As rents have skyrocketed across the country in recent years, tenants have been forced to take extreme measures to hold onto their homes: borrowing money from family and friends, taking out high-interest payday loans and running up their credit card balances to pay their ever-increasing monthly housing costs. 

Rising rents have created an affordability crisis, especially in Northeastern cities like Baltimore. Yearly rent growth in the U.S. has risen at an alarming rate since 2020, hitting close to 17% at its peak in 2022. Rent increases have declined recently, but rents are still far above pre-pandemic levels. The typical asking rent was reportedly $1,996, according to Zillow, up six percent from one year ago.



Percentage of average rent-to-income ratio in the US

Public-housing attorneys, renter advocacy groups and housing research organizations blame a unique confluence of factors like the rent-to-income ratio and gentrification of neighborhoods amongst others. Rising interest rates are pricing out prospective homebuyers from the housing market, forcing them to rely on renting. This is increasing the number of people in the rental market, lowering vacancy rates. So landlords have been able to increase what they’ve charged. 

A record high number of people across the U.S. are rent burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income on rent. According to a recent report by Moody’s Analytics, the national average rent-to-income ratio reached 30% at the end of 2022, for the first time in 20 years. Even as wages grew at a considerably high pace, rents accelerated at a faster rate. 

“I’ve had multiple panic attacks worrying about how an eviction would affect my 4-year-old son,” said Awura Cummings, in a statement to the Public Justice Centre. Cummings lives in the city of Baltimore, Baltimore County in Maryland which encompasses other cities including Towson, Catonsville and Owings Mills. “I’ve borrowed from everyone I know. I’m trying to pick up as much work as I can, but I’m still having trouble getting out of the financial hole.

This rent burden impacts low income renters much more than higher income renters. In a report published last year by Pew Research Center, based on a survey by the Federal Reserve, people with lower incomes tend to be renters. Almost 61% of Americans in the lowest income quartile were renting in 2022.

This crisis is especially acute in Baltimore, where 24% of renters are moderately rent burdened and 25% severely rent burdened according to the ACS 2021. A lack of affordable housing due to government and private-sector investment, further adds to the issue. The Baltimore metropolitan area has seen a rise in gentrification, where affluent businesses and private individuals move into low-income neighborhoods, effectively raising rents and housing costs. Areas like Mount Vernon, Towson and Pigtown have seen multiple redevelopment projects - mainly for luxury apartments - uproot long-time residents. 

“We see hundreds of families in eviction court who have lost a job, been in a car accident, or had a medical setback,” - Matthew Hill, Attorney, public justice centre

Matthew Hill, as an attorney at the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, helps people living in public and affordable housing fight eviction. He said that the Section 8 waitlist in Baltimore County has been shut for decades, so as more renters need government assistance today, his organization has been helping more people fight eviction. 

“We see hundreds of families in eviction court who have lost a job, been in a car accident, or had a medical setback,” Hill said. According to Hill, it takes just one emergency financial setback for rent-burdened people to further push them down the financial hole. 

Rent affordability was always a problem across the U.S. even before the pandemic and has continued to worsen since then. According to a report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, the number of rent burdened households leading up to the pandemic had been rising, hitting its peak at 47% in 2019, massively impacting low-income households. 

Given this rise in unaffordability, housing experts and advocates are calling for the release of emergency rental assistance. In Baltimore County, the emergency rental assistance is yet to be prioritized in the State budget, which has left eligible renters in a state of panic. 

“I’ve been waiting for months to see if my emergency rental assistance application is actually paid to the landlord. This is no way to live,” said Cummings.