Earning $40,000 a year in Omaha used to be enough to make rent comfortably. Not anymore.

Housing costs are slipping out of reach for the middle class in smaller and medium-size cities across the U.S., the latest sign that the affordability crisis that started on the coasts is moving inland, according to research released on Friday by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

From 2011 to 2018, the proportion of households making $30,000 to $45,000 a year that were “cost-burdened” -- paying more than 30% of their income on rent -- soared the most in metros including Nashville, Tennessee; Greenville, South Carolina; and McAllen, Texas.

Omaha came in ninth on the list, a worse showing than San Francisco or New York, which showed relatively little change over the period despite having notoriously pricey housing markets.

The data highlight a harsh reality of the U.S. economy a decade into the longest expansion on record: For people who don’t make big salaries, there are fewer and fewer affordable places to go.

“The lowest-income people have always had an absurdly high cost of living,” said Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, a research associate at the Center and lead author of the report. “But the affordability crisis that we’re seeing now is hitting middle-income renters, and it’s hitting them across the country.”

High-Income Renters

Overall, the report showed that about 48% of all renters were cost burdened in 2018, representing more than 20 million Americans -- a slight improvement from 51% in 2011, when the share peaked in the years following the 2008 recession.

While cost-burdens continue to be highest in the large, historically high-rent cities, the data show they are worsening for middle-class Americans in metro areas of all sizes.

Wage growth has been lackluster in recent years compared with previous periods of economic expansion, and has failed to keep pace with rental costs. The consumer price index for rent rose an average 3.2% year-over-year from 2011 through 2019, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. That outpaced average yearly earnings growth over the period of 2.4%.

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