More Americans than ever before are unable to afford rent. Here's a look at why the rent is too damn high and what can be done about it.
Part of the problem has to do with simple supply and demand. Millions of Americans lost their homes during the foreclosure crisis, and many of those folks flooded into the rental market. In 2004, 31 percent of US households were renters, according to HUD. Today that number is 35 percent. "With more people trying to get into same number of units you get an incredible pressure on prices," says Shaun Donovan*, the former secretary of housing and urban development for the Obama administration.
It's not just working-class folks who have been pushed into the rental market. More middle-class Americans are renting too.
Alongside the foreclosure crisis, the financial collapse and ensuing recession jacked up unemployment and squeezed incomes. Check out how rental costs compare to renter incomes over the past quarter century:
Republicans, in an effort to shore up what they say is a dangerous budget deficit (it's not, really), have pushed to cut spending on federal programs, including housing assistance. Nearly all government housing aid programs have taken funding cuts in recent years.
In 2013, about 125,000 families lost access to housing vouchers—which make up the largest share of rental assistance—due to across-the-board budget cuts. "Budget cuts were doing exactly the wrong thing," Donovan says.
Those cuts come on top of years of stagnating rental voucher aid. Even though the government increased funding for housing vouchers between 2007 and 2012, the program was not able to reach more households because that extra money was eaten up by higher rents and lower incomes.
Because federal housing assistance was not able to keep up with the growing population of low-income people created by the recession, the number of very-low-income renter households that received some form of housing assistance dropped from 27.4 percent in 2007 to less than a quarter in 2011.
What happens when you combine a shortage of rental units with lower incomes and less federal support? You get the "worst rental affordability crisis in history," and a lot of people finding it harder to get by.
The share of households spending more than a third of their income on rent has grown by 12 percent since 2000. Today, half of all renters pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income in rent. For 28 percent of Americans, more than half of their salaries go toward rent.
The rental crisis is worse in some places than in others.
And the crisis has hit people of color harder than whites.
The stimulus act Congress passed in the wake of the recession directed $1 billion into rental housing. And HUD is not sitting on its hands while the rental market goes to shambles. The department has launched severalprogramsaimed at bolstering the number of low-income and public housing units.
But these initiatives aren't enough to stem the unfolding rental crisis, Donovan says. Legislation in Congress aimed at reducing the government's role in housing finance would take a bigger bite out of the problem. It would direct nearly $4 billion a year to affordable rental housing. The bill was recently approved by a key Senate committee. And as far as its chances in the obstructionist, GOP-dominated House? "I think better than most people might think," Donovan says. "I say that because I do think there's a confluence of more and more people understanding that the status quo is unacceptable."
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misspelled Shaun Donovan's name. It is Donovan, not Donavan.
California, the producer of half of the nation's fruits, veggies, and nuts, is experiencing its third-worst drought on record. The dry spell is expected to cost the state billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, and farmers are digging into groundwater supplies to keep their crops alive. We've been keeping an eye on the drought with the US Drought Monitor, a USDA-sponsored program that uses data from soil moisture and stream flow, satellite imagery, and other indicators to produce weekly drought maps. Here's a GIF showing the spread of the drought, from last December 31—shortly before Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency—until July 29.
Women mourn after an attack on a UN-run school in Gaza July 24.
United Nations Relief Works Agency spokesman Chris Gunness has been talking to media outlets around the world about the situation in Gaza, "advocating passionately," as he puts it, "for Palestine refugees to enjoy all their rights to the full, including the right to a just and durable solution." Gunness' agency runs schools in Gaza that are being used as shelters by Palestinian families and have been attacked six times in the current conflict (the Israeli military says it has found rockets in the schools on occasion). On Wednesday he was talking to an Al Jazeera interviewer about the most recent school bombing, which reportedly left 15 dead. "The rights of Palestinians, even their children, are wholesale denied, and it's appalling," he said before breaking into tears. Watch:
See MoJo's full coverage of the surge of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America.
The federal government will tell you that it has heard the cries of the anti-immigrant protesters and created policies to slow down the surge of children picked up by the US Border Patrol. By coordinating with Central American governments, using US-produced TV ads to urge kids to avoid the perilous journey, and attempting to speed up court proceedings, the administration is trying to at least partially take credit for the recent dip in the number of unaccompanied children caught at the border.
But those claims are "just conjecture," says Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America. Isacson, who focuses on regional security policy, says that it's simply too early to tell exactly what's going on. The ad campaigns could be dissuading some people, he says, as could the fact that the story has become such a hot topic in Central America. Or perhaps people were already planning to stop coming now that the rumored "permisos"—which allegedly would have granted free passing for unaccompanied children and mothers traveling with children—were supposedly set to end in June. There's also the fact that the rainy season starts in midsummer and provides more agricultural work in Central America than during other times of the year.
In other words, a lot of factors are at play. But the slowdown in the number of children picked up over the last few weeks also seems entirely predictable: Since 1999, the overall number of undocumented migrants apprehended by the Border Patrol has peaked in the spring before dropping precipitously during the summer months. In Texas' Rio Grande Valley area—the area seeing the most child migrants—July temperatures reach well up into the 90s, and often higher. Here's a month-by-month look at apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol sector:
The heat and the unforgiving terrain has very real consequences for would-be immigrants across the desert Southwest. Humane Borders, a Tucson, Arizona-based humanitarian organization, tries to "take death out of the immigration equation," says executive director Juanita Molina, by leaving drinking water in routes frequented by migrants. More than a decade ago, the group, along with the Pima County medical examiner's office, started tracking dead undocumented migrants found in the area. Many of the 2,187 bodies found since January 2001 were skeletal remains, so a cause of death was hard to determine. But 969 of them were listed as having died from exposure. The vast majority were also found in July:
Molina says there are many factors that could influence overall migration patterns: harvest season, weather, politics, among others. But the weather is among the biggest factors. "I think it's completely cyclical with the seasons," she says. "Unfortunately, politicians on both sides of the fence are using this opportunity to push forward whatever agenda they have."
To be sure, fluctuations in overall apprehension numbers are symptomatic of a complex immigration system dependent on factors spread across several countries. Solid answers won't be available until January 2015, Isacson says, when it's possible to compare apprehension numbers from 2014 to previous years.
But we can say for sure that it's a little early for the White House, immigration hardliners, or anyone else to be taking credit for bringing the numbers down. After all, Mother Nature might be playing the biggest role so far.
As the Obama administration continues to grapple with the humanitarian crisis surrounding unaccompanied immigrant children, some have suggested processing the children faster and moving them quickly through the immigration courts. One problem: The vast majority don't have lawyers. The ACLU and several other groups, including the American Immigration Council, filed a lawsuit Wednesday to force the government to provide these kids with counsel as they deal with the wildly complex immigration system.
See MoJo's full coverage of the surge of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America.
The ACLU's suit represents eight children, ages 10 to 17, from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico, but is also trying to force representation for the thousands of children who go through the same thing each year. The suit alleges that the children are being deprived of due process, citing previous case law ruling that children should have legal representation in legal matters. A 2014 report (PDF) from the University of California-Hastings and Kids in Need of Defense argues, "Without counsel, the children are unlikely to understand the complex procedures they face and the options and remedies that may be available to them under the law."
Part of Obama's $3.7 billion plan to address immigration issues is to provide $15 million to fund legal representation for unaccompanied children. (Notably, a 2012 report said that 40 percent of them were eligible for some sort of deportation relief.) The government says it's also trying to recruit lawyers and paralegals to help these children, but according to Ahilan Arulanantham, the deputy legal director of the ACLU of Southern California and the senior staff attorney for the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, "it's pretty clear that it's not enough."
"Obviously, we're happy the government is trying to do more, but this is entirely within government control," Arulanantham says. "These are complex cases, and the question at the core isn't about money. The question is about whether it's fair to have them present their cases on their own."
US Attorney General Eric Holder—a named defendant in the case—seems to agree, saying in March 2013 that it is "inexcusable that young kids…six-, seven-year-olds, 14-year-olds—have immigration decisions made on their behalf, against them…and they're not represented by counsel." More than a year later, though, unaccompanied kids still struggle to find pro bono legal representation, either because they and their families can't afford it or there is simply none available.
One child mentioned in the complaint, a 10-year-old boy from El Salvador, watched his father get killed by gang members in front of his house, and was threatened by that same gang a few years later at the age of nine. Another, a 14-year-old girl from El Salvador, was also threatened by gang members after her uncle, a police officer, refused to supply gang members with supplies.
"I wish we could have a judge or a government attorney question [her] about her case and about how immigration law works," Arulanantham says. "It's laughable."