More Americans strain to meet housing costs

— -- A growing number of Americans are struggling to pay for housing, despite a steep drop in home prices.

Last year, 38% of homeowners with mortgages spent 30% or more of their before-tax income on housing — the threshold the government defines as unaffordable, according to an analysis of Census data done for USA TODAY by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

And 15% of homeowners without mortgages and half of all renters had trouble meeting housing costs, the analysis found.

Dan McCue, a research analyst at the Joint Center, said the number of households straining to pay for housing grew despite "serious price declines" in real estate across the USA.

The median home price slumped 7.1% to $212,400 from July 2007 to July 2008, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Among the largest 100 metro areas, Miami- Fort Lauderdale had the highest percentage of cash-strapped homeowners with mortgages. Nearly six out of 10 homeowners with mortgages there are spending 30% or more of their income on housing. Stockton, Calif.; Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif.; Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla.; and Los Angeles-Long Beach round out the top five.

In 13 of the largest metro areas, at least half of homeowners with mortgages spent 30% or more of their income on housing.

Most of those markets are also in areas of the country hardest hit by the recent wave of home foreclosures as the value of real estate — which soared during the housing bubble — collapsed in the past year.

McCue says the growth of homeownership was halved from 2006 to 2007, while renting reversed itself and gained in popularity. "From 2005 to 2006, renting went down by almost a quarter of a million households. It went up by almost as many from 2006 to 2007."

Nearly 75% of homeowners with household incomes under $50,000 struggled to pay their mortgages, versus 23% of those who made more than $50,000.

Homeowners with mortgages and whose incomes were lower than $20,000 continued to struggle most. Nearly all spent at least 30% of their income on housing.