‘Rental deserts’ bar low-income renters from opportunity

Photo of empty desert road during the day - Photo by Adobe Stock

Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers are the federal government’s main resource to help low-income renters afford the rent in the private market. But what can renters do when there is almost no rental housing in an area?

New research from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies shows that the American landscape is littered with “rental deserts.” These neighborhoods and communities have little rental housing available at any price.

How many areas are rental deserts?

Rental deserts are neighborhoods where less than one-fifth of the housing stock is occupied by renters, or available to renters. 

Across the country, 22,000 census tracts are rental deserts. This is about 31% of all neighborhoods in the U.S. 

And among these neighborhoods, almost 7,000 are extreme rental deserts. This means that just 10% or less of the housing stock is occupied by renters, or available to rent in those neighborhoods.


Across the country, 22,000 census tracts are rental deserts. This is about 31% of all neighborhoods in the U.S.


Where are rental deserts located?

Rental deserts are most commonly found in suburban areas. They are also more common in neighborhoods with high median incomes and neighborhoods with higher concentrations of white households.

Suburban neighborhoods make up 64% of rental deserts. To highlight the problem, suburban neighborhoods make up only 54% of all U.S. census tracts overall.

In contrast, 29% of all census tracts are urban, but only 9% of rental deserts are in urban neighborhoods.

Rental deserts reflect segregation

The residents of neighborhoods that lack rental housing are overwhelmingly white. While almost 80% of households in rental deserts had a white head of household, less than 21% were headed by a person of color. 

Rental deserts are also home to wealthier households.  Households living in rental deserts have a median annual income of $86,000. The median income for households living in neighborhoods with a high concentration of rental housing, though, is less than half that at $42,000.

Income level is very closely correlated with race. Overall, households of color have lower median incomes nationally than white households. Policies that drive up rents and home purchase prices have the effect of keeping many households of color from moving to neighborhoods of opportunity.

What can be done for renters?

The JCHS researchers suggest that cities can break down the barriers of segregation by changing their zoning to allow more rental housing throughout the community.

For example, Minneapolis, Minnesota abolished single-family zoning throughout the city in 2022. Accessory dwelling units can be added to existing single-family homes, and small rentals of up to four units are allowed in most areas.

Increasing the amount of property that can be used for rental housing will lower rents over time and give low-income renters more choices. Other cities around the country need to follow the lead of Minneapolis, and break down barriers to affordable rental housing in all their neighborhoods.

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