Forget NYC and S.F.—the Rent Is Too Damn High Everywhere

Families, minorities pushed out by waves of tenants who can pay more.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jun 25, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

For renters' rights advocate Jean Folkes, the fight to maintain stabilized rents in increasingly pricey New York City—where rents average a massive $3,000 a month—is not only political but personal.

The Brooklyn tenant has spent months passionately calling for the New York City Rent Guidelines Board to impose a first-ever rent freeze, backed by newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio, for one- and two-year leases for the city’s 1 million regulated apartments. The board’s 5–4 vote on Monday shot down a rent freeze but allowed a historically low 1 percent increase on regulated one-year leases and a 2.75 percent increase on two-year leases.

That’s not enough, Folkes said.

“More and more families will lose their homes because of this,” said Folkes in a statement. “This is a signal to landlords to use their money to shut up poor people.”

New York City’s emotional rent war is symbolic of a larger battle for affordable housing in cities nationwide, especially for lower- to middle-income tenants and people of color.

“We want diverse, affordable neighborhoods,” Katie Goldstein, executive director of the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition, told TakePart.

In a city where tenants regularly spend more than half their income on rent, even tenants of rent-stabilized apartments are paying more and more in New York. With 50 percent or more of their funds going toward shelter, they have even less money for important things, such as medication, Goldstein said.

"For many of our members, there’s the question of how long they’ll be able to stay in New York, or their children after. It’s a scary situation,” Goldstein said.

National housing statistics are similarly grim.

San Franciscans pay more than any other urban dwellers, with average rents of $3,057 a month, three times the national average. As tech money has flooded the city with new well-heeled residents, longtime locals have witnessed a 10.6 percent growth in rents during the last year and a transformation of their neighborhoods.

By comparison, rents in sunnier Southern California still pose challenges for locals, but the University of Southern California Casden Real Estate Economics Forecast estimates the average monthly rent for a Los Angeles County apartment is $1,434, less than half what it costs in San Francisco. Of course, L.A. is vast and doesn't have the same problem of being nearly surrounded by water, as San Francisco is. Even the rougher areas of the 49-square-mile peninsula are seeing rents double, and families are being evicted to make way for richer tenants.

Real estate site Trulia found in its annual report on rentals and job growth that post-recession rent prices also surged in other cities during 2013. By the end of that year, rents in Chicago were up 5 percent, despite a meager 1.5 percent increase in jobs. In 2013, Portland, Ore., rents skyrocketed 10.5 percent, San Diego rents rose 9.5 percent, and Seattle rents followed suit at 8.9 percent.

Exploding rent prices that outpace income gains mean an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Landlords say higher maintenance costs must mean higher rent. But those who can’t afford to live in high-rent cities historically known for being open and inclusive environments are increasingly being forced out: They're doubling and tripling up on roommates, living with parents in the suburbs, or faced with homelessness.

“It’s only going to get worse, unless there’s a much stronger movement for jobs and income equality,” said Michael Kane, executive director of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, the federal low-income housing program. “It’s a crisis of every city that has a housing shortage, which is many cities in the U.S., and will ultimately lead to the mass decline of living standards.”

Rent stabilization rules differ across the country, for better or for worse.

According to San Francisco’s rent control law, landlords can give rent-stabilized tenants an annual rent increase based on inflation measured by the Bay Area Consumer Price Index. That increase has ranged from 0.5 percent in 2011 to 1.9 percent in 2012.

Yet a mid-1990s California state law called the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act paved the way for ending statewide vacancy rent control, allowing landlords to charge a “market” rent—any price they want—for new vacancies in and after 1999.

“We would love to be able to control the rents of vacant units, and impose a rent freeze, but are prohibited by state law,” said longtime renter Ted Gullicksen, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union.

Gullicksen fears that it's impossible for someone with a low or moderate income to remain in San Francisco.

"Rent-stabilized tenants are terrified because of the high numbers of evictions, especially when a building has gone up for sale," Gullicksen said. "They’re not able to stay.”