• Jerry Paytas

New Tools to Address Affordable Housing

Every April is National Fair Housing Month, which provides an opportunity to reflect on our nation’s progress in ending housing discrimination and raising awareness of fair housing rights. April is the anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, but it also marks the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 and his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.

Where are we now?

Over the past ten years, we have made little progress. As of 2019, the number of cost-burdened households, those paying more than 30% of their income for housing, stood at 37.2 million, compared to 39.7 million in 2009. That small reduction in cost-burdened households hides a more fundamental shift in housing – both as a cost burden and as a pathway to wealth creation. The reduction was entirely driven by a net decrease of 5.3 million cost-burdened homeowners from 2009 to 2019. The median value of a home in the U.S. grew 17% between 2009 and 2019, which was less than the 22% increase in the median household income. Unfortunately, that increase in median household income was outpaced by the 30% rise in the median rent, so the U.S. added 2.8 million cost-burdened renters.


Between 2009 and 2019, the U.S. added 2.8 million cost-burdened renters.

It is also hard to claim progress towards fair and affordable housing when the 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) found that more than 580,000 people experienced homelessness in the United States based on a Point-in-Time Count conducted nationwide during the last week in January of each year. The counts are unduplicated one-night estimates of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations. The report also found that people of color are significantly over-represented among people experiencing homelessness.


The Pandemic's Impact

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the urgent crisis of housing affordability in America. Before the pandemic, the U.S. already had a shortage of 7.4 to 12 million rental homes available and affordable for the lowest-income households. Seven out of ten of the poorest renter households were already severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their income on rent and utilities. As Kristina Harrold noted in her blog post, these burdens fall primarily on people of color.


Visualizing Affordable Housing Data

The problem of fair and affordable housing was not created overnight, nor will it be solved overnight. One important barrier has been that most people, especially the most affluent Americans, are blissfully unaware that this problem exists. As a firm believer in the power of data to bring issues to light – IF that data can be visualized and contextualized in a compelling way – it was an honor to work with three outstanding students from the University of Pittsburgh’s new Master of Science in Quantitative Economics (MQE) program:


Natalee Morris

Gayatri Pai

Mason Putt


From February of 2021 through April 27, 2021, these students dug into an array of data on affordable housing, as well as demographic and economic indicators from a variety of sources. We posed the following questions for their analysis:

  • Where would we expect the highest risk of evictions based on pre-Covid-19 housing affordability?

  • Which areas in the US have the most significant housing shortages? Are there notable geographic or demographic patterns?

  • What factors are associated with the presence or absence of an affordable housing shortage?

  • How do unemployment rates or other economic predictors relate to historical evictions and affordability gaps?

We are pleased to share a glimpse of some of the output from their work, and we expect to share more of their findings and results in the coming weeks. For now, we offer the following and encourage you to explore these tools and give us feedback on what you find useful and where you might want to see improvements made:

  • Choropleth Housing Shortage Map: This tool allows the user to explore the housing shortage in your county and how it compares to other counties anywhere in the United States. We believe that the MQE students created the first interactive, nationwide visualization of housing shortages at the county level.

  • Interactive Dashboard: This tool allows the user to explore and visualize the housing gaps in their county by income groups, some demographics of the community, and the predicted eviction rates based on their analysis and modeling of national eviction data from Eviction Lab.

Natalee, Gayatri, and Mason are wrapping up their courses in the MQE program and preparing to graduate in May. As a team, we at Fourth Economy were very lucky to get to work with these talented people and we are thrilled that they managed to tackle some pretty insurmountable challenges in a short period of time.


If you have questions or are interested in learning more about how to use these tools, please get in touch.


Dig Deeper with Fourth Economy

On May 27, 2021, at 12 pm ET, Fourth Economy will host a webinar to discuss the housing markets of several communities of varying sizes, and the challenges faced by each in addressing affordable housing. The communities include:

  • Ramsey County, MN - Addressing affordable housing and equity at a county scale

  • Hazelwood in Pittsburgh, PA - Managing affordable housing on a neighborhood scale facing significant development pressure

  • Harrisonburg, VA - Addressing affordable housing in a college town with a large population of student renters

This will be a lively and interactive panel discussion, NOT a series of presentations.


Register in advance for the webinar here.