The study by the Center for Housing Policy found that both homeowners and renters continue to struggle with housing costs since the market tanked in 2008. Between 2008 and 2010, renters saw their median income decline even as housing costs rose, while homeowners' loss of income outpaced a modest drop in housing costs. Experts typically warn against using more than 30 percent of pretax income toward housing costs. (Read more about debt-to-income ratio here.)
In 2010, the latest year in which data was available, there were 10.6 million households with more than half their income going toward housing, including utilities. A total of 23.6 percent of working households fell into that precarious category -- up 1.8 percentage points from 2008. (The study defines working households as those that make less than 120 percent of an area's median income and work at least 20 hours a week.)
With prospective buyers finding it harder to qualify for a mortgage and job security remaining a top concern for many families, rental demand has surged in past years, driving up costs. For homebuyers who purchased risky loans with little equity at stake during the boom years, high interest and sliding home values have pushed thousands underwater, with insufficient savings to escape the cycle.
"The data show that homeowners have been hit hard by the housing crisis in more ways than just lost equity," said Jeffrey Lubell, executive director at the Center for Housing Policy, in a statement. "Many working homeowners have been laid off or had their hours cut."
Homeowners felt the pinch of diminishing salaries more acutely than renters, dropping to a median of $41,413 in 2010, down from $43,570 in 2008. Working renters, on the other hand, typically make less, with a median income of $30,229 in 2010.
Unsurprisingly, the groups that were most at risk of having a severe housing cost burden made less than 80 percent of their area's median income, whereas wealthier households held steady over the 2-year period.
Where Housing Hurts Most
Between 2008 and 2010, affordability has significantly declined in 24 states. The five states with the highest share of households spending more than half their incomes on housing were California (34 percent), Florida (33 percent), New Jersey (32 percent), Hawaii (30 percent) and Nevada (29 percent).
With several experts predicting that the $25 billion mortgage settlement with the nation's largest banks will lead to more foreclosures at the start of 2012, both renters and owners should brace for more price fluctuation in their local markets, at least in the short term.
That said, the group most affected by the price confusion are those who bought during the height of the housing bubble, prior to 2008. For those entering the market today, however, sinking prices and near-record low mortgage rates places home affordability at a 20-year high.