What Does It Cost to Live in the Overlooked Parts of a City?

by Aboubacar Ndiaye

Echo Park in Central Los Angeles.

I live in Houston which, outside of the Midwest, is possibly the most affordable large city in the U.S. My one-bedroom apartment, in one of the safest neighborhoods in the city, costs $600 with comparables going up to $800. My favorite independent coffee shop is two blocks away and most of my friends live within a five-mile radius, and yet I’m thinking hard and fast about moving. I’m looking to pursue some pretty quixotic artistic ambitions, and it’s tough doing so in a place where people look at you a little funny if you tell them that you are a writer, as if you just told them that you also hunt unicorns on the weekend.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been poking around the web, half-determinedly, looking for “cost of living” articles to estimate how much money I’ll need to make this move. I’ve worked mostly for nonprofits and local government agencies since finishing college, so I needed articles which would give me accurate information about how someone lives in Los Angeles or New York on a modest salary. A few of the articles I found gave really good snapshots of the costs in major cities, but they almost exclusively focus on upper-income areas. Apartment Therapy, for example, has been running a series on the cost of living in various American cities. Each post includes general COL indicators like the price of a gallon of milk or a pint of beer, but it also selects three “representative” neighborhoods in each city and lists average rents and home values in those areas.

For San Francisco, the author picked Russian Hill, Portrero Hill, and the Mission District, overlooking cheaper areas like the Fillmore or the Tenderloin. The author of the Los Angeles piece decided to focus on Santa Monica, Studio City, and Silver Lake, not considering Echo Park or the transitioning parts of South L.A. and the Valley. In the Brooklyn piece, the three neighborhoods featured were Greenpoint (lower end), Park Slope (mid-range), and DUMBO (high-cost), but no one who has paid attention to prices in Kings County would call Greenpoint’s rents on the lower end, not when Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bay Ridge, and Ridgewood exist.

Part of the reason for this is that these pieces tend to be aimed at established people with “real jobs,” young professionals with higher amounts of disposable incomes, or intern types who have family help, all of whom are looking to live in “trendy” areas. But another reason for this focus on upper-income areas is that because neighborhoods like Dorchester in Boston, Riverside in Austin, or Humboldt Park in Chicago tend to be browner and poorer, they are invisible to the well-to-do looking to move to these cities.

So, as I’m considering moving to New York, or Chicago, or the Bay Area, I’m having serious trouble finding good on-the-ground estimates of how much it actually costs for someone like me to live there, someone who will most likely work in a poorly paid field (i.e. non-profit sector) and does not mind living in more diverse communities. On websites like CNN Money or Kiplinger’s, the cost of living estimates generally presume an “upper-middle class family of four-lifestyle,” with income requirements for coastal cities in the $70K-$120K range. With Craigslist, I had the opposite problem. While many newcomers to New York or Chicago have found decent and affordable apartments on Craigslist, the website is a repository of obvious scams, usurious broker fees, and “worst room”-style units that would be called closets in any other part of the country. I have looked at real estate websites, but again, there appears to be a bias toward higher prices on those sites because of the self-selection effect of an owner using an agent.

More than the depressing fare available on Craigslist, or the pricey offerings listed on Halstead Realty, I have found that there is a serious disconnect between the average rent for a halfway decent place and the average wage earned by residents of those cities. According to the American Community Survey, the per-capita income in NYC was $30,200 while REIS, a real estate research firm found that the average yearly rent was $37,287. A report by the Urban Institute, which analyses housing data, shows that someone working at the minimum wage would have to work at total of 97.6 hours to afford to rent an apartment in Chicago at fair market rent.

There are some obvious explanations for the chasm between incomes and living costs in those major cities. One could say that those cities are outliers because of their astronomical salaries and distorted (rent control!) housing markets. One could also say that using the minimum wage as an indicator of income is unfair as low-income residents in those cities typically receive supplemental assistance in the form of public housing subsidies. The question that remains, and it is the question which concerns me most, is what about the average, middle-income people in those cities who earn between $30K-$60K a year? Where do they live? And where can I get some information on how to find a place in their neighborhood?

For now, I’m going to save money and, at the same time, try to hack what I am certain is a shadow housing market — one that has no digital life, where workaday people, people who work in administrative positions, or in trades, or in entry-level positions pay reasonable amounts of money for housing in places like Jackson Heights in New York and the Western Addition in San Francisco. It’s unlikely that I am going to make much headway until I actually move to one of these cities and start walking around, looking for signs in windows, informal listings at parties and events, listening for people talking about their absentee landlord or their cheap pre-war walk-up.

Until then, I hope that as the housing market continues its current revival, the governmental agencies, fair housing organizations, and community leaders in those cities would organize an effort to exert some downward pressure on rent prices. That could mean more rent control, more limits on luxury development, more community rehabilitation in forgotten neighborhoods like Englewood in Chicago and Brownsville in Brooklyn. It could also mean simply enforcing some laws (see: Fair Housing Act of 1968) already on the books. Ultimately though, it boils down to whether those who can afford to pay higher rents and those who own the housing stock decide to stop this progression towards creating Little Monacos around the U.S., islands of wealth and whiteness.

Aboubacar Ndiaye is a writer currently living in Houston. Follow him on Twitter and/or here: http://thehardask.com. Photo: Andrew Gorden

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