By Orphe Divounguy
These struggles can be traced to a chronic shortage of housing across the country as well as long-running inequities in housing. Those factors, along with a global pandemic and growing economic inequities, have contributed to an affordability crisis that is wiping out savings, economic opportunity, and renters’ quality of life.
When renters struggle to pay rent, they face difficult decisions: forgoing medical treatments, moving farther from opportunity centers, commuting longer distances, and changing schools frequently. Ultimately, they may even become homeless. And for the rest of the community, high rents and lack of credit aren’t just problems for people renting apartments; there is growing evidence that they actually hurt the economic growth and health of a community.
Orphe Divounguy, senior economist at Zillow.
Renters should be supported to navigate these hurdles. A single, flat fee rental application tool can help renters save money and time. Increasing transparency by showing renters all the fees they may encounter can empower them to make the right budget choice. These types of tools were recently cited by the White House as important resources to level the playing field for renters—and we couldn’t agree more.
High fees are compounded by high rents. Asking rents have climbed at a breakneck pace over the past couple of years, putting the squeeze on all renters, but especially those with lower incomes. Today, a minimum-wage worker would need four jobs just to afford a typical two-bedroom rental. That’s not sustainable. Housing vouchers can be a useful tool for people in this situation, and they currently are helping five million low-income renters across the country stay housed.
Improving this program could be a game-changer for millions of renters.
More states should ban income discrimination and offer the same protections that renters have from racial, religious, and disability discrimination, which will unlock more housing options. Increasing funding and fixing the formula used to calculate rent growth—and the value of vouchers—will also help more people access vouchers and stay housed. And most importantly, improving the voucher program for landlords is key in getting more housing providers to participate.
These are important yet short-term fixes. To move the needle in the right direction for renters in a meaningful way requires more innovation and long-term policy solutions.
Helping households build credit can create lasting change in housing. Getting more renters—especially Black and Latinx renters—into the formal credit system would put more people on a path to financial mobility. About $616 billion is spent annually on rent across the United States, though most of the payments are unreported to credit bureaus. Forty-five million people are “credit invisible,” meaning they have no credit history to lean on. And most of those people rent.
Helping renters build a credit profile could help shrink economic inequities and prepare more renters of color to become homeowners—a huge factor in establishing economic security in this country. Federal policymakers are already working to make this possible with credit bureaus. At Zillow, we are working to allow positive rental payments to be reported to credit bureaus. They would be built into the payment portal renters use to pay their rent every month, creating an accessible and easy way for a renter to build credit.
Ultimately, building more houses would create lasting affordability for renters. Reforming zoning rules to encourage more types of homes is viewed by experts as the most effective way forward. A vast majority of homeowners and renters want to see this happen. But while construction cranes fill the skies of U.S. cities, the country has been under-producing homes for a decade.
Real estate and housing can have a huge effect on one’s health, financial security, and future. Being a renter shouldn’t result in being locked out of opportunity. There are innovative products and policies that can make a difference. By pairing near-term fixes with long-term solutions, we can create a more accessible housing market that opens doors for more and more people, doors that otherwise would remain closed.
This is an opinion article written by Orphe Divounguy, senior economist at Zillow.
Source: Black Enterprise