The housing lottery game

project homes

The odds of finding a reasonably affordable place to live shouldn't rank on par with the odds of winning the lottery, but in many areas of the country, rents outpace incomes so quickly that the odds aren't in a lot of families' favor.

So says Erika Poethig of the Urban Institute think tank. And this isn't just about having a roof over your kids' head. Families that spend too much on rent end up spending less on vital things like, ya know, food -- kicking off a domino effect of a downward spiral.

How bad is the housing problem? One in four families eligible for affordable housing assistant actually get the help.

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Yeah, you've heard the qualms about rent, gentrification and more. But get some numbers on it. This isn't, say, a pricey New York City or San Francisco problem. In suburban Atlanta's Cobb County, for instance, there are more than 20,000 households that need this kind of rental help. There are only 564 "affordable and available" units. Others high up on the lack of resources list: Ft. Myers, Fla., and Austin, Texas.

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We're talking about some of the lowest earners in the country here. Households considered in "extreme poverty" take in less than 30 percent of the local median income -- which is about $7,500 to $33,000, depending on where you live, according to Poethig.

Approximately 11 million families fall into that median range. And there are only 3.2 million housing units those folks would find affordable nation-wide -- affordable meaning that they don't spend more than 30 percent of the income on housing, or that the housing is, at least, decent.

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Or, look at it this way: 4.56 million -- or just about 24% of 19 million households who are eligible for some kind of housing assistance actually get the help they need. We're talking all of the households who fall under poverty guidelines, not just those in the most "extreme" poverty.

Finding millions more apartments for families in need isn't easy, considering landlords who need to pay their taxes and expenses — not to mention the tightness of the rental market for even those who can afford a place. The rents are all too damn high.

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