While the recent housing crisis is not to be overlooked, far too many rural residents have struggled with housing problems and inadequacies for years, if not decades, before the national crisis hit. These are among of the key findings from the Housing Assistance Council’s (HAC’s) recently released “Taking Stock” report.
Editor’s Note: Every ten years, after a new Census, the Housing Assistance Council reviews the condition of rural housing in a publication called Taking Stock. (Get a full copy here.) Here are the key findings from this year’s report.
Over the past decade the United States economy fell into one of the most severe economic recessions in a half century.
Unemployment rates reached generational highs, and substantial wealth and equity have been stripped from home values following the housing market crash. Millions of American households had trouble meeting their mortgage payments and lost their homes, while many still face foreclosure or eviction.
Not surprisingly, the economic and housing crisis impacted rural mortgage access and provision. Rural areas have seen declines in both housing production and mortgage lending. Applications to purchase homes in rural and small town areas declined by 56 percent between 2003 and 2010.
One factor widely linked to the national housing crisis was dramatic housing price growth.
Starting in the early 2000s, unprecedented, and in many instances unsustainable, price increases drove the housing frenzy.
But there is some indication that the boom and bust cycle for housing prices experienced in many markets did not follow the same pattern in rural America. Still, housing prices outside metropolitan areas eventually declined into negative territory and have lagged behind national price appreciation rates as some housing markets begin a recovery.
How Bad Was It For Rural Housing?
The foreclosure crisis was at the center of the national economic discussion for much of the past decade. Uncharacteristic for housing issues, foreclosures garnered substantial attention from the public, policy makers, and the press.
But foreclosure activity has not been as well analyzed in rural areas as for cities and suburbs. The primary constraint is a lack of publically available and reliable data on rural mortgage performance.
While the problem of rural foreclosure remains murky, it is safe to assume that hundreds of thousands of rural households were, or continue to be, impacted by the foreclosure crisis.
Furthermore, these housing problems may linger in rural communities due to a lack of economic vitality and diversification.
Many Rural Communities Were In Trouble Before
Affordability has become the most significant housing challenge in rural America, especially for low-income households and renters.
Despite the fact that housing costs are lower in rural areas, an increasing number of rural households find it difficult to pay their monthly housing expenses. Over 7 million rural households – three in ten – pay more than 30 percent of their monthly incomes toward housing costs and are considered “cost-burdened.”
The incidence of rural and small town households that pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing increased by a full six percentage points between 2000 and 2010.
Housing affordability problems are especially problematic for renters. Approximately 47 percent of rural renters are cost burdened, and nearly half of them are paying more than 50 percent of their monthly incomes for housing.
While affordability problems are on the rise, it is sometimes presumed that substandard and dilapidated homes have largely vanished in the United States. Indeed, efforts to improve housing conditions have resulted in dramatic gains and most Americans currently live in high quality, safe, and decent housing.
Substandard housing, however, has not entirely disappeared. In 1970, more than 3.5 million housing units were without complete plumbing facilities in the United States. In 2010, just over 600,000 units, less than 1 percent of occupied homes, did not have complete plumbing.
At the same time, more than 30 percent of homes lacking hot and cold piped water are in rural and small town communities. In rural persistent poverty counties, the incidence of homes lacking adequate plumbing is more than twice the national rate.
In other rural communities, especially on Native American lands and in Alaska, the incidence of homes lacking basic plumbing is more than 10 times the national level.
Crowded homes, defined as those with more than one occupant per room, are slightly less common in rural regions and small towns than in the nation as a whole.
Household crowding, however, is more prevalent among some rural groups and communities than others. On Native American lands, 8.8 percent of homes are crowded. Crowding rates for Hispanic households are three times the overall rural rate, and Hispanics occupy over 30 percent of crowded housing units in rural and small town areas.
Household crowding in rural areas is often an invisible form of homelessness as some rural households “double up” with friends or relatives in reaction to adverse economic or social situations, or to escape substandard housing conditions.
Housing problems are often not isolated and in many cases are compounded by the combination of inadequacies related to affordability, housing quality, and crowding. Over half of rural and small town households with multiple problems of cost, quality, or crowding are renters.
There is Progress
There are still far too many housing problems in rural America. But there has also been a precipitous decline in the most egregious housing inadequacies such as dilapidated homes and outhouses.
The reasons for this progress are varied. But a relatively modest federal investment has directly improved the housing conditions for millions of rural Americans.
Recognizing this progress is important as new and more complicated constraints of affordability and housing distress have emerged. If anything, the past decade has taught us the importance of housing to our nation’s economy, communities, and families.
The nation’s fiscal outlook is complicated, but public sector investment and involvement are crucial to healing our housing markets and ensuring their long-term health while recognizing that all communities, rural and urban, need attention and investment.