Study Shows that Over Half of Urban Renter Households Experience Some Form of Housing Insecurity

December 06, 2018

By Bethany Romano, MBA’17

A new study by Heller PhD candidate Giselle Routhier shows that the majority of renters in 25 U.S. metropolitan areas experience some form of housing insecurity. The study, published in Housing Policy Debate, utilizes a new housing insecurity index of Routhier’s own invention, with measures in four key dimensions: overcrowding, unaffordability, poor physical conditions, and recent experience of eviction or a forced move.

“This index provides a way to expand our understanding of housing insecurity,” Routhier says. “What it shows is that more than half of renter households in metro areas across the U.S. experience at least one indicator of housing insecurity, and 25 percent experience three or more.”

Giselle Routhier
Giselle Routhier

Routhier has built a career around housing policy and promoting solutions to homelessness. She’s currently policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless in New York City, a position she holds while simultaneously pursuing her dissertation research as a Social Policy PhD candidate in the Assets and Inequalities concentration at Heller. This study—the first portion of her doctoral dissertation—takes into account the fact that many housing insecure families might face only one problem, with varying degrees of severity, while others experience multiple issues at the same time.

For example, one family might be housing insecure due to moderate unaffordability (paying more than 30 percent of income on rent), while another family might be facing extreme unaffordability (paying more than half of income on rent) as well as living with severely inadequate physical conditions. Previous measures of housing insecurity have not differentiated between these households, which is why she thinks the field could benefit from having a new way to measure housing problems. 

Her research incorporated data from 25 different U.S. metropolitan areas, including Boston. The differences among them are illuminating, she says. “Boston is not as bad in terms of overall housing insecurity, because this index looks at more than just affordability—which we know is a problem here. For example, only 16 percent of Boston/Cambridge renter households had three or more indicators of housing insecurity, compared to 33 percent of renter households in Miami, the city that showed the worst levels of renter insecurity.”

“Los Angeles and New York City also had high numbers—we know those cities are facing severe problems with affordability and crowding, among other issues. But there were also some surprises—Detroit was towards the top of the list, potentially due to issues of housing conditions and deep poverty.” 

The primary focus of Routhier’s work is around housing insecurity and the many factors that can cause individuals and families to teeter on the edge of homelessness. For the remainder of her dissertation research, she intends to publish two more studies that build on this new index. The second will focus on predictors of housing insecurity, and the third will take a deep dive into metro New York, the city whose housing landscape she knows best.

“Housing has become more of a national topic in recent years, and for good reason,” says Routhier. “We’re seeing exploding rates of homelessness and high unaffordability, and people want to understand what’s going on. My hope is that this research will illuminate two things: first, that an extremely high number of renters are experiencing housing problems, and second, that every level of government should be involved in implementing a policy response to that problem.”

“I’m hoping to provide state, local, and federal governments with the tools they need to understand the problems renters are facing, and move the conversation towards answers.”