A study by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies has thrown important light on the nation’s affordable housing problem. Released this month, the study focuses specifically on rents, which have been soaring over the last few years, even as the median income of renters has fallen. The supply of available units has failed to keep up with growing demand.

The collapse of the housing bubble worsened the supply problem, as foreclosures forced many homeowners into the rental market. Tighter credit standards have restrained home purchases, so home ownership remains down. Builders of new rental units, meanwhile, target wealthier customers, frequently forcing those with low incomes into desperate straits.

“We are in the midst of the worst rental affordability crisis that this country has known,” summarized Shaun Donovan, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The squeeze has forced more people into homelessness. Both Rhode Island and Massachusetts have been feeling the effects, with greater numbers flocking to homeless shelters rather than face rents of $1,000 or more. Last month in Rhode Island, people waited in line overnight for a chance to get on the waiting list for a federal rent voucher. More than 6,000 applications were handed out. Yet even for those lucky enough to make the list, actually getting a voucher could still take years.

The federal budget cuts known as sequestration hit housing hard, cutting the amount spent on rental subsidies.

In Rhode Island, state rental assistance, through the Neighborhood Opportunities Program, has fallen dramatically, from a peak of $7.5 million to just about $1 million a year.

In Massachusetts, one of the few states to offer emergency shelter to anyone who qualifies, spending on motels has soared, costing taxpayers more than $46 million over the past five years, The Boston Globe reports. The number of homeless people in the state shot up by nearly 14 percent between 2010 and last January, to 20,000.

Nationally, more than one in four renters spend more than half their income on housing. To be considered affordable, housing should typically consume no more than 30 percent of a household’s pretax income. The strain of paying more is especially severe for low-income families, who may be forced to cut back on food and other necessities to keep up.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, one of the tasks still before Congress is reshaping the housing market. The federal government currently plays an outsized role in home purchases, and must find a way to scale back its involvement. At the same time, as the Harvard report urgently demonstrates, it must find ways to improve rental opportunities. Tackling both sides of the housing coin should be a priority in the coming year.

Of course, Rhode Island, while helping the neediest, must focus on growing its economy. Jobs create money for housing, fill state tax coffers and help take the pressure off welfare spending.

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