In cities across the U.S., residents are discovering they can no longer afford to live in the neighborhoods they call home, due to rising rents, housing shortages or community changes that make everyday life pricier.
As rents climb or property taxes for single-family homes soar in a neighborhood, longtime residents – often working class and in low-income housing, as well as marginalized minority groups – struggle to afford the part of a city they’ve long called home.
New construction rarely meets the scale of demand. In some neighborhoods, housing is under construction, but developers wield too much power and don’t cater to the midlevel and low-income residents who make up the majority of those displaced. Instead, developers replace affordable housing with luxury buildings.
“Supply and demand aren’t really working anymore because the supply and demand sides are so out of whack,” says Emily Goldstein, director of organizing and advocacy for the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development in New York City.
For residents who find themselves suddenly unable to afford the neighborhood they’ve long called home, financial stress will pile up. In many cases, there is no one solution. But residents have resources and options available to help fight displacement and ensure their community is a better place for all residents. It’s a matter of looking at the bigger problem, knowing what solutions are possible and understanding how to take action now.
Many inside and outside a neighborhood will advocate for change to help bring economic success to the area. Often, however, existing residents are left behind when new investment and development take hold. Landlords don’t renew their participation in affordable housing programs, they raise rents quickly and they may even evict tenants without cause to sell their property or rent to new tenants at a higher rate.
Gentrification of a neighborhood occurs when renovations and redevelopment aim to improve an area and raise property values, thereby attracting wealthier residents. But gentrification often causes property values and rents to increase at a rate faster than the neighborhood’s original residents can afford to maintain. As wealthier people move in, the neighborhood’s original residents are forced out.
Those displaced residents are also unable to relocate to other nearby neighborhoods with restricted zoning that prevent apartment communities from being developed – ultimately keeping housing prices high. Residents and policymakers in high-price neighborhoods argue against development to stop gentrification, but they also stop greater inclusivity in their own neighborhoods, explains Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco and author of “Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America.”
There is still a housing shortage, but it has eased nationwide. Affordability for renters in the 50 largest U.S. cities is better than it was coming out of the recession, according to a report published in early November by RENTCafé, a rental housing information site and subsidiary of real estate property management software company Yardi.
According to the report, the median-income renter in 2017 had access to 49 percent of all rental housing in the U.S., a significant increase in accessibility compared to 2011, when renters with a median income could only afford 38 percent of rentals unburdened, meaning their rent takes up 30 percent of income or less.
But many cities aren’t meeting those national numbers. The cities with the worst rental housing accessibility rate in the report have long struggled to bring significant portions of their population out of poverty. In Philadelphia and New Orleans, where median renter income is $24,700 and $23,800, respectively, just 16 percent of housing is accessible for median-income renters.
A major struggle for those looking to maintain the historic culture of a neighborhood, increase property values and provide inclusivity is the fact that what solution succeeds in one city, or even one neighborhood, doesn’t necessarily work when replicated elsewhere.
Raleigh, North Carolina, has the highest rental housing accessibility rate in the RENTCafé report at 71 percent, with a median renter income of $45,600. Much of its success is tied to the development taking place, combined with a plethora of tech and higher-education jobs.
In Los Angeles, where the median renter income for 2017 was similar at $45,100, there are plenty of tech jobs and new construction abounds, but just 23 percent of rental housing is accessible at that income level. “It’s really hard to find a general pattern that applies to all of the cities,” says Balazs Szekely, senior real estate writer and researcher for RENTCafé.
A necessary part of the solution is for building to continue. Rents and property values only increase when there isn’t enough housing to shelter the existing population. “When a market gets a lot of new supply, that can also help keep rents low or at least growing at a slowing pace,” Szekely says.
Still, new construction can’t solve the entire problem. A lot of gentrification takes place when older affordable housing is demolished to build new luxury apartments, resulting in displacement because the target audience of the housing options shifts.
Even when avoiding displacement, “we can’t build our way out of the housing crisis,” Shaw says.
One solution that seems to have a positive impact across the board is rent control, says Tony Romano, director of organizing and strategic partnerships for Right to the City Alliance, a national organization aimed at fighting displacement by connecting communities to find better solutions.
Rent control places a limit on the amount a landlord can charge or sets a ceiling on yearly increases. Major cities like New York and San Francisco are best known for having neighborhoods or designated districts with rent controls.
In areas where rent control doesn’t exist, Romano points to examples of tenants forming a tenant union to negotiate with the landlord, collectively purchase their apartment building from their landlord or even approach the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to propose possibilities to keep affordable housing in place.
While no strategy works perfectly in every scenario, Romano encourages people to connect with communities that have been successful in the past. “Everyone doesn’t have to recreate the wheel all the time,” he says.
The decision to devote a larger share of your paycheck to increasing rent or face the threat of eviction without cause can be crippling. But you have options, whether you choose to go it alone or connect with your larger community to help find a long-term solution.
Talk to your neighbors. “It’s rare that something’s happening to one person and similar things aren’t happening to other people in your building or on your block,” Goldstein says. A group of tenants talking to their landlord together, either as an informal group or by forming a tenants union, is going to have far more bargaining power with a landlord than an individual renter.
Contact a local tenant rights organization. Goldstein stresses that when you feel like you’re being pushed out by your landlord – and out of your neighborhood – you should first understand your rights. Goldstein recommends asking neighbors or even running a simple Google search to find the organization that best fits your needs.
Focus on your effective rent. With concessions in mind, it’s important to look at the rent you pay in total. If you’re able to get your first two months of rent free in your lease agreement, you can use those two months to put away extra money that eases the burden of a slightly higher rent during the rest of your lease. Factor in a parking fee to ensure you’re not spending beyond your means without realizing it.
Get involved. You can volunteer with the organizations that helped you, or you can simply start paying more attention. Shaw says he’s seen millennial renters throughout the U.S. who find themselves limited in terms of moving options attending city land use meetings and planning board meetings to advocate for zoning changes that create more inclusivity in neighborhoods. “They realize they’re getting priced out, and the only way to change that is to get involved,” Shaw says.