5 worst cities to be a renter (unless you're fabulously wealthy)

Rents are skyrocketing across the country -- and it's not just the poorer classes that are getting displaced

Published April 19, 2014 4:00PM (EDT)

San Francisco (Shutterstock)
San Francisco (Shutterstock)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


The housing market is supposedly recovering, yet the homeownership rate is dropping. Meanwhile rents in urban areas were already high but now are absolutely skyrocketing. What’s going on? As millions lost their homes many of the houses were and are being bought up by large investors. And what do these investors want? They want rent and lots of it. According to a NY Times report, In Many Cities, Rent Is Rising Out of Reach of Middle Class, “In December, Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan declared ‘the worst rental affordability crisis that this country has ever known.’ ”

Since the Great Recession the squeeze on 99% of us has gotten much tighter. What does this mean for people looking for a place to live? People used to be able to buy a house and put down roots. But in most cities buying a house is just out of the question for most people. Prices are back up and climbing fast, while salaries and wages for most of us are stagnant if not falling. So coming up with a down payment and qualifying for a mortgage is beyond the reach of many city-dwellers.

And now already-strapped home-buyers are competing with the big money. Many of the houses that come up for sale are sold in “all cash” deals, which means regular people are competing with “investors.” Because these investors pay cash sellers know they don’t have to wait for a buyer to get approved for a mortgage that could fall through.

In The Coming Nightmare of Wall Street-Controlled Rental Markets, Rebecca Burns, Michael Donley and Carmilla Manzanet of In These Times explain that investors have already purchased around 200,000 single-family houses to convert into rentals. And even as the “recovery” takes hold, they write, “In the final months of 2013, the rate of homeownership dipped to an 18-year low of 65.2 percent, down from a 69.4 percent peak prior to the 2007 financial crisis, according to U.S. Census data.” These houses are not going to homeownership, they are being turned into rentals – to be rented back to the people who used to live in them. According to Stan Humphries, the chief economist of Zillow, between 2007 and 2013 the United States added, on net, about 6.2 million tenants, compared with 208,000 homeowners.

With Wall Street as your landlord things can only go one way. As rents rise you face eviction so they can move someone in who will pay more – especially in areas where tenants have been able to get rent control ordinances passed. Bloomberg News gives an example of a community facing an eviction assault. In the story, In Silicon Valley, a New Investment: Eviction, Bloomberg describes how one company now owns 70% of the apartments in East Palo Alto and is systematically evicting tenants in rent-controlled units, writing, “Equity Residential has filed 236 unlawful detainer, or eviction, cases that have been unsealed in San Mateo County Superior Court since December 2011, according to the court website. At least 160 cases -- or 68 percent -- ended with a writ of possession of real property, giving the tenant 24 hours to move out.”

So with home-buying out of the question in many cities rents are high and climbing fast. Especially if you want to rent a house instead of an apartment.  Renting an apartment or a house brings different stresses because apartments are built to be rented, while houses can be sold and you have to move. In expensive (bubble?) places like Silicon Valley people who are lucky enough to find a house to rent (typically $3,000+ a month) live in fear that the owner will sell and boot them, or drastically increase the rent.

The 5 Worst Cities for Renters

What does all of this mean for working people looking for a place to live? It depends on where you are. CBS News reports, “Although the average rent across the U.S. is $1,231 per month, in certain areas it can be triple that number.” What are the worst places in the country for renters? There are some considerations for looking into the worst cities to rent. It is not just which city has the highest rents, it also matters what the percent of median household income this represents – if you make the median income for the area. It costs more to live in Beverly Hills, but people who live in Beverly Hills generally make enough to afford it.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition Los Angeles is the “least affordable” big city because median rent now makes up 47 percent of median income, but it isn’t one of the 5 highest rent areas. It’s least affordable because so many people have low incomes. And Miami is next on the “least affordable” list because median rent makes up 43.2 percent of median income. Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies also looked at what percent of their income renters are spending in various area and found that nationally half of all renters are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. This is up from 38 percent of renters in 2000.

Of course, this doesn’t matter to a person making the minimum wage. The National Low Income Housing Coalition looked at how many hours minimum-wage employees have to work per week in each state just to rent an apartment and still be able to survive. (See this chart.) West Virginia was lowest at 63 hours. Hawaii was 175 hours. California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C. were all over 130 hours.

So using a number of sources, here is a list of 5 cities with shockingly high rents.

#1 Williston, North Dakota

Why Williston? It is located right in the middle of the “oil boom” and as a result has some of the highest rents in the country. According to Courtney Craig at the Apartment Guide blog, “A 700-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Williston easily can cost more than $2,000 per month. Looking for a little more space? A three-bedroom, three-bath apartment could cost as much as $4,500 per month.”

The reason for the high rents is more of a reflection on how bad things are in the rest of the country than how good things are in Williston. People are hurting for good-paying jobs and for a while there was so much work available that people flocked to Williston. The population grew from 14,700 in 2010 to more than 30,000 now, and the housing stock is used up. But so are the jobs. So with few jobs and even fewer places to live Williston is having problems. A recent Wall Street Journal story told of how “Jay Jones, a 25-year-old pipe fitter from Virginia, arrived in Williston last July in his 1993 Buick Century with a makeshift bed he installed in place of the back seats. He stayed in his car until October, when temperatures started to drop.” According to a local KFYR report, “Currently, Williston Public School District #1 has 133 homeless students.” And a recent FOX headline says even more: Dark side of ND's oil boom: Meth, heroin, cartels _ all part of growing drug trade.

#2 is San Francisco, Silicon Valley and San Jose

Census Bureau numbers from 2010 to 2012 show that San Francisco’s median rent was $1,463 and this holds all the way down to San Jose, with a median rent of $1,441. That means that half of the housing – almost all of which is occupied by longer-term tenants with rent control -- are rented for $1,463 or less, and half – the only places you will see on the market -- for more; often for much, much more. (Note that CNN reported in February that San Francisco has seen rents rise 12.3 percent year-over-year through January to a median average of $3,350 for a two-bedroom apartment. “An apartment in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood that rented for $2,100 in 2010, for example, now rents for $3,200 a month...”)

But median pay is higher in the city itself. 37.6 percent of rentals in San Francisco go for 35 percent or more of household income. As you go south this changes. In San Jose it is 43.8 percent of rentals going for more than 35 percent or more if household income. (The earlier-mentioned CBS report says the median San Jose studio apartment is $1,455 and the median two-bedroom apartment is $2,350.)

Part of the problem is that San Francisco itself has a very limited area for housing. Surrounded on three sides by water there’s only so much land to use. So if more housing is to be built it has to be in buildings that go upward – mid- to hi-rise. But the city has zoned most of the land to prohibit buildings taller than 40 feet! As a result most of the new housing is luxury housing for the wealthy that will bring the builder top dollar. One problem is landlords evicting lower-income apartment dwellers so they can turn the buildings into condominiums for higher-income people. According to a Reuters report, “evictions in the city jumped 25 percent to 1,716 in the year ended February 2013, according to a report by San Francisco's budget and legislative analyst.”

The result of these high -- and rapidly increasing – rents is social disruption. Well-paid Silicon Valley tech employees come to the city to live in hip neighborhoods, causing rents to skyrocket (never mind buying). People of more modest means are being pushed out, and they are not happy. People have been protesting what are called “Google buses.” These are plush, usually-white buses companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook and other tech companies provide for their own employees to get to work. Meanwhile these and similar companies are famous for dodging their taxes, leaving cities and regions with little ability to upgrade transportation infrastructure or address larger social problems.

#3 Boston

According to the same Census Bureau survey of 2010-2012 Boston’s median rent is $1,260 per month (CBS: Median studio apartment: $2,000, median two-bedroom apartment: $3,505.)

Boston’s “Long-time insider” Mark Pearlstein explains the market, saying, “Rents are at an all-time high, as are sales prices. And I'm starting to see greed by all the property owners who are really trying to push the rents even higher.”

Bobby Sisk reports at WBZ-TV, in Future Of Boston: Expensive Housing Market Puts Squeeze On Workers, that “For many families, finding an affordable place to live is a struggle, whether buying or renting.” People are “moving farther and farther outside the city because it’s getting too pricey.”

#4 Washington, D.C.

Washington, DC’s median rent is $1,236 (Census Bureau 2010-2012) -- 40.7 percent of median household income.  (CBS: median studio apartment: $1,675, median two-bedroom apartment: $3,110.) It would take a wage of $28.25 an hour to support a modest 2-bedroom home in DC.

Rents are so high and have been rising so fast in DC that it has inspired a group ofcandidates to run on the “The Rent Is Too Darn High” slate for D.C. mayor and the Democratic State Committee. The reason this committee matters is that DC is fighting to become a state so they can be represented in Congress. Republicans just oppose giving DC statehood because a large percent of the population is black and votes Democratic, states get two senators and Republicans don’t want two more Democrats in the Senate. The idea is to get DC statehood into the national Democratic Party platform.

Petula Dvorak at the Washington Post explains in D.C.: A city divided and increasingly unaffordable,

“We never could’ve imagined, 20 years ago, that this would be an issue, that the city would be too expensive to live in,” said Sekou Biddle, a former D.C. Council member who ran on the Rent slate and won a seat as the at-large member of the Democratic State Committee.

Her column notes that DC has lost half of its affordable housing units in the past decade. “Meanwhile, all those fancy high-rises we see going up are increasingly unaffordable for the new folks moving in and making decent salaries.”

#5 New York.

It is so notoriously hard to find a place to rent in Manhattan that the joke goes, “I’m so sorry to hear about Mr. Collins. Does that mean his apartment is available?” And the frequently-heard 1%’er complaint is, “You Try to Live on 500K in This Town.”

But even for all of New York City -- not just Manhattan -- Census Bureau 2010-2012 puts the city at #5 with median rent at $1,187 and for a studio apartment: $2,300.

Like San Francisco there is little room in the New York area to build new housing, except up. And much of the new housing going up is targeted toward the luxury market that can afford to pay much higher prices. (See Ain't Nothin' Going On but the Rent: In NYC, $100 Million Apartments Are a Thing.) As a result rents are skyrocketing but New York City has rent control, allowing people to remain in their (rented) homes with reasonable rent increases. But as “market rate” rents increase dramatically landlords have been raising the stakes to get people to move out so they can charge more. There are reports of landlords destroying their own apartments in an effort to get tenants out. There is a bill before the NY state legislature making this kind of “rent sabotage” a crime.

According to a recent NY Times story, “New York’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to expand the number of homes affordable to low- and moderate-income New Yorkers to ease the housing crunch. But tenant advocates say that, in order to make a dent, the mayor must also focus on the loss of affordable apartments.” “The mayor has also promised to set up a fund to help tenants, most of whom go to housing court without lawyers, fight landlord wrongdoing.” De Blasio has also pledged to create 200,000 new homes for low- to moderate-income New Yorkers within 10 years.

In America you’re all set if you have a lot of money. People with a lot of money (the 1%) “own” almost everything. They have “property rights.” The rest of us have to pay them to let us use the things they own, like a place to live. The payment for those things is called “rent.” We even have to rent the money to buy things – for example mortgages, car loans, credit cards, etc.

But all is not lost Detroit is having an art boom and the rent is low. The average two-bedroom rental in the Detroit/Ann Arbor/Flint area goes for $843. Flint, Michigan’s median house sellsfor a little over $40,000.

By Dave Johnson

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