For families that earn less than 30 percent of the median area income, buying a house is often out of the question. And for these low-income households, finding a place to rent can also be a struggle, the Urban Institute has reported.
Not a single county in the nation offered enough affordable housing to keep up with its extremely low-income renters, the organization said. In the Baltimore region, some counties have fewer available units than the national average of 28 units available for every 100 renter households.
In Baltimore County, there are 22 units for every 100 households with extremely low income, defined as $25,700 for a family of four in 2013. In Baltimore, there are 43 units available per 100 such households.
"That means those other families are probably getting by living in inadequate housing, perhaps no plumbing, mold, just not good conditions. That's one of the consequences," said Erika Poethig, the study's lead analyst. "Additionally, their rent is going way beyond what they can afford for shelter — they're forgoing food and education, they're compromising their health."
Supply is falling further behind demand, the Urban Institute reported. While the number of households in need of adequate and affordable rental units jumped 38 percent from 2000 to 2013, the organization says, the number of units available grew just 7 percent.
In 2000, there were 30,319 units in Baltimore for 52,230 households. By 2013, there were 23,402 units for 54,654 households — a shortfall of more than 31,000 units.
"What's happening is that we have a supply of affordable rental housing that is either declining in some communities or not keeping pace in others," Poethig said. "Baltimore County and Baltimore City are highly dependent on federal resources to provide affordability for these families and their private market is not adding any housing that these families can afford."
Extremely low-income families are relying increasingly on assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Fifty-seven percent relied on HUD in 2000, according to the Urban Institute; 80 percent relied on HUD in 2013.
Without federal housing assistance, Baltimore would have only one affordable and adequate unit per 100 extremely low-income city households, the organization says. In Baltimore County, there would be none.
"Without vital federal rental assistance, the magnitude of this problem would be much greater," the organization said. "Simply put, virtually no affordable housing units would be available to [extremely low-income] households absent the continued investment in federally assisted rental housing."
Poethig noted the many houses in the Baltimore area lost to vacancy or abandonment.
HUD spokeswoman Niki Edwards said about 10,000 public housing units nationwide are lost a year, mainly to disrepair. She said HUD is working to preserve such housing.
"For each unit of affordable housing we can preserve … there is a family that has a safe and decent place to call home," Edwards wrote in an email. "It's clear that in an environment in which public resources will never be able to meet the increasing unmet capital needs of public housing, government must tap into the power of the private market to preserve and expand our affordable housing stock."
Poethig called the housing affordability gap a "solvable problem" but said it will require coordination between local, state and federal officials.
"The challenge is that our federal housing policies are not keeping pace with population changes and market conditions," she said. "We're on an unsustainable path, and these families will only continue to feel the pinch if we don't take some kind of action."