Record Rent Burdens Batter Low-Income Life

To understand how rising rents punish families of modest means, look no further than the queen-size bed that Jessica Jones and her three children share in her mother’s living room, where each night brings a squirming, turning tussle for space in a house with no privacy.

Ms. Jones and her daughter Katelen, 14, anchor the sides like human bed rails, with two younger girls tucked in between. Joy is a 4-year-old featherweight, but Destaney, at 6, kicks so much that Ms. Jones binds her in a mermaid blanket. The day’s tensions lie beside them, and midnight sneezes are shared events.

After two years of doubling up, Ms. Jones longs for a place of her own. But even though she works full time for the state government, a modest apartment would consume more than half her income, a burden most landlords find disqualifying and one she could not sustain.

With $41,000 a year in earnings and child support, she is, by government definition, not poor — just homeless.

“My anxiety is through the roof,” she said. “I feel almost hopeless.”

Unaffordable rents are changing low-income life, blighting the prospects of not only the poor but also growing shares of the lower middle class after decades in which rent increases have outpaced income growth.

Nearly two-thirds of households in the bottom 20 percent of incomes face “severe cost burdens,” meaning they pay more than half of their income for rent and utilities, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

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