(Updates throughout, adds quotes from panel discussion)
By Richard Leong
June 16 (Reuters) - Millions of poor Americans face the hard decision to spend less on food and healthcare because the bulk of their paychecks go to keeping a roof over their head, a report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University released on Friday showed.
Based on income, 70.3 percent of the poorest families, or those earning less than $15,000 annually, spent more than 50 percent of their wages on rent or costs to own a home in 2015, according to the latest annual study.
"Households paying half their incomes or more for housing have little money left over to cover other basic necessities," Harvard researchers wrote.
These low-income families on average spent 53 percent less than those without such cost burdens from housing in 2015, the report showed.
For example, when these households had children, they spent under $300 a month on food, compared with nearly $500 for households which were not spending more than half their income on housing.
Meanwhile, the poorest seniors who spent more than half of their income on housing spent only $99 a month on medications and other healthcare services in 2015, compared with $263 a month among those who were not severely burdened by rent or expenses to own a home.
This struggle has persisted even as the housing market has recovered during its second longest ever U.S. expansion.
The fall in U.S. homeownership may have reached a bottom following 12 years of decline. Home prices surpassed the high of a decade ago in 2016, the Harvard report showed.
In the first quarter of 2017, the homeownership rate was 63.6 percent, up from the 62.9 percent in the second quarter of 2016 which the lowest since 1965.
Families that own homes increased by 280,000 in 2016, the biggest total rise since 2006, but they were dwarfed by the growth in renters which rose by 600,000 last year, the Harvard study showed.
The faster renter growth in recent years stemmed from a variety of factors including rising home prices and reluctance among millennials to buy a home, according to Chris Herbert, the housing studies center's managing director, in a panel about the latest study.
Possible federal cuts in tax credits and subsidies to support affordable housing may worsen these households' predicament, said Terri Ludwig, president and chief executive of Enterprise Community Partners, a non-profit group that creates affordable homes.
"Those budget cuts would be devastating," Ludwig said. (Reporting by Richard Leong; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)