A new study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University finds that the artificially constrained supply of housing in urban areas makes it more difficult for families to live in housing units that best fit the needs of a family unit:
Housing is a central component of family life and can provide a foundation for family well-being. While we typically think of family households as homeowners, renters are more likely than homeowners to have children in their household. However, migration, development, and tenure trends over the last decade have affected the availability of rental housing suitable for families. While the foreclosure crisis brought about a surge in single-family units converted from homeownership to rentals (along with a simultaneous growth in the number of renter households), following the crisis, developers in cities and suburbs across the country have constructed new rental housing that primarily consists of small, higher-end units, in part responding to the “back to the city” movement. Despite the increased number of single-family rentals, officials and commentators have expressed concern that middle-income families are not able to find suitable rental housing at a price they can afford. For low-income households with children, finding an affordable, right-sized, and safe unit can be an even greater challenge.
This paper explores the challenges specific to families seeking rental housing, including affordability, suitable size, and discrimination against households with children. We then present our methods and definitions. Our findings include a description of renter families in our sample and an assessment of the supply gap nationally, regionally, and in four metro areas. Next, we consider the role that single-family rentals play in providing affordable, family-sized units in regions across the country. We conclude with a discussion about policy implications and areas for future research.
While many think apartments are for young singles or childless couples, the study found that over a third of renter households were families (married, unmarried couples, aunts and uncles, etc.) with children, compared to just 30% of home-owning households.
While the article contains many interesting (and alarming) statistics on the shortage of housing for renter families, particularly cost-burdened ones, the finding I would like to highlight is the prevalence of housing “mismatch” in these markets.
Take the case of college students in Boston:
In areas with large student populations, the tension between roommate households and families can be even greater. In 2013, 36,000 of Boston’s 72,000 college and graduate students lived in rental housing throughout the city. About one-third of these students lived in units classified as 1-3 unit family residential properties. The student population has also propelled higher rents in neighborhoods that are near universities, further reducing the supply of affordable family-sized units.
Not only is a high population of single residents from wealthy backgrounds driving up rents, but it is also reducing the availability of housing that is a better fit for families.
This finding is important because, while support for new housing does increase across most demographics when the housing is below market-rate, there is a strong role for higher-end “yuppie fishtanks,” in the words of Noah Smith.
Simply put, when the supply of “luxury” housing units is artificially constrained (either by general NIMBYism or a particular opposition to tonier developments), then yuppies and their roommates will move into housing that is better suited for families.
Of course, this does not eliminate the need for market-friendly interventions to preserve affordability for renters with families, but for the specific problem of mismatch to be resolved, we must design zoning and land-use regulations that embrace housing units of all shapes and sizes to reflect the different preferences of residents.