January 27, 2018

Worcester’s low-income renters bear heavy burden

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Low-income, quality affordable housing is a difficult policy goal. There is the constant struggle between affordability and quality. Building codes ensure some level of quality but also raise the cost of construction and maintenance, which increases rent. Sometimes rent can increase without quality changing, like when a booming local economy increases demand for housing.

When it comes to rent affordability, Worcester as a whole is a fairly ordinary American city. Its median rent to income ratio is 31.9 percent, only a little higher than the national median. It is also close to the federal affordability threshold, which defines an affordable rent as 30 percent or less of a household’s income.

Sun graphic / Amy M. Capobianco

(Source: U.S. Census)

Also like other American cities, Worcester has some problematic trends in its rental markets. Since 2009, the median gross rent in Worcester has increased by 17 percent while the median income of renters has decreased by 4 percent. But some of Worcester’s problems cannot be seen at the city level.

Most of the census tracts representing downtown have a median income below $30,000 and median rent below $1,000, both of which are low for Worcester. These are also the areas with the highest rent burden in the city, sometimes topping 40 percent of household income.

The concentration of rent burden and low median income in the same area is not a coincidence. Of renters making less than $35,000 a year in Worcester, 46 percent paid more than half of their income in rent and utilities. Such high rent burdens leave low-income households with little disposable income and vulnerable to unforeseen expenses.

They are also at risk of being priced out of Worcester’s cheapest rental markets if rents continue to increase faster than income.

Another risk to the most burdened households is that Worcester’s downtown area has become a target for development in recent years. The city government has even created the “Downtown Urban Revitalization Plan,” intended to bring in business and improve residential quality. But while revitalizing the downtown area could be great for Worcester, it could add some housing affordability problems to its most rent-burdened citizens if city planners and elected officials are not careful.

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