Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
“It's expensive to live in desirable places.”
In May 2015, I wrote up a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition that examined the mismatch between median hourly wages and average rent in every U.S. state. People had a lot of feelings about the piece—and continue to do so, if the 1,258 comments are any indication.
These two comments cut through all the conversation to get to the heart of the matter.
It's expensive to live in desirable places.
More at 10.
The Rent is Too DAMN HIGH.
Others waded into the weeds of the report, raising concerns about its methodology. One of the critiques was that using a state’s average rent glossed over more local discrepancies between super expensive cities and the cheaper surrounding areas. Here’s commenter Oliver Wendell Holmes:
This map would be way more interesting if it was symbolized at the county level rather than state level. The rent in Bakersfield is quite a bit lower than the rent in Palo Alto; the rent in Buffalo has little relationship to the rent in Manhattan.
Another commenter, pertinently named ßî†¢ḫ…ß£ⱦ ȶ€ɍ …ħÂƔễ… ɱɏ… ɯøȵⱻ¥, agreed:
$5,000-a-month apartments in manhattan vs the $500-a-month apartments in the north country (northern NY). Anywhere commuting distance to NYC is insanely expensive, and anything rural is affordable.
And there’s probably a few $50,000/month penthouses to rent around Manhattan and maybe even Brooklyn...
But commenter Lord Mannyrossa pointed out how drastically things change even between neighborhoods in the same city:
Seriously. Even inter-county or inter-city it gets skewed. I remember looking for a place in Hollywood/West Hollywood and they were all closets asking $3,000 a month. I go into Studio City (arguably a nicer area than either of them) not even 2 miles away and the rent was $1,500. Sidenote: I felt infinitely better off for having been 'forced' to live in Studio City.
Reader violetteal pontificated about why there might be such differences between areas that are geographically close:
California and New York probably have the biggest fluctuations in prices. Where I live the rents are about 40 percent less on average than the larger city 45 minutes away. It's all about speculation of property, driving rents up. Even with the relatively high minimum wage, you need two or three incomes to live in that city. San Francisco is ridiculous compared to others.
But commenter Tracy complicated the rural-urban divide, arguing that just because it’s more affordable, doesn’t mean it’s affordable for all.
I live in northern NY...rents here are way more than $500 a month. You have a hard time even finding a room for $500 a month in Watertown. A 2-bedroom typically runs between $800 and $1,000 plus utilities. Most of the high cost here, I believe, is due to our proximity to Fort Drum and the housing allowance the soldiers get.
The other raging debate—and boy, was it raging—was about the role of minimum wage and whether raising it would help or hurt the situation. Reader Mitch Alan pointed out:
Did you notice that most of the most expensive places to live are states that also have some of the highest mandated minimum wages...artificial, government-mandated minimum wages increase the costs of all goods and services.
But That Guy disagreed:
False correlation. The minimum wages were raised in these high-demand areas because of the high cost of living and higher overall salaries. The average worker in Maryland, for example, gets paid a lot more than in Nebraska, and the minimum wage, which came after, reflects that: it doesn't create it.
On one side of the wage debate were folks who subscribed to the “bootstraps” theory—the idea that if you worked hard and were smart enough, you could get yourself to a position to afford housing, even in expensive cities.
In reality, this kind of upward mobility happens far less often than many people think. And recent polls have shown that Americans are growing increasingly skeptical that hard work is sufficient to climb up the economic ladder. Many commenters spoke to this perspective with personal examples. Here’s commenter Chris Foster:
It's true as far as Maine is concerned. Yes retail, fast food, and lower-end jobs are NOT meant as a career. But when your state has a abundance of these jobs and less of the career-oriented ones, which are instantly filled by people fighting each other for the "good life," those people are then forced to take on these jobs. And every one of those people don't live off just "ONE" job. Those who do usually receive some kind of assistance, live with several friends/family or scored a cheap apartment in a bad, drug-filled neighborhood...
...As a person who went to college for two different degrees, I can tell you right now that even with my nice, higher-paying job, some areas’ rent is absolutely absurd. Do I think those lower-income people should be getting paid higher? Yes! Costs keep going up because the rich want more and more and refuse any cut in profits while the poor stay low.
Commenter al shared his own struggles:
I am a skilled worker who fell victim to companies hiring unskilled workers and training them at a lower wage. I have 160 college credits [and] the skills to back it up but no formal employment to support my education. I am a combat vet and a drilling guardsman. I have two degrees and am working on a third but all I can find is a job as a security guard making $10.50 an hour.
Titianna Victoria Schmall-Grig, from northern Idaho, shared her own experiences, too:
Not everyone can get a job that pays $16 an hour even WITH a skill set and education. I'm in northern Idaho and I've gotten an education as a CNA, that's in the medical field, and I STILL wouldn't be able to find a job over $11 up here—which by this map is $2.56 short of being able to afford a 2-bedroom apartment. My family and I have been blessed enough to be able to stay with my mom in her finished basement rent-free while I am going to school to get my RN, but if she hadn't made the offer, I'd still be stuck in Utah working at McDonald’s myself only able to make my $745 rent because of low-income housing and trying to work 40 hours a week (good luck EVER really getting overtime at any fast food place, let alone the full 40 hours in the first place) eating by the grace of $200 in food stamps (meal plans and budgets ftw), and trying to take care of my daughter and my disabled husband. There would have been no time to go to school, no time to get a better education nor to expand my skill set.
I was 25 when I finally was able to get up to Idaho, and before that I would work anything I could get to make sure my baby was fed, sheltered, and taken care of.
And here’s LadyJustify from Portland:
Look, as someone who works all-the-time type jobs, and getting my degree in my field, I will never make enough to rent in Portland by myself on top of my student loans and car payment. Some of us work ourselves to the bone for $10 an hour, and I can work anywhere from 0-100 hours in a week. Not everyone works a 9-5, but other than getting a second similar-type job, I can't afford to live alone AND contribute to the economy with my crushing debt.
So please don't tell me how hard to work, with everything I've sacrificed to get to where I am.
Commenter Nathanial Rumphol-Janc, on the other hand, also worked minimum wage, but was able to get by—because he lived in a smaller Wisconsin town:
I live in Wisconsin. I pay $465 for rent for a 2-bedroom apartment. I used to work at McDonald’s and not only could I afford that on minimum wage at full time, I could afford that plus food, electric, car insurance, and clothing.
I also still had some spending money left over, full health benefits (through McDonald’s) and even got a little bit of money from McDonald’s to go to college.
So... I can't speak for every area of my state or every state in general, but you can survive on minimum wage—just stop trying to live in the cities to do it. Get out and go to areas where life is MUCH cheaper.
In 2016, I wrote about an update to the 2015 report, where some of the same concerns came up again in the comments section. Thankfully, one of the authors of the report, Dan Emmanuel, got right in there, clarifying some of the technical issues and misreadings:
1) The report and our interactive map provides data for (including 0-4 bedroom units) every county, metropolitan area, and state in the U.S. Soon enough, we'll also be providing this data at the zip code level for metro areas. (Spoiler alert: A minimum wage worker in the U.S. would still have to work 90 hours a week to afford the average 1-bedroom apartment at fair market rent).
2) Anyone who carefully reads this article would realize the report isn't just about minimum wages. The report also includes data on the average wages earned by renters.
3) For those of you who take issue with studying the housing needs of minimum wage earners, keep in mind that the latest BLS data show 81 percent of workers earning the prevailing minimum wage or less are at least 20 years old. Fifty-five percent are older than 25 years of age. The notion that minimum wage earners are all high school students is a myth. In reality, our economy depends on adults in the low wage workforce, regardless of whether that agrees with your ideology.
4) HUD's Fair Market Rents (FMRs) tend to be a very conservative estimate of the cost of renting. They're actually based on the 40th percentile of rents in a given market. If we used private market data based on listings, the rents in our report would likely be far, far higher.
5) While wages are an important aspect of the affordability gap, there is also a supply problem specifically impacting the lowest income renters. There is a shortage of 7.2 million rental units affordable and available to these people. This is the result of a basic market failure. See our Gap 2016 report for an explanation based on empirical evidence.
6) Most affordable housing is built through private market mechanisms using tax credit subsidies (i.e. tax breaks). In fact, this approach was pioneered during the Reagan administration.
How affordable is your area? Share your stories in the comments below.