The Daily Yonder Q&A: What Data Tells Us About Rural Housing Cost Burdens

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Lance George is the Housing Assistance Council’s director of research and information, an arm of that nonprofit which seeks to generate and improve access to reliable data about rural housing trends nationwide. Since 2020, a lot of airtime has been given to the rise of remote work and the subsequent relocation of urban professionals to smaller communities, as well as the complicated ramifications of the overheated housing market. I wanted to speak with George to get a better sense of how housing chaos has played out in rural spaces, and whether (or how) the major issues in small towns have actually changed, or actually stand apart from trends across the population-density-spectrum.

Enjoy our conversation about rural America’s loss of federally assisted affordable housing, the intersection of its growing racial diversity with increasing rental cost burdens, and the still-unknown effects of Covid-related demographic churn, below.

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: What was the outlook on rural housing issues prior to the start of the pandemic? What were the trends demanding most of your organization’s attention?

Lance George: Rural America and its housing issues have always been a microcosm of the nation’s larger housing conditions and dynamics. While there are some very unique elements to rural markets, housing affordability was probably the largest housing concern prior to the pandemic. Sometimes there is a misperception that housing costs are not as problematic in rural areas because housing prices are nominally lower. But pre-pandemic, some of the largest growth in housing cost burdens were in rural areas.

A second major concern pre-pandemic – that was also closely tied to affordability problems – was (and continues to be) the loss of federally assisted affordable housing in rural communities. In many rural areas these properties are among the only affordable rental housing. But for various business and market related reasons these developments are leaving the affordable housing market. These homes also serve some of rural America’s most vulnerable residents. As an example,  approximately two thirds of residents of USDA’s affordable rental properties are elderly and their average incomes are just above $13,000. These are households who literally and figuratively cannot afford to be displaced. We also know this trend continued and accelerated through the pandemic as chronicled in HAC’s research and report – Rural America is Losing Affordable Rental Housing at an Alarming Rate.

DY: How’d your focus shift throughout the past two years? Did any issues become more dire or more obvious?

LG: I like to say that HAC “helps” build homes and communities in rural America with “help” being the most important word. The community-based nonprofit organizations, municipalities and tribal entities do the real and important work of providing housing in their rural communities and HAC is there to assist them. So our immediate and most important response was to try and assist our nonprofit partners throughout the early tumultuous and “unknown-unknown” days of the pandemic. We quickly shifted our technical assistance and training, financial products, policy response and research to help meet their needs in such unprecedented times. HAC provided resources to bolster business continuity and assist these valuable entities to continue providing housing resources in their communities. While the pandemic is still present, we devoted an edition of HAC’s Rural Voices magazine to chronicling how Covid-19 Left Its Mark on Rural America and some of our partners’ responses, actions and innovations during the pandemic.

DY: I think most Americans, at this point, are familiar with the discourse about affordable housing, and in particular our country’s lack of it. Most of the coverage I’ve seen about the difficulties involved in building new housing – and especially non-luxury housing, which offers more of a profit incentive for builders – is focused on cities like New York and San Francisco. But what’s the housing stock like in small towns these days?

LG: As I noted before, I think many of the housing dynamics in rural America are very similar to the nation as whole. But there are some differences, and two major exceptions are rental housing and manufactured housing.

There is just a dearth of good quality and affordable rental housing in many rural communities that exacerbates housing challenges for renters. Rural renters tend to have lower incomes, less savings, fewer housing protections, and were more likely to have their jobs impacted by the pandemic. And we can see this in the occurrence of housing affordability problems. In the housing world, we use the term “Housing Cost-Burden” which means that a household spends more than 30 percent of their monthly income towards housing. The rate of housing cost-burden for rural renters is double that of owners and a larger share of rural renters pay more than half of their income towards housing costs.

Manufactured homes are an often overlooked and maligned component of our nation’s housing stock, but these homes are an important source of housing for millions of Americans, especially those with low incomes and in rural areas. Although the physical quality of manufactured housing continues to progress, the basic delivery system of how these homes are sold, financed, and managed is still in need of improvement to ensure that they are a viable and quality source of affordable housing. And while cost and convenience have been a hallmark of manufactured housing’s popularity, this type of housing has not been immune to the dramatic price increases we have seen across the housing spectrum during the pandemic. As an example, according to data from HUD, the average purchase price of a new manufactured home prior to the pandemic was about $86,000. Today, the average purchase price of a new manufactured home is roughly $123,000.

Source: HAC Tabulations of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Manufactured Home Survey

Finally, I think it is important to mention the longer (and short) term trend of how race and ethnicity matters in rural housing markets. Rural America is – and has traditionally been – more racially and ethnically homogenous than the nation as a whole. There is a wide degree of variation in the geography of race in rural America, but there is also an unequivocal trend that most rural communities are becoming more racially diverse. The changing racial and ethnic landscape has wide-reaching implications across social, economic, and housing trends for rural communities.

Similar to national characteristics, nonwhite rural households have substantially lower homeownership rates than white non-Hispanic households. Approximately 77 percent of rural and small town white non-Hispanics own their homes while only 55 percent of nonwhite households own their homes. Black rural households (51 percent) and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders (49 percent) are the least likely groups to own their homes. At the same time, rural nonwhite households are nearly 8 percent more likely to own their homes than non-whites in the nation as a whole. As such, geographic isolation and relative segregation continue to be important components of poverty and substandard housing in many rural communities. Addressing disparity in access to affordable and quality housing must specifically center systemically marginalized racial-ethnic populations.

DY: What’s your sense of how accurate the narratives about remote workers moving to rural places during the pandemic were? Do we have data yet about how widespread those trends are and where they’ve been concentrated?

The effects of the pandemic on the rural housing markets are — in some ways — yet to be seen. (Photo courtesy of Housing Development Alliance.)

LG: Candidly, it’s still murky. And some of this lack of clarity is that we just don’t have as robust market data for rural areas. But there is no doubt there was some ‘churn’ in the population during the pandemic. From HAC’s preliminary analysis of mortgage activity, rural areas did appear to have some of the largest gains in new home loans between 2020 and 2021.

However, there was variation in that activity. Rural communities with natural amenities, retirement destinations, or near major metropolitan areas had the highest activity, and much of this activity was concentrated with higher income borrowers and more expensive housing. These were trends that were already happening in mortgage markets, they just accelerated over the past couple of years.

I am convinced there will be longer-term implications from the pandemic that we are not realizing yet. For example, we are just now starting to see some housing impacts from the longer-term demographic trends that were precipitated by the 2008 housing crisis

So yes, the ‘jury is still out.’

DY: Obviously the economy and the costs of housing right now are major sources of stress for a lot of Americans, but are there any policy changes or economic trends giving you hope lately?

LG: Many Americans were buoyed by large scale federal unemployment benefits and economic stimulus. Some of that federal investment is still making its way into many rural communities, while other pandemic-related resources have ended. It is our hope that rural communities and rural households who need it most will get their share of these resources.

But most of my optimism comes from those community-based housing entities I mentioned earlier. These are some of the most dynamic, innovative, and resourceful entities you will find in this nation. And pandemic or not, they’ve always had their ‘heads into the wind.’ They, and the communities they serve, have always shown remarkable resilience and perseverance. These attributes – as well as recognition of the need for rural-focused strategies and policy solutions – will be needed in an equitable recovery.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.


HAC in the News

Congressional Hearing Focuses on the Potential of Manufactured Housing

HAC’s Director of Research, Lance George, was one of several witnesses to provide testimony at a hearing of the House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee on  Manufactured Housing: Supporting America’s Largest Unsubsidized Affordable Housing Stock. North Carolina news station WRAL covered the hearing and provided local perspective on the potential for manufactured housing to increase housing affordability in the region.

HAC in the News

How HAC Fills the Data Gap in Rural America

Filling The Data Gap In Rural America on highlights how HAC works to increase access to data about rural America to better address rural housing challenges and persistent poverty.

Over the years, there has been an increase in accurate data collection regarding rural America, and HAC has been at the forefront.

David Lipsetz Offers Perspective on Inflation and its Impact on Nonprofits

HAC President and CEO David Lipsetz was quoted in Inflation Hits Ability of Nonprofits to Provide Services, Keep Workers — and Raise Money, an article by Dan Parks at the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The piece examines how inflationary pressures are affecting nonprofits and their ability to operate.

“It’s stalled countless projects for us, right in the middle of a period of time when housing and shelter are the most important things needed to weather the storm of a pandemic,” says Lipsetz. “For us, a modest increase in costs can shut down a project in an area of the country where it’s needed the most.”

Read the full story.


The story also appeared in:

HAC in the News

HAC’s Lance George Discusses Housing Affordability and Tourism with NPR Washington

In an interview on the Soundside podcast, Lance George, HAC’s Director of Research and Information, speaks about the importance of affordable housing not only in high amenity rural communities, but in rural communities throughout the U.S. He stresses that housing affordability has been an ongoing problem that is only getting worse and argues that comprehensive community-based solutions are needed to address the issue.

“It’s a misperception that rural communities should be more affordable or shouldn’t have affordability challenges and pressures that you’re know seeing. In fact, housing affordability has always been the challenge in rural communities, as well as urban communities.”

HAC in the News

CIRD Work Featured by New Hampshire Newspaper

Representatives of the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, a leadership initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Housing Assistance Council, drew attention from the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel when they toured an area in Keene, New Hampshire targeted to become an arts corridor.

National Rural-Design Agency Advising Keene on Proposed Arts Corridor

by Caleb Symons

November 22, 2021

The mural needed a second look.

Sylvie Rice, a volunteer with the Historical Society of Cheshire County, had pointed out that Abraham Lincoln’s profile is deliberately etched into the clouds of an otherwise colonial-era scene on Church Street in downtown Keene. In unison, the small group of local arts promoters and rural-development advisers craned their necks to better see the 16th president.

HAC in the News

HAC’s Research featured on Marketplace Morning Report

Lance George, HAC’s Director of Research and Information, contributed his expertise to a segment on the Marketplace Morning ReportFor unincorporated communities, limited ways to regulate housing examines the challenges high amenity communities like Joshua Tree, California have with rental housing affordability. Lance offered a national perspective on factors that contribute to these challenges.

The Daily Yonder: USDA Seeks Equity in Housing…

The Daily Yonder reports from the 2021 HAC National Rural Housing Conference on President & CEO David’s Lipsetz’s interview with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

USDA Seeks Equity in Housing, Less Extractive Rural Economies, Secretary of Ag Says

by Kristi Eaton
December 1, 2021

According to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is incorporating an equity commission to review its activities, a move meant to provide greater equality and fairness in a department that has not always lived up to that.

Vilsack was interviewed during the 2021 National Rural Housing Conference. Put on by the Housing Assistance Council (HAC), a national nonprofit that supports affordable housing efforts throughout rural America, it provides below-market financing for affordable housing and community development, technical assistance and training, research and information, and policy formulation.

HAC in the News

Successful Farming – Rural America, Mostly White, is Becoming More Diverse

Successful Farming highlighted research from HAC and the Brookings Institute focused on diversity in rural America.

Three-quarters of rural Americans are white, a larger proportion than the roughly six in 10 for the nation overall, but the rural population is becoming more diverse, said a pair of analyses of Census data. The rural America of the future will be increasingly diverse and not as politically conservative as many assume, said the Brookings Institution…

“The overall rural population between 2010 and 2020 would have declined substantially if not for growth in its Hispanic population,” three researchers from the Housing Assistance Council said in the Daily Yonder. Hispanics make up 10.4% of the rural population and Blacks make up 7.4%. People of two or more races make up 4% of the rural population, and Native Americans are 2%, twice the national rate.

The Housing Assistance Council researchers said, “Despite advances made through the civil rights movement, labor struggles, and increased self-determination, the experiences and conditions of non-white rural residents and communities are often overlooked given their relatively small populations.”

HAC in the News

HAC lends expertise to profile of rural housing affordability challenges in Joshua Tree

Lance George, HAC’s Director of Research and Information, provided his rural housing expertise to Short-Term Rentals and High-End Buyers Wipe Out Affordable Housing in Joshua Tree, Say Residents, a recent article from The Daily Yonder. The piece profiles residents and housing advocates in Joshua Tree, California as they struggle to find affordable housing options in their community.

Michel Cicero has hardly taken a day off work since July 7, 2020. On that day she was paddleboarding at Big Bear Lake with friends but had to leave early because her phone was ringing off the hook, she said. “It hasn’t stopped since.”

Cicero is a real estate agent in Landers, California, which borders the community of Joshua Tree, adjacent to the national park. She has seen firsthand the disruption the pandemic has created in the real estate market. The length of her selling season doubled. In an area where single-offer home sales were the norm, multiple buyers started making offers—often of the all-cash variety—on each sale, raising prices and severely depleting housing stock…



“You add all of those dynamics together and you could get a really accelerated housing crisis among low- and moderate-income households that don’t have the money to buy homes.”