Housing takes a toll on America’s health. Tenants might have mold in their walls that impacts the air they breathe. Parents might live far from parks where they can go for a run or play with their kids, and families might not be able to find fresh fruits and vegetables within walking distance. But the most pressing issue for many is paying the increasingly unaffordable rent. This is not just an economic hardship. Our research shows that rising rent costs and evictions have important consequences for the risk of premature death.
In a study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, we show that the high cost of housing increases American renters’ risk of death. Chances of premature death are even higher when you are not able to keep up with the rent and are evicted. Building on our groundbreaking collaboration with the U.S. Census Bureau, we analyzed millions of records to understand the direct link between rent burden, eviction, and mortality for people who are paying the price for our housing crisis.
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Nick Graetz, Carl Gershenson, Sonya R. Porter, Danielle H. Sandler, Emily Lemmerman, and Matthew Desmond
Over the last several decades, rents have steadily increased while wages have remained stagnant. The result is that a growing share of renters—especially poor renters—are rent burdened, paying more than 30% of their income for housing. In 2019, four in every five renter households with incomes below $30,000 were rent-burdened. This situation only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, as rents increased at the fastest rate ever recorded.
Why might rent burden or eviction affect someone’s health? As rents rise, families cut back on other spending, including on essentials for health and well-being. For example, poor households with children who are moderately rent-burdened (devoting 30-50% of income to rent) spend 57% less on healthcare and 17% less on food compared to unburdened households. At least in part, households prioritize paying rent over other essential spending out of fear that non-payment could lead to an eviction. Eviction, in turn, is associated with a host of negative repercussions for physical and mental health. But until now, no one has conclusively demonstrated that exposure to rent burden or to eviction is associated with higher risk of death.
To do so, we created a unique dataset in which we followed individual renters from the year 2000 onwards. Using responses to the 2000 decennial Census, we could tell how much of their income they were spending on rent. We found that higher levels of rent burden were associated with significantly higher levels of death.
Controlling for a large set of individual, household, neighborhood, and state characteristics, someone paying 50% of their income toward rent in 2000 was 9% more likely to die over the next twenty years compared with someone paying 30% of their income toward rent. Someone paying 70% of their income toward rent was 12% more likely to die. These effects were more pronounced for men, especially Black and Hispanic men.
We also wanted to explore the impact of rent increases over time. To do so, we followed a sample of renters from 2000 for up to a decade, observing how the amount of income they were devoting to rent changed. Many experienced a decline in rent burden, but not all of them. Especially among poor renters, increases in rent burden were quite common. For example, among poor renters spending 30-49% of income on rent in 2000, nearly half (45%) experienced an increase of 20 percentage points or more in rent burden a decade later.
These hikes to rent burden were consistently associated with a higher risk of death. Compared to someone whose rent burden did not change, we found that a 10 percentage point increase in rent burden was associated with 8% higher risk of death, again controlling for a large set of characteristics. A 20 percentage point increase was linked to 16% higher mortality.
If paying an excess amount for rent can increase your chances of dying early, an eviction can be a fatal blow. We used the records of millions of eviction court cases filed between 2000 and 2016 to understand the impact of such events on renters’ health. Simply being threatened with an eviction—even when that case did not result in an eviction judgment—was associated with a 19% increase in mortality. Receiving an eviction judgment was associated with a 40% increase in the risk of death.
Most evictions occurred within highly marginalized renter populations where mortality rates were already very high. However, even when we restricted our analyses to the most disadvantaged renters—those estimated to be at highest risk of experiencing an eviction—we still found that eviction was associated with a significant increase in mortality.
These concerning results point to a number of solutions. While increased rent burden is associated with significantly higher mortality, the inverse is also true: paying a smaller share of income toward rent—or seeing that share drop over time—reduces your risk of dying. The supply of affordable housing in the United States has declined over time. Our findings suggest that public policies designed to tackle that problem—such as rental vouchers, small-dollar mortgages, and expansion of low-income housing development incentives—may lead to significant improvements in public health. When renters aren’t forced to choose between the rent and their well-being, they live longer, healthier lives.
Likewise, our finding that eviction cases result in increased risk of death provides further evidence of the harms inflicted by the eviction process and highlights the need to reduce eviction rates. Emergency rental assistance, eviction diversion, and legal aid programs that can help people avoid evictions have the potential to save lives. Our finding that eviction filings—regardless of case disposition—result in higher mortality indicates the need to enact policies that can reduce filing rates, such as extended notice periods and higher eviction filing fees. Given that Black and Hispanic families disproportionately rent their homes and are disproportionately filed against for eviction, these policies may also help reduce racial disparities in health and mortality.