And it’s probably getting rougher. “Rental markets tightened again in 2014 as the national vacancy rate fell by nearly a full percentage point to 7.6 percent—its lowest point in two decades,” Harvard’s researchers tell us. Meanwhile, rents rose at twice the rate of inflation, and faster than wages. However bad 2013 was when it comes to the country’s collective rent burden, it seems likely last year will look worse when the final numbers are in.
Rents are rising for the simple reason that, thanks to the never-ending hangover of the housing bust, a larger share of Americans are renting their living places now than they have in 20 years. And while developers have responded by building apartment buildings like mad—last year, there were the most multifamily housing starts for rent since 1987—it hasn’t quite been enough to keep up with demand. (Moreover, new construction is largely catering to wealthier buyers, while the families most burdened by rent tend to be lower-income.) Old, unwanted single-family homes from the boom days of the 1990s and early 2000s are relieving some of the pressure on the market, but not quite enough to keep prices from jumping.
Meanwhile, demand for rentals is probably going to keep rising. First, the Federal Reserve would really, really like to raise interest rates in the near future, which will make mortgages less affordable. But more importantly, millennials are getting older. Thus far, most of the growth in renting has been driven by middle-aged and older Americans. But even if young adults continue living with their parents at the same rate as today, there are simply so many twenty- and thirtysomethings that the rate of new household formation is bound to jump in the coming years, which is going to create much more appetite for rentals.
If expensive renting becomes the new normal, it would have widespread effects. Spending more money on rent means that people have less money to spend elsewhere, a problem in an economy driven by consumer spending. It could change how Americans view renters, which has negative connotations in a lot of wealthier suburban communities. Developers could continue to pursue different building options if they see a lot of money in multifamily housing. Lower-class residents may have a harder and harder time finding affordable housing, already a problem in many major housing markets. Denser development could shift ideas about homeownership and suburban life.
All that said, it remains to be seen whether this an economic stage or blip or whether the housing market will turn away from rental units and back toward single-family homes. Housing prices may be close to their 2006 peak but clearly fewer homes are being built and demand is down.