Affordable Housing Is a Serious Problem

I know we’ve said this before. But it’s getting worse.

Photo credit: andreas160578, CC0 Public Domain.

Last week I wrote a post about how, the longer I stay in Washington State, the more leaving the state feels like a financial disincentive:

I Can Never Move

Between these retirement account protections (a minor factor) and the absence of state income tax (a major factor) am I setting up a situation in which I won’t ever want to move out of Washington State?

I noted, in the post, that I occasionally check out apartment listings in other Washington cities, as well as Seattle suburbs. But I’m paying $995 for a one-bedroom right now, which is roughly the same going rate—if not a little undermarket—for a one-bedroom in any of the places I’ve been looking.

Which, honestly, I found a little surprising. Why are rents this high everywhere?

That’s the same question that The Atlantic’s CityLab is asking.

Every Single U.S. County Has an Affordable Housing Crisis

The affordable housing crisis has spared no county — rural or urban. From small towns like Traverse City, Michigan, to big expensive cities like San Francisco, a cheap and decent place to live is hard to come by.

When CityLab uses the word “affordable,” they’re specifically referring to housing that is affordable for people and families on low incomes:

Nationwide, only 21 units are available per 100 extremely low-income renter households (those earning below 30 percent of the area median income) without government assistance. With assistance, it’s 46.

We can do the math on this, since we looked at median income in the context of intern pay last week: in Seattle, the median income is $80,000. 30 percent of $80,000 is $24,000, so that’s what “extremely low-income renter households” means in this case.

In smaller towns and rural areas, as CityLab notes, it’s just as bad—if not worse. Yes, rents are lower, but so are median incomes. If the median income is $50K, some families are living on $15,000. Paying a “reasonable” 30 percent of income towards rent would mean finding a place that rents at $375 a month—which is doable in a city like Cedar Rapids, Iowa (median income $54,000) but according to Craigslist, you’ll be looking at studios, mobile homes, houseshares, or modest one-bedrooms.

All of this trends upwards, of course. Renting doesn’t get less expensive as you earn more money—and that’s not even because your “standards change” or your “lifestyle creeps” or whatever. Yes, I could save $200 in rent every month by moving into one of those microstudios where the bed is two feet from the microwave and the shared kitchen is downstairs. (I’ve lived in a microstudio before.) But people who earn less than I do are competing for those rentals, and I am probably a few years too old to fit in there, and there are ways for landlords and property management companies to hint at what types of tenants they’re looking for.

I feel like I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. The rent is too damn high, and we’ve all been saying that for years. CityLab and the Urban Institute study it references acknowledge that the recent trend towards short-term rentals, including Airbnbs, haven’t helped; landlords can jack up the price for tourists and pull rentals off the long-term market, which also makes prices rise for long-term renters because there are fewer available units, supply/demand, etc. etc. etc.—but you already know that too.

What might be new, or at least new to me, is that we’re losing our former “pockets of affordability”—those mid-sized or small towns that those of us in large cities keep in the back of our minds as places to decamp to when we get priced out, and those of us in rural areas think about as places to move towards when we want to expand our options. (Having grown up in rural Missouri before moving to a few larger towns and then a series of cities, I’ve had both of these fantasies.)

I don’t know. I have no solutions, and I’ve managed to conflate my own renting concerns with the more difficult problems facing low-income renters, which are not equivalent problems even though they are related to the same issue.

What do you think about all of this, especially if you plan to rent for the next several years?

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.