Lifting The Curtain On Private Rental Housing In The U.S.

view from the air of downtown Atlanta Georgia taken in 1926
Bird's eye view of Atlanta, Georgia in 1926. Did the this older road layout set the stage for today's rental deserts?

Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) reports annually on the state of the  private rental housing market in the United States. Recent reports have coined a new term: ‘rental deserts.’ The term describes residential census tracts where the the amount of rental housing is less than 20% of all housing units.

Three researchers at Harvard have been looking into the connection between rental deserts and zoning regulations in the largest metropolitan areas across the country. The researchers aligned data about zoning with census information at a local level to make their analysis.

Their findings to date reveal significant relationships between zoning and rental deserts. There are specific characteristics of zoning that are more likely to co-occur with rental deserts. Some examples include large lots and side yards. Features that are consistent with rental housing — for example higher densities — occur more frequently with areas that are not rental deserts.

There are also variations. For example Atlanta’s neighbourhoods with rental housing  are dispersed throughout the city. In New York and Austin, Texas, the neighbourhoods with rental housing tend to be more concentrated in one part of the city.

If you have spent any time studying residential areas of North American cities, these patterns will probably not come as a surprise. You might be asking why anyone would bother looking into it. In fact, the potential for the research lies in pinning down what enables or prevents rental housing.

Rental housing occurs in relatively few residential census tracts. This means that renters have fewer choices about where to live, which in turn predicts their life outcomes and those of the people in their households. In effect, the relationship between zoning and rental deserts becomes an equity issue. Virtually all renters1 are unable to access any housing in large numbers of residential census tracts where zoning excludes rental housing development. This is significant in a country that places a high value on equal opportunity. The research is potentially important for decision makers, policy researchers, and advocates.

While the investigation is ongoing (and the findings are yet to be published in a paper), the researchers are comfortable in calling for reforms to zoning to make more land available for multi-family rental housing. They also emphasize that the single act of changing restrictive zoning codes will not solve the rental housing crisis in the United States.

Here are links to the presentation, which is posted on YouTube: Rental Deserts, Zoning, and Segregation: Evidence From the 100 Largest Metro Areas
and as well to the presentation slides, which are posted at the JCHS: Rental Deserts, Zoning, and Segregation: Evidence From the 100 Largest Metro Areas

The rental desert research is intended for local and national use in the US. The methodologies and the products mayalso be of interest to readers in other jurisdictions.


  1. Renters are more likely to be Black people, brown people and people of colour than white people.