Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a university professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and a distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate and visiting fellow at Florida International University.
How much money do workers have after paying housing costs? For working-class and service workers in superstar cities, the affordable housing crisis hits harder.
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America suffers from a deep and worsening housing crisis, especially in the nation’s superstar cities. It would take the average worker in the Bay Area—a place that is flush with rich venture capitalists and highly paid tech workers—more than a decade of wages and income to afford the median home price. That’s more than four times the typical benchmark of 2.6 years of salary for housing affordability.
While much has been made of the housing struggles of middle-class and professional families in expensive cities, the housing affordability crisis hits much harder for the nation’s low-paid blue-collar workers.
In a new analysis I conducted with my University of Toronto colleague, Karen King, we introduce a new benchmark for housing affordability: the amount of money residents have left over in wages after paying for housing. We calculate this for the nation’s three major economic classes: the creative class consisting of highly paid professionals, knowledge workers, and cultural creatives; the blue-collar working class of factory, construction, and transportation workers; and the service class who prepare and serve food, take care of kids, and staff stores. We used housing data that reflects the 2017 median monthly housing costs; the wage and salary data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational and Employment Survey, also for 2017. In total, our analysis covers 382 metros across the United States. My CityLab colleague, David Montgomery, graphed the data.
|Class||Annual average wage||Money left after housing||Employment (millions)||Share of total employment|
Note: The median cost of housing is $12,264, or just over $1,000 a month.
The nearly 70 million workers who make up America’s service class—almost half of the entire workforce—are left with a meager $23,000 after paying the median price of housing. The 30 million members of the working class do a little better, ending up with about $30,000 left over. Compare this to the 40 million creative class workers who end up with nearly $70,000 left over after paying for the median-priced home: That’s more than three times the number for service class workers.
Members of the creative class are actually better off financially in America’s superstar cities and leading tech hubs, even with the through-the-roof housing costs. They end up with anywhere from $75,000 to almost $90,000 left over after for paying for housing in tech hubs like Silicon Valley (San Jose), Boston, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. That’s because the salaries of this class reflect the high cost of housing in these places to begin with. They are able to effectively capture what economists dub the “urban wage premium.” This premium is so substantial in superstar cities that members of the creative class are significantly better off in these expensive metros. Although expenses may be higher in these urban centers, a creative class member in San Jose, for example, has roughly double the income left over after for paying for housing than their peers in St. George, Utah.
But members of the other classes are struggling to meet the high housing prices of expensive metros. Working-class members have just $23,000 to $33,000 left over after paying for housing on average, depending on the city. Service-class workers have just under $16,000 to $23,000 left. While these blue-collar workers may make a little more in expensive cities, the legal minimum wage in most locations means that their income falls far short of what is needed to cover the much more expensive housing. The table below shows the ten best and worst metros for creative-class Americans based on how much money they have left after paying for housing.
Best and Worst Metros for the Creative Class After Paying for Housing
|Creative class||Service class||Working class|
|Best metros for the creative class|
|San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA||$87,652||$16,123||$22,383|
|San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA||$83,319||$19,064||$28,798|
|New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA||$82,872||$22,944||$30,090|
|California-Lexington Park, MD||$82,601||$17,035||$35,148|
|Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX||$76,883||$22,193||$31,292|
|Worst metros for the creative class|
|St. George, UT||$43,999||$17,464||$24,694|
|Great Falls, MT||$49,786||$21,013||$31,652|
|Jefferson City, MO||$50,277||$21,990||$30,126|
Once we factor in huge differences in housing costs between expensive cities and the rest, members of the working and service classes actually have little to gain financially from living in expensive cities, despite the fact that these places may offer slightly higher wages or more job opportunities. Financially, blue-collar workers are much better off living outside these expensive places.
The table below shows the ten best and worst metros for working-class Americans based on how much money they have left after paying for housing. Taking the combination of wages and housing costs into account, the best places include resource-based metros in Alaska, Texas, and Louisiana, and manufacturing centers in Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia. Among the worst include metros in California and Texas, a state that has cities among both the worst and best for working-class people.
Best and Worst Metros for Working Class
|Best Metros||Worst Metros|
|Anchorage, AK||$43,753||Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-
|Fairbanks, AK||$42,593||Gainesville, GA||$21,970|
|Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX||$41,490||Los Angeles-Long Beach-
|Farmington, NM||$39,722||San Jose-Sunnyvale-
Santa Clara, CA
|Lake Charles, LA||$39,323||El Paso, TX||$22,631|
|Houma-Thibodaux, LA||$38,546||Jacksonville, NC||$22,715|
|Kokomo, IN||$38,443||Austin-Round Rock, TX||$22,904|
|Longview, WA||$37,779||Auburn-Opelika, AL||$23,002|
|Bremerton-Silverdale, WA||$37,526||Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA||$23,074|
|Wheeling, WV-OH||$37,221||Miami-Fort Lauderdale-
West Palm Beach, FL
Service-class workers have it even worse in expensive cities, ending up with a paltry $16,000 after paying the median price of housing in San Jose, five times less than the nearly $90,000 creative-class workers have left over. Based on the combination of wages and housing costs, the best places for service-class workers include smaller, less costly metros in California, Washington, South Carolina, Arizona, North Dakota, New Jersey, and upstate New York.
This phenomenon is harmful, not just for service workers, but for our cities. America’s superstar cities are at the forefront of a cruelly Darwinian sorting process, where higher-paid knowledge workers crowd into them, pushing lower-paid blue-collar workers and their families either to the urban fringe or out of the metro all together. But these workers provide vital functions these cities need to function and survive. The rise of such housing-inflected inequality exacerbates the issue, making it harder and harder for cities to provide basic services.
Best and Worst Metros for the Service Class
|Best Metros||Worst Metros|
|Hanford-Corcoran, CA||$28,327||Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA||$14,809|
|Sumter, SC||$26,678||Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-
|Yakima, WA||$25,860||Jacksonville, NC||$15,131|
|Danville, IL||$25,387||East Stroudsburg, PA||$15,256|
|Bismarck, ND||$25,356||Urban Honolulu, HI||$16,066|
|Vineland-Bridgeton, NJ||$25,256||Provo-Orem, UT||$16,118|
|Wenatchee, WA||$25,097||San Jose-Sunnyvale-
Santa Clara, CA
|Syracuse, NY||$25,092||Manhattan, KS||$16,173|
|Sierra Vista-Douglas, AZ||$25,026||San Diego-Carlsbad, CA||$16,763|
It is true that superstar cities have higher rates of innovation and productivity, generate multiplier effects for new jobs, and offer workers a skill premium. But the reality is nearly all of that skill premium accrues only to the already highly-paid knowledge workers. Whatever meager skill premium blue-collar workers seek is consumed up by higher housing prices. The advantaged third of the workforce benefits from the economic might of superstar cities, while the far less advantaged 66 percent of workers sink further behind, pulled down by the weight of expensive housing costs.
Taking housing into account magnifies the already severe inequality that defines America’s economic landscape. Our nation is growing more and more unequal, both in terms of class and geography. And inequality of housing only serves to compound these growing divides.
CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.