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The High Cost of Rising Rents

Older Americans with limited incomes struggle to keep up with steep increases

spinner image rose thompson of maryland outside the apartment she has rented for twenty five years
Rose Thompson, 65, has lived in her Maryland apartment for 25 years, but a steep rent hike has threatened this living arrangement.
Greg Khan

The Rev. Rose Thompson has lived in her home for 25 years, in an apartment building in Laurel, Maryland. Suddenly last December, she was in danger of losing it.

Thompson and her neighbors received notice that the building had been sold and that the new landlord was instituting a steep rent hike. “My rent was $875 a month, and the letter said the new rent would be $1,600,” says Thompson, 65. “It said we had 60 days to move out if we didn’t sign the lease for the new rent.”

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Being forced to move because of surging rents in the past year has become a common occurrence across America. In 2021, the average rent was 17.6 percent higher than in 2020, according to Apartment List, an online rental listing and data-collection business. And the rates have continued to accelerate this year; in October, the average rent was another 5.9 percent higher than a year earlier. Given that the median rent in the U.S. is over $2,000, according to Redfin, that means many Americans are paying roughly $360 per month, or nearly $4,300 a year, more for their apartments than they were just a few years ago.

spinner image rising median asking rent has risen from one thousand six hundred and forty three in twenty nineteen to two thousand and two in twenty twenty two
Median Asking Rent

The causes of this are many: a housing crunch; landlords looking to make up for revenue lost during the pandemic, when some rents were temporarily frozen and evictions weren’t allowed; and gentrification, in which investors seek to push settled residents out to make way for renovations and higher rents.

The impact of all this can be particularly harsh for the 30 percent of Americans over 55 who rent their homes. “We’re seeing more calls for help from older adults when the rent is due and the money isn’t available,” says Linda Couch, vice president of housing policy for LeadingAge, an association of nonprofit providers of aging services in Washington, D.C. One course of action normally would be to refer such callers to organizations that offer subsidized housing, but “some senior housing communities have even closed their waiting lists because the wait was too long.” Waits for affordable housing typically last two to five years, Couch says.

Thompson found help from CASA. The immigration and housing advocacy organization facilitated a meeting among the new landlord, officials from the city of Laurel and five tenants. The landlord agreed to lower the new rent to $1,350, which was still an increase of 56 percent. The city provided a subsidy with funds from the American Rescue Plan to bring the rent down to $1,000 per month. “The problem is that this is a short-term solution,” says Jorge Benitez-Perez, lead organizer for the local CASA chapter. “When the lease ends next March, the tenants will be at the mercy of the landlord again.”

Rent increases and older adults

Renters in peril

At one apartment building in Boston, some renters facing annual rent increases of $300 per month are refusing to make those payments.

Betty Lewis, 71, who has lived in her apartment for 41 years, is among the tenants working with City Life/Vida Urbana for guidance and support. Lewis continues to pay the monthly rent on her old lease, but she won’t sign a new one, even as the unpaid extra rent and monthly late fees now exceed $10,000. Signing a new lease could speed the eviction process.

“We all struggle with this because we can’t afford to move and don’t want to leave,” she says. “I don’t have anywhere to go and I have health issues, so I’m afraid I’ll end up homeless.”

Financial advisers recommend that housing costs not exceed 30 percent of household income. But more than half of older renters are above that threshold, according to a study by the Urban Institute. And almost a quarter of older renters spend more than half of their income on rent. “Senior renters are more likely to be cost burdened than their homeowning counterparts,” says Jun Zhu, a clinical assistant professor at Indiana University and a nonresident fellow with the Urban Institute.

The lack of affordable apartments and displacement of older renters often occurs when investors purchase a building, says Denise Matthews-Turner, coexecutive director for City Life/Vida Urbana, a Boston community organization that supports tenants’ rights. “What tends to happen is that they raise the rent quickly, and the threat of eviction is terrifying,” Matthews-Turner adds.

Researchers have also found that adults 65 and older are the fastest-growing group of homeless people—and their numbers are anticipated to triple by 2030, according to the American Society on Aging.

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Short-term solutions for rent increases

Federal and state government programs designed to help older Americans challenged by rent increases are limited. Rent controls at the state or local level can be found in seven states (California, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and Oregon) plus the District of Columbia, according to the National Apartment Association. (For rules in your location, check the National Multifamily Housing Council's rent-control map.)

Some state or local rental laws and regulations set requirements for the minimum amount of advance notice that must be given before the rent can be increased, or mandate relocation assistance for some evictions as well as offer emergency rental assistance. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also offers housing vouchers, which can be used to help pay rent. But Couch notes that it can be difficult in some markets to find landlords that accept HUD vouchers, and even getting a voucher can take years.

“HUD recently announced a big increase in funding for housing vouchers, which will hopefully make them easier to use, especially to prevent homelessness,” Couch says. In September, HUD awarded more than 19,000 new housing vouchers totaling more than $214 million. The fiscal year 2023 budget requests $1.6 billion for the housing voucher program.

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Couch says that area agencies on aging can provide help in navigating the system. “It’s great if these offices have emergency rental assistance or can connect someone to that kind of fund to keep someone in their apartment.”

Policy implications for senior rent crisis

Three federal programs are meant to spark the building of affordable rental housing.

  • HUD’s Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly program provides interest-free capital to developers to build rental homes for very low-income older renters and also provides rent subsidies. “If you’re in Section 202 housing and your income declines, your rent goes down as well, so your housing is always stable,” Couch says. But Zhu notes that this program has been in decline, with fewer units being made available over the past decade.
  • The federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which helps subsidize the development of affordable housing, could be used to create more housing for older people, Zhu says.
  • The Housing Choice Voucher program subsidizes rent for very low-income renters. The renter pays 30 percent of their income, and the program generally covers the rest. But funds are limited, and it often has a waiting list.

“We have the tools and resources to respond to the affordable housing crisis and the need for aging services,” Couch says. “We just need the funding and long-term resources to respond to this true crisis.”

Know Your Rights: What to Do If Your Rent Gets Jacked Up

Patti Prunhuber, director of housing advocacy for Justice in Aging in Oakland, California, offers these tips.

Learn your rights. Check to see if your landlord gave you the information and the advance notice required by state and local laws. Some places also have rent stabilization laws that limit rent increases. You can find free legal help through the Legal Services Corporation and the Eldercare Locator run by the U.S. Administration on Aging.

Negotiate. It can help to talk to your landlord before taking other action. If you’ve lived in the unit for a long time and have been a good tenant, you may be able to negotiate a smaller rent increase. Be sure to document any agreement in writing.

Talk to your neighbors. Ask if they received a rent-increase notification too. Joining together can make tenant voices stronger.

Don’t just sign on the dotted line. Get individual legal advice on this point, but generally if you don’t sign the lease, you’re not in breach of the contract if you don’t pay the higher rent. You can still be evicted, but this may delay the process.

Pay attention to an eviction notice. An eviction can hurt your ability to rent someplace else. So get legal help as soon as possible after receiving such a notice. Often, a lawyer can help you negotiate to stay longer in your home. Some jurisdictions also have protections in place for older adults or people with disabilities.

Show up. Be sure to attend any eviction hearings. Many tenants give up too soon and don’t file an answer or show up on their court date.

Get help. Local rental assistance and state welfare agencies may be available to help people stay in their homes. Contact your area agency on aging, which you can find through the Eldercare Locator site or by calling 800-677-1116. And get your name on several waiting lists for subsidized senior housing as soon as possible.

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