Housing Affordability and Insecurity Before and During the Pandemic

September 29, 2020

Over the last two decades, the percentage of households that rent has risen as has the percentage of renter households who are burdened by housing costs. Today, most low-income renters and low-income homeowners spend more than half of their income on housing. Housing insecurity has increased since the beginning of the pandemic, particularly among Black and Hispanic households. Absent massive increases in the supply of affordable housing, including private and social housing, and direct financial assistance to struggling renters and homeowners, millions of strapped renters and homeowners will go deeper into debt, face more hardship and insecurity, and ultimately lose or be evicted from their homes. 

More People in Renter Households

Between 2001 and 2018, both the percentage of households that rent and the percentage of people living in renter households has increased. As Table 1 shows, nearly 34 percent of the population lived in renter households in 2018, compared to 31.5 percent in 2001. The increase in the percentage and number of children living in renter households has been even greater.

Table 1. People by Housing Tenure, 2001 and 2018

In renter households

In homeowner households with mortgage

In homeowner households, no mortgage


% of Total


% of Total


% of Total

All people
















Children under age 18
















Source: CEPR analysis of IPUMS ACS.

Among racial and ethnic groups, only Black people are more likely to live in renter households today than in 2001 (54.6 percent rented in 2018, up nearly 4 percentage points compared to 2001, CEPR analysis of IPUMS ACS). By comparison, 24.6 percent of white people rented in 2018, about the same as in 2001; 39.4 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native people rented in 2018, down by nearly 3 percentage points since 2001; 35.1 percent of Asians rented in 2018, down by nearly 5 percentage points since 2001, and 48.9 percent of Hispanic people rented in 2018, down by about 2 percentage points since 2001. By income group, the largest increases in renter households have been among extremely low-income renters (defined as 30 percent or less of area median income, AMI) and higher-income renters (more than 120 percent of AMI).   

Most Low-Income Households Have Burdensome Housing Costs

Most low-income renters and homeowners are housing-cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. As Table 2 below shows, among households with incomes below $20,000, nearly nine-in-ten renters and three-in-four homeowners are housing-cost burdened. Among all renters with incomes below $50,000, over half are rent-burdened. In general, homeowners are less burdened by housing costs than renters, but this is due in part to a growing share of homeowner households that have paid off their mortgages.

Table 2. Housing-Cost Burdened Households by Income and Housing Tenure, 2018

Renter households

Owner occupied

Household income


As % of HH’s in income group


As % of HH’s in income group

Less than $20,000





$20,000 to $34,999





$35,000 to $49,999





$50,000 to $74,999





$75,000 or more






Source: American Community Survey, Table S2503.

Note: A household is housing-cost burdened if they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs.

Renter households with children are more likely than renter households without children to be housing-cost burdened. As Figure 1 below shows, 94 percent of the lowest-income renter households with children are rent-burdened. 

Housing Insecurity Trends Before and During the Pandemic

As shown in Table 3, the share of renter households facing cost burdens has increased since 2001. Nearly one-in-four (24 percent) of renter households were severely rent burdened in 2017, compared to one-in-five (20 percent) in 2001.

Table 3. Percentage of Renter Households by Rent Burden, 2001 and 2017



Severe Rent Burden (housing costs > 50 percent of household income)



Moderate Rent Burden (housing costs > 30 and ≤ 50 percent of household income)



No Rent Burden (at or below 30 percent)



Source: GAO analysis of American Community Survey (from Figure 7 in https://www.gao.gov/assets/710/707179.pdf at page 15).

Housing Insecurity During the Pandemic

As the preceding tables show, most low-income households, and many middle-income ones, struggled under heavy housing-cost burdens before the pandemic, despite improvements in the economy. During the pandemic, housing insecurity — concern about being able to pay next month’s rent or mortgage — has increased. On average, nearly one-in-three renters experienced housing insecurity each week from late April 2020 through July 2020 (see Figure 2). Among homeowners, about one-in-six were housing insecure. Most of the increase in housing insecurity (compared to 2017-2019) is due to increased housing insecurity among Black and Hispanic renters and homeowners. 

Among households with children, racial and ethnic gaps in housing insecurity — between white and Black households, and white and Hispanic households — narrowed between 2017 and 2019. But this progress has been lost (see Figure 3). Roughly 44 to 45 percent of Hispanic and Black households with children were housing insecure each week between April and July 2020, and the racial and ethnic gaps in housing insecurity were wider than at any point in 2017 to 2019.

Black women have the highest probability of housing insecurity, while white men have the lowest (Figure 4). Black men were just behind Black women in terms of risk. Next were Asian women, and then, all with roughly similar risks, were Hispanic women, Hispanic men, and Asian men.

Households Behind on Rent and Mortgage Payments in September 2020

Among households who answered the housing questions in the most recent Census Household Pulse Survey (September 2–14, 2020), 17 percent of renter households reported being behind on rent and nearly 10 percent of homeowners with a mortgage were behind on their mortgage payments. Over 45 percent of the renter households who are not current on their rent said it was “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that they would have to leave their home because of eviction in the next two months. Among mortgage holders who are behind on their mortgage payments, about one-in-five said it was “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that they would be forced to leave their home because of foreclosure in the next two months. It is important to note that these estimates may be biased downwards because a substantial number of households responding to the Household Pulse Survey did not answer the housing questions, and those who did answer them were more likely to have attended college or had a Bachelor’s degree. 

Proposed Legislative Measures

The CARES Act prohibited evictions from federally subsidized housing, but this provision expired on July 24. 2020. On September 4, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an order halting most evictions for non-payment of rent, including in private housing, through December 31, 2020.  However, the CDC does not waive late fees or other related charges, and does not provide any new funding for rental assistance. Once the CDC order expires, landlords will be able evict millions of renters who have fallen behind on their rent since the beginning of the pandemic.

The People’s Housing Platform, a set of bills introduced in the House earlier this year, would address our immediate and longstanding housing challenges in a lasting way. Introduced by representatives Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-IL), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ayana Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), the platform: makes massive new investments in permanently affordable housing; guarantees that all renters who are eligible for federal rental assistance are able to receive it; revitalizes and expands public housing, combats gentrification, exclusionary zoning, segregation, and speculation; strengthens tenants’ rights; provides new grants to create community land trusts and land banks in disinvested communities; combats homelessness by increasing funding for services; and creates a monthly tax credit for renters and first-time homebuyers.

Housing is also a major issue in the presidential election. Joe Biden’s plan includes many of the planks in the People’s Housing Platform. By comparison, President Trump recently ended fair housing rules adopted during the Obama administration, and has yet to issue a housing plan. Whoever wins the election, addressing the housing crisis needs to be a priority in next year’s Congress.

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