. Those living alone are now the fastest-growing type of household, increasing from 31 million in 2010 to 38 million in 2023.  As the population grew by eight percent (from 309 to 335 million), the number of single-person households grew by 11 percent. The number of households with just one or two members (83 million) dwarves the number of all other household sizes combined (46 million).  So it is that demand for more housing is pushed upward by the reality that more and more Americans live in smaller and smaller households. This is a recipe for the loneliness and isolation which US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has described as a public health epidemic. It also contributes to “over-housing,” the inefficient use of our existing housing.  

Low-income housing policy at the federal level can actually be seen as a subsidy for single-parents obtaining their own households. Single parent households are the most likely to be low-income households—and therefore the most likely to qualify for public or subsidized housing. Thus, housing policy incentivizes the formation of such households.

This is not just bad housing policy, it’s questionable social policy. HUD reports that only three percent of public and subsidized households are two parents with children; ten times that many are single parents. Their leases, it’s worth noting, prohibit them from taking in lodgers for extra income—a time-honored way which poor Americans met expenses and saved. The average number of occupants in the nation’s 5.1 million subsidized housing units is just two—notwithstanding the fact that the majority (55 percent) have two or more bedrooms. Some 17 percent of residents are classified as “over-housed”; i.e., they have empty bedrooms.

But federal social policy is not the only way government is encouraging the under-utilization of housing and growth of small households. Zoning codes in 23 of the largest cities or nearby suburbs restrict the formation of households whose occupants are deemed “unrelated” on the basis of blood, marriage or adoption. Such laws would, for instance, restrict older Americans living alone from taking in young families or plain old roommates who might help with house payments and tasks. 

Local zoning laws need to start to keep up with the fact that Americans may want to form stable group living arrangements which help defray housing costs and share cooking, cleaning and shopping. Doing so is a means of reducing rent burdens other than increasing government subsidies. Indeed, the savings that can be realized are demonstrable: A study of January 2024 rents by Apartment Advisor found significant cost savings when two persons share a one-bedroom apartment (sometimes called marriage) or even when a single person in a two-bedroom apartment brings in a roommate. In New York City, couples who share a one-bedroom unit, per the study, would save $26, $346 annually compared to both renting their own units. 

The “state of the nation’s housing” actually reflects thousands of local housing policies, both those that restrict households type and those that limit the construction of smaller homes through large-lot zoning.  Before we are led toward increasing counter-productive housing policies.