Shacoma Wilton-Waddell always thought she’d be a homeowner by now.
Instead, the 41-year-old clinician at a domestic abuse shelter in Tucson, Arizona, was forced to downgrade from a two-bedroom to a one-bedroom rental apartment last month.
“It has been a nightmare. I have moved multiple times. I’m seeing some of the same units in the same properties rent for double the price, and nothing has changed as far as the aesthetic,” she said. “It’s not like they’re adding amenities and upgrading the units. They’re literally just changing the price according to what’s happening in the market.”
For Wilton-Waddell and millions of other renters across America, soaring housing costs have them not only reassessing their housing situation but also their political allegiance just weeks before the Nov. 8 midterm election that will determine which party controls Congress and governor’s mansions across the nation.
Politicians could have helped, she said, by pushing for caps on rental increases when corporations began buying up and renting apartment complexes and increasing rents so drastically that tenants had to move out because they could no longer afford it.
As inflation remains high, Wilton-Waddell, who is a registered Democrat, says she is disillusioned with politicians of both parties.
“At this point, I don’t even care about voting. I don’t feel like it makes a difference how I vote,” she told USA TODAY. “I could vote for a paper bag and I’m gonna have the same results. I don’t have any faith in the system.”
Shelter costs, which make up the largest component of the Consumer Price Index — the leading measure of inflation — rose 0.7% in September, the same as in August and the biggest monthly jump since 1991.
In Tucson, where Wilton-Waddell lives, rents have risen by 39% since March 2020, the third fastest metro-level rent growth in the country, according to data from Apartment List. In fact, 15 metro areas nationwide have experienced average rent increases of more than 30% since the start of the pandemic — and renters are struggling.
Not paying attention to renters’ concerns could be costly for politicians during the midterm elections, especially in battleground states. Four of the top 10 metro areas experiencing rent hikes are in Florida, two are in Arizona.
Half of respondents (54%) to a recent Bipartisan Policy Center/Morning Consult poll said they have experienced an increase in their rent, mortgage, or utility payments over the past 12 months – with urban respondents (60%) and renters (65%) more likely to report an increase in their housing expenses.
Historically, voter turnout among renters has been significantly lower than homeowner participation in elections.
In the 2016 presidential election, for instance, only 49% of eligible voters among renters cast a ballot, compared to 67% of homeowners, according to an analysis by Apartment List based on data from the American National Election Studies.
Mobilizing renter vote nationally could have crucial implications for the midterm elections, says Chris Salviati, a senior housing economist for Apartment List, especially because the rising housing costs have had a significantly divergent impact on homeowners and renters. While the past couple of years have been a crisis in terms of housing costs for renters, homeowners have seen their net worth balloon.
“Renters are definitely an underrepresented population,” he said. “I think there is some potential for candidates to speak to this issue and offer potential solutions that could stimulate turnout among renters.”
In March 2020, Wilton-Waddell was paying $995 per month for a two-bedroom apartment in Tucson. The property was soon bought up by an investment company which let the complex fall into disrepair by paying no attention to maintenance. When her lease was up for renewal, she was told her rent would be bumped up by $200 per month. She refused to sign it.
But that was just the beginning. She now pays $1,355 for a one-bedroom apartment. A two-bedroom in the area now rents for $1,700 without utilities.
Wilton-Waddell who works as a clinician at a domestic abuse shelter, said her mental health has suffered, and she constantly lives with a fear of becoming “houseless.”
“I was extremely stressed, and I was having issues depression and anxiety,” she said.
In battleground Georgia, where highly competitive races for governor (between GOP Incumbent Brian Kemp and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams) and Senate (between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and GOP challenger Herschel Walker) have gripped the nation’s attention, many of the renters who spoke with USA TODAY were despondent.
Some said skyrocketing rent costs have given them a new political perspective as the election approaches.
Aubrey McInnis, of Athens, says she hasn’t decided whom she’ll support in the 2022 midterms, but that she is looking for candidates at the state and federal level who support policies that protect tenants and the homeless.
“It’s totally different for me now, especially when I see that there’s nothing to support us,” she says.
McInnis, 46, said a Florida-based firm, called Prosperity Capital Partners, purchased the apartment building she had lived at for 13 years.
In July, the company informed her the monthly fee for her 3-bedroom and 2-bathroom condominium was rising from $875 to $1,695.
As a result, McInnis said, she was homeless for about a week until she moved in with her son a few weeks ago. She and other tenants were outraged, and joined social justice organizers in demonstrating against the increases and lobbying local leaders for policy changes.
Lower-income Georgians should be mindful about the lack of tenant protections against enormous hikes when heading to the polls this November, she said.
“Never in a million years would I imagine I would be homeless from this type of situation,” McInnis says.
But other Georgians hunting for an affordable place to stay or struggling to keep up with current housing prices say they could care less about who wins in November.
“What am I going to vote for? They going to do what they want to do, and I still got to figure out how I’m going to survive out here,” says Donna Wright, 57, of Atlanta, a former forklift driver who now works at McDonald’s.
“I don’t give a damn who wins just like they don’t give a damn about me,” she added. “Because if I vote and, let’s say I vote for Stacey (Abrams), that don’t mean she going to put me in somewhere to live,” she said. “I still got to figure this stuff out by myself. ”
Wright said her rent started at $500 and jumped to $1,500 in January.
Wright says she would have to work an additional 2-3 jobs to afford that and she’s looking to get out. Rents are rising sharply in Georgia’s largest city, where the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment jumped from $1,450 in April 2021 to $1,710 in August 2022, according to Zumper.
Donna Kent, of Athens, said when she called her landlord in August to pay her rent and was told it was going from $1,200 to $2,300. She said as a mother of three children and a full-time student she felt like a failure when faced with a 95% rent hike.
“We’ve had to deal with rats, infestation of roaches and rotted windows,” says Kent. “So the rent is going up, but the properties are not worth what we’re paying.”
As far as the upcoming midterms are concerned, facing homelessness with three children means her mind isn’t on the election. She said state and federal leaders could have capped rent hikes to protect the poorest Georgians.
Renters represent almost one in three potential voters, or 30.2% of the eligible voting population, according to a 2018 analysis by Apartment List’s Salviati.
But they often don’t show up at the polls: Less than a third – 29% – of those casting ballots in 2016 lived in renter-occupied housing cast ballots compared to 52% of those living in owner-occupied housing, the analysis found.
There are several reasons: a larger share of the renter population is ineligible to vote. Nearly four of five homeowners are voting-age citizens compared to three of every five tenants. And renters are simply less politically engaged: an estimated 67% of eligible homeowners voted in 2016, compared to just 49% of eligible renters.
“This disparity in political activity is at least partly attributable to the fact that homeowners have a large financial interest in policies that could affect local property values, creating an additional incentive to vote that is not present for renters,” the analysis concluded. “Although this incentive for voting comes from the local level, its impact ripples through to national politics.”
Low turnout on Nov. 8 is probably bad news for Democrats given that renters tend to be disproportionately people of color and those with lower incomes, demographic groups that generally support the left.
And they lean more Democratic compared to homeowners, the study confirmed.
In 2016, Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by a margin of 6 percentage points among homeowners, but Clinton won the renter vote by 30 points, the Apartment List analysis found.
For good reason. Democrats have generally pushed policies aimed at helping renters more than Republicans have.
Biden’s roughly $1.75 trillion Build Back Better package the Democratic-led House approved in November on a largely party-line vote included $25 billion in housing choice vouchers to help renters afford their housing option.
But the bill died in the 50-50 Senate after Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona joined every Republican in opposing the measure due to its size.
In 2020, during the pandemic, however, the Trump administration imposed an eviction moratorium aimed at helping renters. After extending it once, the Biden administration sought to do it again, before the Supreme Court blocked a second extension last year.
For many North Carolinians, rent is among the most important issues on the ballot in the upcoming election, including for Reginia Mays, a former Democrat turned independent living in Durham.
Mays, 43, was evicted from her home in 2016 when she was unable a afford a $400 hike in her rent. She turned to subsidized housing – something she qualified for only after becoming homeless, a fate she’s seen many other Carolinians face.
Having worked as a housing community activist with nonprofits since 2017, she says housing is a key voting issue for her and wants to vote for candidates based on platform regardless of party.
But people in her community are often conflicted about voting, she says.
“It’s like this sense of loss and hope, and I hear it throughout my community so much,” she says. “They say our voice matters but it don’t and nothing’s going to change in our favor.”
Encouraging others to vote, especially the 18- to 24-year-old range, is a priority for her, she says.
“Because some of the things that get voted on today will not show the effects until they hit their 30s and 40s,”she says.
Jordan Madnick, 33, a Florida independent from the Miami metro area who currently lives with his father, says he’s attempted to buy a home or rent one for several years.
“A one-bedroom should be no more than a $1,400 (per month) but you can’t find anything for under $2,000 unless it’s in a neighborhood where you’d be robbed,” he says. “It’s a scam. Corporate investors keep buying up the properties and jacking up the rates. There is no rent control here.”
Madnick, who works as a technician at the Palm Beach County School district and makes about $50,000 in income says he’s disenchanted with politics and is unsure if he’ll even vote this year.
“There’s no government here anymore,” he says. “They’re supposed to stop this. It basically like what Amazon did, they (corporate investors) bought all their competition and put ’em outta business.”
Rising home prices in Phoenix have prompted many landlords to sell their properties in the past two years, forcing longtime tenants to find new rentals, says Neil Brooks, a real estate agent in the area.
“The tenants are getting booted out and all of a sudden they can’t find another property that’s affordable,” he says. “Because they were paying $700 a month, then they find out that they can’t get in anything for under $1,800 a month.”
Brooks, a navy veteran who works with many former service members, has seen this happen to many of them.
“So then they’re faced with either living in a tent on the street or living in a short-stay hotel until they can try and figure something out,” he says. “A lot of them don’t have the resources and don’t have the internet savvy to figure out subsidized housing.”
Even if state policies have a larger role to play when it comes to affordable housing, Brooks says he doesn’t see many veterans blaming the Republican-controlled state government.
“They blame Joe Biden for the inflation,” he says.
One of the most outrageous aspects of being a renter in the past two years has been paying hefty application fees each time you’re interested in a property, says Wilton-Waddell of Tucson.
For her most recent apartment, she paid a $50 application fee and $200 administrative fee. But the competition leaves no choice.
“As soon as they come on the market, people are not even scheduling viewings, they’re immediately applying. So it is kind of like, dogs fighting for a scrap of food,” she says. “So a lot of places are taking advantage of renters who are desperate because they’ll post their property and allow it to sit on there, even though they have multiple applications because they’re taking tenants application fees.”
Wilton-Waddell earns close to $50,000, almost $20,000 more than she earned in 2007, but her standard of living has not improved.
Reverting back to a one-bedroom has been especially hard.
“As someone in their forties, it made me feel good to have at least an extra bedroom if I wanted have a guest and not feel embarrassed because you feel like, ‘Oh, you know, you should have a house by the time you’re in your forties’,” she says. “But now, I can’t even afford a spare bedroom.”