Racial discrimination within the housing market has been documented many times, with landlords or buyers of color encountering some type of barrier throughout the housing process. Nearly a third of neighborhoods across the country have few options for renters, and those places are disproportionately suburban, higher income and have a higher share of white households, according to a new analysis of the most recent data. available from the period 2015-2019. American Community Survey.

The most recent analysis from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that exclusive land use most likely contributes to the presence of these rental deserts and the resulting patterns of socio-economic and racial segregation. , since tenants have disproportionate incomes and people of color. Recent zoning changes in several states and communities across the country have the potential to increase housing options for renters.

Rental deserts are disproportionately located in suburban areas

In recent Center reports, the concept of rental deserts has been developed to highlight places that offer few rental options to households. In these neighborhoods, less than 20% of the dwellings are either occupied by a tenant or vacant for rent. In contrast, high-rent areas are at least 80% rental, while mixed neighborhoods fall in between. The Center’s analysis also examined the geography and characteristics of rental deserts, showing how the absence of rental opportunities reinforces socio-economic and racial segregation.

Rental deserts make up about 31% of all neighborhoods nationwide. This represents over 22,000 census tracts where less than 20% of the stock is available for tenants. Of these, nearly 7,000 are extreme rental deserts where only 10% or less of the stock is occupied by a tenant or vacant for rent. At the other end of the spectrum, high-rent neighborhoods make up only 5% of all plots.

Rental deserts are disproportionately located in suburban areas where restrictive land use regulations and no-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) policies can be common. In fact, suburban neighborhoods in metropolitan areas make up 54% of all areas, but account for 68% of rental deserts. In contrast, 29% of all tracts are in major metro urban areas, but these neighborhoods only account for 9% of rental deserts. Additionally, 11% of rental deserts are in smaller micro areas, while the remaining 12% are outside of metropolitan or micro areas that tend to be more rural, making rental deserts slightly more prevalent in these areas.

Single-family homes are much more common in rental deserts, which is not surprising given that single-family homes have higher homeownership rates than units in multi-family buildings. In the median neighborhood, 85% of housing in rental deserts is a single unit, compared to 63% in mixed neighborhoods and 17% in predominantly rental neighborhoods. While single-family units can be converted into rental housing and a growing number are being built as rentals, the lack of multi-family homes in these neighborhoods is likely a significant factor limiting opportunities for renter households and for low-income renters. especially.

Rental deserts have more single-family homes, higher median incomes and fewer people of color

This figure shows the share of single-family homes, median income, and share of people of color in rental deserts, mixed-tenancy neighborhoods, and high-rent neighborhoods.  Rental deserts have the highest share of single-family homes and the highest median incomes, while high-rent neighborhoods have the lowest share of single-family homes and the lowest median incomes.  About one-fifth of households in rental deserts are headed by a person of color, compared to about two-thirds of households in high-rent neighborhoods.

By limiting the number of rental options, neighborhoods effectively exclude low-income households from their communities. With few affordable options for low-income renters, the median household income in rental deserts is $86,000. Median incomes in high-rent neighborhoods, however, are less than half at $42,000, while mixed-tenancy neighborhoods fall in the middle at around $60,000.

The concentration of the rental stock also contributes to racial and ethnic segregation, as people of color are more likely to rent. Due to longstanding and ongoing discrimination in education and the labor market, black and Hispanic households have lower median incomes than white households and less generational wealth to draw on, limiting resources available for a down payment and contributes to their relatively higher rental rates. Additionally, centuries of racially discriminatory government policies and practices, as well as discrimination in the housing market and home buying, have deprived households of color, and black households in particular, access to the property.

The legacy of these deep-rooted inequalities is evident in the low proportion of people of color in rental deserts. While people of color headed 67% of households in high-rent neighborhoods, less than 21% of households were headed by a person of color in rental deserts. High-rent neighborhoods also had four times as many households headed by a Black or Hispanic person as desert rental neighborhoods. In contrast, desert rental neighborhoods had more than double the share of white households at 79% than high-rent neighborhoods at 33%.

The lack of rental options in many neighborhoods across the country reinforces persistent patterns of residential segregation. Increasing multi-family supply and increasing rental options in neighborhoods where there are few can help expand the geographic options available to renters, and reducing zoning barriers is a step in the right direction. . As noted in The Housing State of the Nation 2022several states and communities have recently passed zoning changes to allow more housing types in areas that were previously reserved exclusively for single-family homes.

For example, in 2021, Massachusetts enacted a new requirement that all 175 communities served by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority have at least one zoning district that permits multi-family housing as of right. These zoning changes could increase the number of rental options available in desirable locations and reduce the number of rental deserts.

However, zoning changes and the increase in the number of multi-family dwellings alone are not enough to address the persistent inequities in where people can live. The construction of lower priced housing and the expansion of housing subsidies in a range of neighborhoods will also be necessary to create socio-economically integrated mixed-dwelling communities.

To read the full report, including chart details and methodology, click here.