All the Single Ladies … Shouldn’t Struggle to Pay Rent

Single women—particularly single women of color—are far more likely than single men to be severely cost-burdened by housing.

An apartment for rent in St. Paul, Minn. Single women in 50 major cities across the nation spend 124 percent more of their income on rent than their male counterparts. (Michael Siluk / UCG / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Chantelle Mitchell knows the fear of living paycheck to paycheck and constantly worrying about making rent. She is the primary parent to five children, three of whom are under the age of 18, and lives in Charleston, S.C.—a city where you can make $58,900 a year and still be considered low-income.

Each week is a battle to ensure that she has enough to pay rent, settle bills and feed her family. Mitchell spends 95 percent of her income on rent, far exceeding the 30 percent threshold that defines someone as being cost-burdened by housing. Occasionally, a child support check provides temporary relief, allowing her to buy groceries and other necessities, but she cannot rely on it consistently.

Too often, Mitchell must make impossible choices between paying the rent or feeding her family.

Paying the rent or filling her car up.

Paying the rent or buying necessities.

Mitchell’s story is all too familiar to many women across the country. While the high cost of rent hurts everyone, the pain is not equally distributed. Single women, and particularly single women of color, are far more likely than single men to be severely cost-burdened by housing, which means spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs—a disparity that worsens for single mothers.

There are several reasons why single women are more likely to be cost-burdened than men. One of the primary factors are systemic economic challenges that women face: Women earn only 84 cents for every dollar a man earns, and this wage gap is even more pronounced for many women of color.

The lack of affordable childcare or a national paid leave policy also disproportionately impacts women. Women are more likely than men to assume the role of unpaid caregiver for their children or loved ones. Taking on these roles results in more time off from work, which cuts into their potential earnings and makes it significantly harder for women to achieve financial stability.

Women also constitute two-thirds of the workforce in the 40 lowest-paying jobs, and there’s a severe supply gap of affordable housing available to people with the lowest incomes. In most U.S. cities, to rent a modest two-bedroom home at a fair market rate, without becoming cost-burdened, a full-time worker must make $28.58 per hour, or $23.57 per hour for a one-bedroom unit—making it nearly impossible for women to afford rent without being cost-burdened. This forces many single mothers to rent a home that is above their means, leading them to spend most of their take home pay on rent.

Guaranteeing safe, affordable housing is one of the best ways to help build women’s financial stability.

Frida Villalobos, the communication director for Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia, is a single mom to a 7-year-old. The two sit on their front steps in Houston on May 6, 2020. (Karen Warren / Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

When a woman spends the majority of her paycheck on rent, she has little left for other necessities such as food, childcare and healthcare. Without any financial cushion, she is precariously close to missing rent due to a single missed paycheck or unexpected financial emergency, putting her at risk of eviction.

An eviction filing—even if it never leads to an actual eviction—can appear on background checks run by future landlords. Having a filing on one’s record increases the likelihood that their housing application will be rejected in the future, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Mitchell understands all too well the consequences of an eviction. A few years ago, she and her family were evicted—a traumatic experience that marked the beginning of a period of instability for her and her children. Chantelle now lives in fear that one missed rent payment could result in another eviction, upending her family’s life once more.

Single women deserve so much better than this. Housing is a basic human need, and with the litany of other factors that keep women from reaching their economic potential, it becomes even more obvious that guaranteeing safe, affordable housing is one of the best ways to help build women’s financial stability.

One important solution is creating permanent emergency rental assistance programs to help families in financial crisis. The federal government created one such program during the pandemic, which helped prevent a catastrophic wave of evictions by providing people with the much-needed emergency rental assistance during the financial crisis. These payments, as well as eviction diversion programs, helped families keep a roof over their heads.

Despite the success of this program, funds have since run out or expired. Passing a permanent program would be an important step toward addressing our affordability crisis and reducing homelessness, a win-win scenario that benefits all of us. Increasing tenant protections will also right-size the balance of power between tenants and landlords, increasing housing security for women, LGBTQIA+ people and families.

Ensuring that families can stay in their homes is one of the most basic and vital roles government can play in strengthening our economy. For women like Chantelle Mitchell, it’s also a crucial step toward helping them get ahead in an economy that often does not work in their favor.

We know what works: Rental assistance programs and tenant protections are evidence-based solutions that help women, LGBTQIA+ people and families stay in their homes during financial crises, which in turn, strengthens our economy and helps our communities thrive.

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Talia Grossman is the housing legal fellow at the National Women’s Law Center, where she advocates to improve the lives of women, LGBTQIA+ people and families and ensure that everyone has a safe, accessible and affordable place to call home. She has a B.A. from American University and a J.D. from DePaul University College of Law.