The rent is too damn high, according to a Zillow study commissioned by the New York Times. The numbers will likely make you sick.

Let’s talk terminology for a moment. “Affordability” has taken on great gravitas in today’s economy-obsessed culture, but what does it really mean? In its most extreme context, one can consider affordability in terms of life and death, as in: can you afford to take that leap? In other words, will you be able to accomplish that leap without killing yourself in the process? This is precisely what we mean when we speak of affordable housing. Can you afford the rent? Are you able to make your monthly payment without suffering financial death?

Based on the standard rule that rent ought not exceed 30% of one’s monthly gross income, the U.S. is shaping up to be a financial killing field.

Check out this chart from Zillow showing the rental affordability in the major U.S. metro regions. Note that California metros are among the worst offenders.


In 90 U.S. cities, the median rent was greater than 30% of the median gross income. Half of all renters are now spending in excess of 30% of their income on rent. And the problem is getting worse.

And the rapid increase in rental demand is tightening the squeeze. The U.S. added a net 6.2 million tenants from 2007 to 2013, while only 208,000 homeowners were created, according to Zillow. These figures are particularly exceptional in light of declining household formations. Thus, the problem of demand will only compound when (if!) Generation Y finally branch off on their own and enter the rental market.

What’s to be done? The obvious answer is to increase supply. The market is supposed to correct itself in the face of overwhelming demand, right? Not so, according to Jaime Ross, President of the Florida Housing Coalition:

“Increasing the supply is not going to increase the number of affordable units; that is a complete and utter fallacy [. . .] the market has never corrected itself and it’s only getting worse.”

That’s true in California, as well. Multi-family housing starts have risen steadily since 2012. Yet, vacancy rates continue to decline and rents maintain their steady inflation.

A short-term correction is coming in the near future. Today’s inflated rents are, to some extent, due to the inflated prices of 2013. As we know, investors bought big in 2013, many placing their bets on multi-family properties in addition to single family residences (SFRs). Part of the rent inflation we see now is a hangover from last year’s buying frenzy, with investors attempting to realize a healthy return on investment (ROI).

A fix for the systemic social problem is more elusive. Real estate is appreciating faster than the rate of inflation and since shelter is a necessity, it’s proving to be an excellent opportunity for exploiting the middle class. Rather than be homeless, they’ll just devote a larger share of their income to paying for shelter.

So while the rabble sharpen their axes, use this handy buy/rent comparison analysis we’ve created to illustrate the best option for your clients.