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Cityscape: Volume 13 Number 2 | Chapter 5


The goal of Cityscape is to bring high-quality original research on housing and community development issues to scholars, government officials, and practitioners. Cityscape is open to all relevant disciplines, including architecture, consumer research, demography, economics, engineering, ethnography, finance, geography, law, planning, political science, public policy, regional science, sociology, statistics, and urban studies.

Cityscape is published three times a year by the Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Rental Housing Policy in the United States

Volume 13 Number 2

Mark D. Shroder

Michelle P. Matuga

Understanding and Mitigating Rental Risk

Todd Sinai. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the National, Bureau of Economic Research

As with the articles in this issue, this introduction reflects the views of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.


The decision of whether to rent or own a home should involve an evaluation of the relative risks and the relative costs of the two options. It is often assumed that renting is less risky than homeownership, but that is not always the case. Which option is riskier depends on the risk source and household characteristics.

This article provides a framework for understanding the sources of risk for renters. It outlines the most important determinants of risk: volatility in the total cost of obtaining housing, changes in housing costs after a move, and the correlation of rents with incomes. The article characterizes the magnitudes of those risks and discusses how the effects of risk vary across renter types and U.S. metropolitan areas. In addition, the article shows that renters spend less of their cash flow on housing than do otherwise equivalent owners and, thus, are better able to absorb housing cost risk

Finally, potential policy approaches to rental housing that avoid increasing rent risk are discussed. A simple way to maintain renters’ capacity to absorb rent risk is to avoid subsidies that result in an incentive to consume a larger rental housing quantity. Targeting rental subsidies to more mobile households or those living in low-volatility cities, where renting is less risky, should be considered. Long-term leases would provide an intermediate position between renting annually and owning but are currently rare.

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