Housing Need in Rural America

By any measure, much of rural America has still not recovered from the great recession. According to the Economic Research Service, since 2007 rural median income has averaged 20 percent below the urban median. Over 15 percent of all rural counties, more than 300 across the country are persistently poor with at least 20 percent of the population living in poverty for over the last 30 years.[1]

It is difficult to argue that rural America does not need improved housing:

  • A disproportionate amount of the nation’s occupied substandard housing is located in rural areas. As reported by the Housing Assistance Council, the 2010 Census revealed that of the approximately 116 million occupied housing units available in the United States, 25 million units are located in rural and small communities. Over 5 percent, or 1.5 million, of these homes are considered either moderately or severely substandard. For example, more than 30 percent of the nation’s housing units lacking hot and cold piped water are in rural and small town communities, and on some Native American lands the incidence of homes lacking basic plumbing is more than 10 times the national level;[2]
  • Over 10 percent of these units also have more than one occupant per room which suggests that inadequate units in rural areas are also likely to be overcrowded. In addition to these substandard conditions and overcrowding, affordability remains a major issue, and about 50 percent of poor rural Americans have housing expenses that exceed half of their incomes;[3]
  • According to a 2016 US Census Bureau study, compared with urban areas, where the homeownership rate was 59.8 percent, rural areas had a homeownership rate of 81.1 percent.[4] However, the equity rural Americans accumulate in their homes is generally less than the equity generated from homes in urban areas because rural houses are typically less expensive.[5] As evidence, a 2016 report by Zillow found that between 2010 and 2015, the average home value in urban areas grew 28.4 percent, compared to just about 6.25 percent in rural areas;[6]
  • According to a recent report by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, 41 percent (5 million households) of rural renters are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing costs, and 21 percent (2.1 million households) of rural households that rent pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing;[7]
  • Years of declining investment in the renovation of existing and construction of new housing in our small towns and farming communities has resulted in a housing deficit. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted, “Fewer homes are being built per household than almost any other time in US history, and it is even worse in rural areas.” As a result, in some rural communities, economic growth is impeded not by the lack of jobs, but by the lack of housing for workers;[8]
  • According to US Census data, between 1999 and 2008, the average annual production in non-metro areas totaled 221,000. In the period 2009 to 2017, average production fell to 68,000 per year;[9] and
  • According to EPA, there is a 20 year need of $464 billion for capital improvements to America’s public water system infrastructure.[10] This total amount includes the needs of the approximately 52,000 community water systems; 21,400 not-for-profit non-community water systems; the needs of American Indian and Alaska Native village water systems; and the costs associated with proposed and recent regulations.[11] The 2018 EPA Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Assessment indicates a national need of $74.4 billion for small systems[12] (systems that serve 3,300 or fewer persons) in the 50 states, Puerto Rico and other U.S. Territories. This represents 16 percent of total national need and comprises some 41,000 systems (82.8 percent of all systems) and 24 percent of the population.