The Rent Is Too Damn High: One Reason Why Today’s America Needed Rent Live

in 1996 Rent connected with audiences who were living through the height of the AIDS crisis

Sunday night’s Fox production of Rent Live has been described by sympathetic critics as a disappointment: the network mostly aired a pre-recorded dress rehearsal rather than a live recording following actor Brennin Hunt’s injury. Many expressed that they would rather have had access to the “show must go on” Sunday performance that a live studio audience had been privy to, with Hunt’s character of Roger in a wheelchair and his fellow cast mates improvising their stage cues around him. After all, the Washington Post pointed out, “Nothing about “Rent” specifies that Roger not use crutches or any other adaptive technology, and the last 10 minutes of the telecast — actually aired live — showed that Hunt was no less dynamic for his medical boot.”

Although Rent Live fell short of its potential from a production standpoint, that shouldn’t overshadow how timely and important the event should have been for today’s audiences. When the late Jonathan Larson’s Rent was first performed on stage in 1996 (he passed away before being able to see it off and on Broadway), it connected with audiences who were living through the height of the AIDS crisis, featuring a bohemian cast of both straight and queer characters who were contending with poverty, illness, and artistic challenges. Nearly a quarter-century later, the themes that pervade the musical are as relevant as ever, including an issue as basic as affordable housing.

The title of the production, Rent, comes in part from the fact that many of the characters in the musical are unable to afford a place to live. Roger, a musician, and Mark, a filmmaker, are squatting in a space in the East Village, padlocking their door so that their landlord Benny can’t kick them out onto the street. One of the opening numbers is a duet in which the two of them ponder how they’re going to pay rent — last year’s, this year’s, and next year’s.

Rising Cost of Housing, Stagnant Wages

Millions of people across the country are currently facing an affordable housing crisis, with no hope for relief from the federal government. In fact, Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, plans to triple the cost of rent for some of the poorest tenants in the country as a way to raise money for his department. He has expressed his concern that Americans are simply getting too comfortable in the projects, resigned to being taken of by their fellow taxpayers and having little motivation to move beyond poverty.

Experts with experience in the affordable housing realm have been pushing back against this backwards narrative “This isn’t about dependence,” said an affordable housing advocate in a 2018 interview with the New York Times. “Today’s housing crisis is squarely rooted in the widening gap between incomes and housing costs.” The publication cited statistics that showed that the average cost of rent went up by over 33 percent between 2001 and 2015, though wages stayed more or less the same.

A Third of All Americans Living Beyond Their Means

The National Low Income Housing Coalition released a report last month that found a shortage of over 7 million homes or units for impoverished renters. In other words, there are not enough affordable options for Americans who are living under or near the poverty line. Almost as troubling is the tenuous situation that many renters are in; a majority of extremely low-income renters who currently reside in low-income housing spend over half of their incomes on rent, something that housing advocates describe as being severely housing cost-burdened.

Andrew Aurand, lead author of the report, pointed out in a statement that despite negative stereotypes about impoverished populations, “the vast majority of the poorest renter households are seniors, people with disabilities, or individuals who are working, enrolled in school, or caring for a young child or for someone with a disability.”

Even among a broader cross-section of society, there’s a sense that affordable housing is out of reach. The National Association of Home Builders released a survey last month that found that nearly three out of four households in America feel that that housing is becoming less and less affordable. The Association also cited statistics that reflected the tenuous financial situation that many renters and homeowners are in: almost one third of American households are spending more than 30 percent of their incomes on their homes, demonstrating that it’s no longer just artists and the impoverished who are feeling the crunch on a need as basic as shelter. Stressing about rent has now become an all-American pastime.

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