A study from the Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy (CRISP) at IUPUI reveals nearly half of renters in Marion County are rent burdened, and it’s even worse for Black and Latino renters.
A renter is considered to be burdened, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, when more than 30% of gross household income goes toward housing costs. Spending more than 50% is considered a severe rent burden.
In Marion County, where 46% of households are renter-occupied, it’s possible to make accurate predictions about how severe rent burdens are in a particular area if all you know is how many Black or Latino renters there are. That’s because the percentage of Black and Latino renters is positively associated with the percentage of income spent on rent, the study found.
The opposite is true for areas with a larger percentage of white renters. In that case, the more white renters there are, the lower the rent burdens tend to be.
Breanca Merritt, founder and director of CRISP, noted 30% is a benchmark, and there is an ongoing debate in housing circles about how effective that number actually is. It comes from the Brooke Amendment, passed in the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Critics say today’s renters face more costs — student loans, for example — and that calculating housing cost burdens using only an income ratio oversimplifies the issue.
Flawed or not, the benchmark makes it clear Black renters are at a disadvantage.
Evelynn Watkins pays $650 a month for her one-bedroom apartment on East 46th Street. She’s lived there for a little over a year and said her social security benefits “barely” cover her cost of living.
The Recorder is not using Watkins’ real name in order to protect her identity because she feared retribution from the property manager.
“I’m on a fixed income,” she said, “and I don’t know what they think people on a fixed income can do paying rent and all the other bills that they have.”
Watkins said she’s also responsible for all bills such as water and gas. A RENTCafé report from August showed the 46205 zip code, where Watkins lives, had a 1.71% increase in average rent — which was $773 — compared to July, the highest increase of Indianapolis zip codes with at least four properties or 500 units.
She wouldn’t say how much she collects in social security, but Watkins, who’s in her 70s, said she’s not able to afford to some of the smaller luxuries such as cable or internet. She also doesn’t own a car. Watkins said her parents owned their home, but she doubts she’ll ever be a home owner.
“It’s a struggle,” she said. “You always behind on maybe one or two bills. It’s hectic trying to catch up, which you never do.”
One of the most common proposals for making it more affordable to rent in cities is rent control laws, which Indianapolis doesn’t have. But Merritt warned against thinking rent control is the “best or right option” because one unintended consequence is that landlords simply leave if they can’t charge as much as they want in rent.
There aren’t many who disagree that rent control can play a role, but an analysis by a Stanford University economist found it could lead developers to build less housing, which makes existing housing even more expensive.
Merritt said it’s more important to focus on issues such as wealth and income. The CRISP study found that from 2012 to 2017, only Washington Township experienced an increase in median household income that exceeded the increase in rental costs.
At the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana website, there’s a list of state policies that the organization says are barriers to fair housing. A 2017 law, for example, bans cities from requiring developers to build a certain number of affordable units if they build in an area that doesn’t have enough affordable housing. Cities now have to lure developers with incentives such as tax breaks.
The center’s executive director, Amy Nelson, said collective tenant action, including unions, would be effective, but it’s difficult for renters to organize because of a lack of funds and the fact that many renters already have enough in their lives they have to prioritize.
“I think there does need to be someone to help guide them, at least in the beginning,” Nelson said, “to make sure they know what legal rights they have, and I just don’t think there’s been funding for people to do that.”
Richard Martin, who lives on North Dearborn Street in the 46218 zip code, would be classified as severe rent burdened. He collects $700 a month in disability but pays $600 a month to rent his two-bedroom house. Martin, who’s in his 60s, said he’s in a rent-to-own agreement with his landlord.
The Recorder is also not using Martin’s real name to protect him from retaliation from his landlord.
Martin explained, standing outside of his home, that he often just has to ask people for help, even though so few of his friends and family are able to do so. The RENTCafé report showed the 46218 zip code saw a decrease of 0.48% in average rent, which was $627 in August.
Martin’s gas and water had been shut off because he couldn’t pay the bills.
“Man, you know that ain’t ever gonna cover no utility bills,” he said of the $100 he has after paying rent. “This is a Black, poor neighborhood. It’s the ghetto.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.