The Affordable Housing Crisis Is Destroying Relationships and Families | Opinion

Susan, a call center employee, moved in with her boyfriend, Eugene, after they had been dating for just over two months. "We couldn't afford to live by ourselves," she explained. Eugene, who worked two jobs, was barely breaking even, although he split rent with a male roommate. Adding Susan to the household was no one's first choice, but they all understood it was financially what they needed to do.

Susan and Eugene's situation illustrates the predicament that an increasing number of working- and lower-middle class young adults are facing. Runway housing prices and skyrocketing rental costs mean that everyday Americans are struggling to find safe, affordable places to live. Home prices are almost 20 percent more expensive and rents 15 percent higher than they were just a year ago. And the challenge of keeping a roof over one's head will impact family formation for years to come.

In an interview for a sociological study on cohabitating couples, Susan and Eugene both made clear that living together outside of marriage was neither desirable nor sanctioned by their belief systems. But the financial realities of daily living made any other choice impossible. A surprising number of couples who participated in the interviews—half of the working class and almost a quarter of the middle class—moved in together within six months of the first date.

Some couples had moved in even earlier, some within a week of meeting. Their primary reason? Not love or the desire to spend more time together, but housing woes: A roommate abandoning them mid-lease, or crime in the female partner's neighborhood often precipitates a move-in with a romantic partner. Housing stress motivates even couples like Susan and Eugene, who would prefer to remain living apart.

But moving in together so rapidly often has ripple effects for a young couple. Some rapidly realize that their new romantic partners and already existing roommates have very different values or expectations when it comes to shared living. Others discover a partner's substance abuse or domestic violence makes shared living clearly untenable. Still others unexpectedly conceive, something relatively common among co-habitors. And the pregnancy cements what may be a less-than ideal relationship.

But given the cost of housing, couples that are poorly matched are often unable to move apart. The inability to save for a new place while also paying the current rent can lead not only to growing family strife but to a lack of opportunities to find more suitable partners.

Unfortunately, things are unlikely to improve for young couples and families any time soon. The United States has a shortage of more than 7 million affordable homes. One in four (10.8 million) renter households have extremely low income and cannot afford rent. In fact, the 2021 national housing wage—how much a full-time worker would need to make to be able to afford a modest, two-bedroom apartment—is $24.90 per hour. That's a full $17.65 more than the national minimum wage. In other words, housing is quite simply unaffordable and inaccessible for many Americans.

Governmental programs exist, of course, to help provide housing to families who are well below the poverty line or median local income. But, given the shortage of housing even for those who meet these qualifications, families who are barely keeping their heads above water have very low odds of receiving support.

Given that solutions to such a thorny problem are complicated, interventions on multiple levels are necessary. A growing tech sector could help provide both corporate and personal solutions. With their increasingly high tolerance for a mobile workforce, companies like Apple and Amazon could expand their commitments to provide affordable housing for their employees far beyond the Bay Area. And novel solutions, such as a Tinder-like app for matching with quality prospective roommates, might assist young adults to better afford safe places to live using a format they're already familiar with.

Finally, given that nearly three-fourths of Americans say they support investing in affordable housing, the government should pursue programs such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development's House America campaign and policies that consider housing as an essential part of our country's infrastructure.

Overall, our message to politicians and corporations is this: Continue supporting affordable housing. Doing so not only helps individuals avoid homelessness, but helps create and support strong families.

When families have access to affordable housing they are less likely to experience food insecurity and eviction. Additionally, their children are more likely to have better educational attainment and improved economic mobility. Having access to affordable housing can also mean better health outcomes. What's more, the benefits are greater the earlier in life people can access quality housing. As professional sociologists, we know these benefits may compound across generations, meaning that even the children and grandchildren of those who grow up in affordable housing will be better off.

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Desperate for housing, Los Angeles is allowing more housing projects near polluted freeways amid the West Coast homeless crisis. Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

In an ideal world, Susan and Eugene would have been able to afford to live separately, continuing to get to know one another and making plans for the future. But at the moment, contemplating such "big questions" seems unlikely. As Eugene explained, "She's working about 50 or 60 hours a week and I'm working around 60 and it's really hard to think about really anything else other than working and paying the bills."

With affordable housing, Susan and Eugene would be able to pay off her college loans, spend quality time together, and start saving for the future. Their extended family relationships would be stronger, with less pressure from their parents to stop "living in sin." They could even begin to plan the wedding they hope to have in a couple of years, with children to follow. In short, affordable housing would help this loving couple—and many others like them—build the strong future they deserve and desire.

Amanda Jayne Miller is a Professor of Sociology and Director of Faculty Development at the University of Indianapolis. Her book (with co-author Sharon Sassler), Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships, won the 2018 William J Good Book Award for Family Sociology. Currently, she is working on a long-term follow up of working and middle class cohabiting couples. She is a Public Voices Fellow through the OpEd Project.

Colleen Wynn, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Sociology, Co-Director of the Community Research Center, and a Provost's Fellow at the University of Indianapolis. She is a Public Voices Fellow through the OpEd Project.

The views in this article are the writers' own.