This article uses the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to analyse Black–White differences in housing cost burden exposure among renter households in the USA from 1980 to 2017, expanding understanding of this phenomenon in two respects. Specifically, we document how much this racial disparity changed among renters over almost four decades and identify how much factors associated with income or housing costs explain Black–White inequality in exposure to housing cost burden. For White households, the net contribution of household, neighbourhood and metropolitan covariates accounts for much of the change in the probability of housing cost burden over time. For Black households, however, the probability of experiencing housing cost burden continued to rise throughout the period of this study, even after controlling for household, neighbourhood and metropolitan covariates. This suggests that unobserved variables like racial discrimination, social networks or employment quality might explain the increasing disparity in cost burden among for Black and White households in the USA.