Photographer: Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg

It’s Not Just America—the Rent Is High Everywhere

Tenants in Canada and Spain devote a big chunk of pay to housing, too.

The make-up of a country’s housing market is decided by a wide variety of factors, including history, culture, and financial regulation. In the Netherlands, for instance, roughly 30 percent of housing stock is owned by nonprofit cooperatives, while the hallmark of a U.S. home and the erstwhile American Dream is the 30-year mortgage. In countries such as Italy and Spain, it’s common for multiple generations to live in a family home.

While the ways in which people lay claim to their abodes varies as you spin the globe, there’s increasingly one thing housing markets do have in common: For those who pay rent, the rent is often way too high. 

Canada and Spain have joined the U.S. and U.K. for the honor of having the highest rates of severely cost-burdened renters, according to a paper (PDF) published last year by Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Source: Carliner/Marya, Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, "Rental Housing: An International Comparison," 2016. All rights reserved.

Among the more predictable causes for high rent burden, low-income families are increasingly being crushed in countries where investors have bid up the price of residential real estate. But in some countries not known for attracting speculative investment, rent is also an inordinate portion of income.

Data published in February by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows the percentage of low-income renters whose household budgets were dominated by the cost of shelter. 1  Croatia was the most expensive country for poorer renters, and the Slovak Republic was the most affordable. In both countries, nine out of 10 heads of household own their homes, so the overall portion of society affected by this dynamic is small.


The amount of government subsidy or support for cheap rentals differs from country to country as well. Despite the variables, the types of people who rent are fairly consistent across countries, according to the JCHS paper: Young people, poor people, and immigrants are more likely to rent.

Mortgage affordability also varies, often for reasons relating to financial regulation and demand for homes that are on the market, according to the OECD data, which can be found here. The simplest reason why many families struggle to afford good housing is that, even with government support, it’s hard to build cheap housing that the poor can afford.

This, it turns out, is one of the few things you can say about rental markets that applies worldwide.

  1. The OECD research defines low-income as households in the bottom 20 percent for their country, and households that spend more than 40 percent of their disposable income on rent are deemed overburdened. The chart describes renters in private-market housing.

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