Housing affordability crisis is spreading to rural America

Published 6:36 pm Tuesday, March 26, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

It’s getting harder to afford housing in rural areas. Almost one in four rural U.S. counties have seen a “sizable increase” in the number of families spending half or more of their income on housing since 2010, according to a Stateline report published this week by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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Boyle County isn’t among the hardest hit by rising rents, but the percentage of families who are “severely cost-burdened” by their homes did rise from 10.6 percent to 11.7 percent.

If you travel south, Casey and Lincoln counties both saw decreases in how many families are burdened — Lincoln dropped from 12.5 percent to 8.8 percent and Casey fell from 10.1 percent to 7.6 percent.

Affordable housing has long been a problem talked about in the nation’s biggest cities, and more recently in mid-sized urban areas. Now the problem is apparently spreading to rural areas, too. Dozens of Kentucky counties are among those with substantial spikes in families under pressure just to keep a roof over their heads, including Marion County to the west of Boyle, where the rate rose from 9.7 percent to 11.1 percent.

“The share of severely cost-burdened households has fallen since the Great Recession in expensive destinations such as Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Key West, Florida; San Francisco; and Seattle. The share also has dipped slightly in Manhattan, New York, as the overall economy has recovered,” according to the Stateline reporting. “Losses of high-paying jobs had hit some rural regions, such as a cluster of coal-dependent counties in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, especially hard. Other places are struggling with affordable housing because new workers in economically revived areas are vying for rental housing, putting pressure on prices in a rental market with a limited supply.”

What the report says is happening in rural areas is a combination of job losses and something else — essentially the same thing that has already happened to many urban communities: gentrification.

Economic growth is always viewed as a positive indicator for a community, but it’s also almost always talked about in terms of averages and totals, which can mask problems at the bottom. Anyone who doesn’t wind up benefiting from new jobs or a migrating middle class is left behind as others climb forward.

A rising tide does not always lift all boats in this case. Economic growth for some or even most can make it harder for others who were already struggling or just making it by to afford the cost of living as home prices and rents go up.

This is by no means a criticism of pursuing economic growth. It is a reminder that when economic growth happens, we need to make sure we’re not ignoring people in favor of statistics.