Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on The Penny Hoarder.
America may have a massive housing problem, but you still need an affordable place to live.
The situation wasn’t great before the pandemic, but since, rents have skyrocketed.
Realtor.com is reporting a 1.0% year-over-year decline in rent prices for June 2023. It’s only the second decline since 2020, so it is exciting news. But it’s too small of a number to fix the math for the average American household.
That same report listed the median rent as $1,745 a month.
Most landlords in the current market want you to pay them first month’s rent, last month’s rent and an additional security deposit equivalent to the monthly rent — just to get in the door.
Renters Face Major Issues
Another common requirement is proving that you make three times the rent every month in income (which is even more ambitious than the 50/30/20 budget).
That would mean you’d need to make at least $62,820/year, and have $5,235 on hand to pay upfront.
This is a major issue, as the average median income in the U.S. is only $1,100 per week according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
Even if you worked 52 weeks a year without taking any unpaid days off, you’d only make $57,200 a year — not enough to move into the median apartment. With median numbers, it’s important to remember that 50% of Americans make even less.
So what are your options when you need to find a place that doesn’t break your budget? We’re here with tips to help you snag a place at a lower price.
What To Do When You Can’t Find Affordable Housing
The problem seems unsolvable, especially as an individual battling within the current system to get a roof over your head.
There are ways to lower your rent and up your odds of finding affordable housing regardless of your circumstances, but none of them are a silver bullet.
The current market is unforgiving, but the key to being successful is not giving up, according to Nicky Boyte, civil rights organizer with North Carolina ADAPT.
“The hope for a better tomorrow is always what keeps people going,” Boyte said.
“You’ve got to say, ‘OK, I was there a year ago, but I made it this far in a year.’ Which maybe to someone else doesn’t seem like very far, but to you, you know the leaps and bounds you had to make to get to that point. And you let that accomplishment keep you going.”
Why Public Housing Doesn’t Always Help
First and foremost, let’s talk about public housing. “Why not turn to public assistance programs?” you may ask.
Well, you can, but you may end up on a never-ending waitlist. Public housing authorities are only allowed to keep waitlists that they think they can fulfill within 24 months, so many cities across the country aren’t even letting people onto the waitlists right now.
They’re already full, and if you try to get on when they reopen again, you could find yourself in a cycle that lasts a decade or more.
The problem gets even more complicated for disabled and elderly populations, who make up 45% of those who receive federal housing assistance.
While there’s an inventory shortage for everyone when it comes to the housing market, developers on federally-funded housing projects are only required to make sure 5% of their units include mobility accommodations, and just 2% accommodate visual and hearing disabilities (or blind or deaf individuals.)
“Let’s say you can get a voucher,” explains Boyte.
“If you can’t find a landlord that has the accessibility to take the voucher, then the voucher is no good. Some of these agencies will say they have enough vouchers, but even when that’s true, they’re not pushing the developers to make more accessible housing. It’s just not enough for us.”
Find a Mom & Pop Landlord – If You Can
Mom & Pop landlords tend to be more flexible when it comes to things like security deposits and application fees. They may even be willing to negotiate the monthly rent total or income requirements.
While not every independent landlord will be benevolent, you’re more likely to find wiggle room in this sector than you will with corporate landlords or huge apartment complexes.
Finding a Mom & Pop landlord is harder than it used to be, though. Since the 2008 recession, corporate landlords have been scooping up available properties at alarming rates.
Things got even worse during the pandemic when many individual landlords felt forced to sell their properties to corporations thanks to eviction moratoriums. When tenants were excused from paying their rent, landlords with smaller operations often had to sell the property because they couldn’t float the mortgage without the rental stream.
Good ways to find local, non-corporate landlords include word of mouth, driving around your community and looking for DIY “For Rent” signs, and looking on websites that don’t require payment for listings, like Craigslist.
Of course, you want to carefully vet anything you find on a site like Craigslist and exercise safety precautions when meeting up for the first time, but if you look in these venues, you can sometimes find a great deal. Or at least someone who’s willing to work with you.
Move During Colder Months
When there’s less demand in the rental market, rent prices tend to go down.
For example, starting your lease in February is likely to be cheaper than starting your lease in June. Especially with Mom & Pop landlords.
Corporate landlords might not give you a lower monthly rent just because it’s snowing outside, but they are likely to run different promotions during the off-season.
For example, you might see the first month’s rent waived, or receive credit toward your security deposit.
Another way to lower the barrier on high rents is getting roommates. This might seem like a no-brainer, but if you’re over the age of 30, I bet reading that sentence made you cringe.
It can be a lot to give up your own private house or apartment, but what you’re gaining can hopefully add up to hundreds of dollars in rent-savings every month.
Even if you trust and have great, pre-existing relationships with your new roommates, it’s generally a good idea to have a written agreement drafted up regarding responsibilities (specifically financial responsibilities) and consequences of not fulfilling those responsibilities before you start unloading boxes.
That way there’s less potential for legal drama further down the road.
If you don’t know the roommate, you’ll definitely want that written agreement. Plus, you’ll want to take adequate steps to vet potential roommates before moving in.
Move In With Family
A common solution to today’s rental market is moving in with family. This can be an especially smart move after an eviction.
Sometimes your family may offer to not charge you rent so you can get back on your feet while you save for that high barrier of entry in the rental market.
But it’s actually incredibly helpful if you have a written rental agreement with your family member, even if the “rent” is a nominal amount of money. That way, they can testify to your reliability and responsibility in paying the rent should your next prospective landlord ask for references.
Not everyone has family they can live with. If you’re in that boat and use public programming, the next couple of tips are for you.
Contact Your Local Center for Independent Living
If you are disabled or in your golden years, a good place to reach out for any number of resources – including affordable and accessible housing – is your local Center for Independent Living. You can find your chapter here.
On top of connecting you with programming that can keep you out of dangerous group homes and living in your own community, these organizations can also provide you with:
- Education on your legal rights.
- Mentorship about different programming from your peers.
- Moving you out of an institution if you’ve already been placed there.
- Self-advocacy support.
What To Do While You’re Waiting for Housing
When you’re on a never-ending waitlist for public housing, it can be extremely difficult to get by.
That’s because if you qualify for public housing, your income is likely low enough to also be eligible for other programs, like SNAP, Medicaid or Social Security benefits.
Many of these programs require you to keep your income below a certain level. Some of them even require you to keep your savings or assets below a certain level. Often this level is so low that you’re living far below the poverty line.
That means that while you’re waiting, there’s no way to better your finances in order to afford housing without government assistance.
But, if you were disabled before age 26, you can open an ABLE account to legally shelter assets up to $100,000. The age of onset of disability bumps up to 46 effective in the year 2026, but those disabled in older age will remain ineligible.