By Willy Staley  Posted on Fri Jun 22, 2012

What Do I Need to Live There? Housing Affordability (and Unaffordability) in 10 U.S. Cities

What Do I Need to Live There? Housing Affordability (and Unaffordability) in 10 U.S. Cities

Dan Deluca/flickr source

Everyone knows New York is expensive, but it was still appalling to discover that the average one-bedroom Manhattan apartment is going for a record-high $2,800 a month. That’s $33,600 a year, which would leave the average American with exactly no money after taxes. According to the Social Security Administration, the average wage in 2010 was slightly less than $40,000, while the median was substantially lower: around $26,000. To even eke out an existence in Manhattan, you need to make a lot more money than the average American. That’s not news, but the increasing cost of living in a decent city is a problem for young people looking to start a career.

How much, exactly? That’s an especially important consideration when looking for your first apartment, and really all subsequent apartments. You’d like to avoid pests, slumlords and crime-ridden neighborhoods, and you’d like to live somewhere near your office, and also maybe where friends and other young people live. But in cities like New York, it’s getting to be harder and harder to find something both affordable and livable.

Even in just-now-improving neighborhoods like Bushwick and Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, one-bedroom rents are as high as $1,600, or $19,200 for the year.

According to most experts, you don’t want to pay more than one-third of your income on housing. Otherwise you will be “house poor.” It’s better than being “homeless,” but it’s not a good position to be in financially. And it’s a mistake a lot of young people make — why live in a nice neighborhood if you spend so much on rent that you can’t afford to enjoy it? On the other hand, why live in a world-class city if you’ve relegated yourself to its slums?

In order to afford a Bed-Stuy apartment at $1,600 a month, you ought to be earning about $58,000 a year at a minimum. Otherwise, you’re impoverishing yourself. Over in Manhattan, the situation is even more out of control. You’d need to be earning $100,000 to even start thinking of renting a one-bedroom apartment on your own. Obviously, living with a significant other or roommates can help soften the blow. According to latest Census figures, however, 27 percent of American household are one-person households — a record high.

Even if you’d like to live with roommates — we’d recommend it — the list that follows should provide a good yardstick for the sort of money you ought to be making to afford life in certain U.S. cities. Housing stock varies from city to city, so the one-bedroom price isn’t a firm metric. Some cities are largely made up of suburban ranch homes; others are made up of old, dusty tenements. And the scarcity of certain housing types can alter the cost of a one-bedroom compared to other, larger apartments and houses.

As a shorthand for measuring affordability (and unaffordability), we’ve used the one-bedroom apartment numbers from rentbits.com, because it gives a good sense of the kind of money earned and spent in each city. Brace yourself, now, for the horror that so many attractive urban areas have become:

1. New York (Manhattan): At $2,982 for a one-bedroom (rentbits pegs it slightly higher than other sources), you’d need to earn $107,000 a year to afford a life like Carrie Bradshaw. Perhaps you’ve heard that Manhattan is full of insufferable finance types and old people — this is why. Literally no one on a starting salary anywhere other than a bank can afford to live here on his/her own. Brooklyn, Queens and Jersey City beckon you — but not for long.

2. San Francisco: The days of Free Stores, beatniks, and hippie squats in the Haight are long, long gone in San Francisco. Baghdad by the Bay is astonishingly expensive these days, with the tech bubble rising once again. The average one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco goes for $2,864. So $103,00 starting salary will suit you just fine. Hopefully you have some Facebook stock to sell, otherwise, why are you living in San Francisco. Oakland isn’t so bad anymore.

3. Boston: Life isn’t cheap in Boston. The average one-bedroom goes for $2,673 these days, meaning you’ll need to earn about $96,000 to afford life in this tiny historic city, which is a lot of money to live in a grown-up version of Frat Row. That said, there are plenty of affordable suburbs and good transit access.

4. Washington D.C.: The average one-bedroom in the District goes for $2,417, which is a steal compared to Manhattan, but also staggering compared to a December 2011 low of $1,900. To live in Washington, you’d better plan on earning about $90,000 a year. We’ve heard there’s good money in lobbying. Better yet: don’t live in Washington, D.C.

5. Los Angeles: For all its supposed glamor and glitz, Los Angeles is substantially cheaper than all the above cities, even if it isn’t cheap. A one-bedroom in Los Angeles averages $1,827. You’d need to earn about $66,000 a year to afford life in Los Angeles. And you’d need to get a car to get to and from the restaurant you’ll work at — so maybe more. On the other hand, when we imagine a Los Angeles one bedroom, we imagine one of those 60′s-vintage motel-like setups, which definitely all have swimming pools — it’s probably worth it.

It seems sometimes that there are absolutely no affordable cities left to live in, which is terrible news for the young people of America, who, mercifully, are likely a bit numb to terrible news at this point. But you’ll be happy to know that almost everyone who lives in the cities listed above hates them in some incredibly visceral way, even though they love them, too. The cognitive dissonance is stressful, and living somewhere cheap at least helps you get past the stress of hating the place you live because you think, falsely, that everyone else is ruining it for you, while knowing, deep down, that you’re ruining it for everyone else, too.

You can’t possibly ruin an already down-trodden city, so not all hope is lost. There are plenty of interesting places all across the country that are growing once again. Here’s a few of our favorites: you don’t have to work at a hedge fund or own a social media start-up to afford to live well in the U.S. Check out the cities listed below and note that none of the average one bedroom prices has a comma in it. Earning the average annual wage of $40,000, you could live quite well in any of these places:

1. Austin: The capital of Texas, and home to SXSW might seem tragically hip, but it doesn’t come with Williamsburg prices. It costs just $974 for an average one-bedroom in the city, meaning you’d have to earn $35,000 to live comfortably and have your own place. And, Lone Star beer is really cheap and actually sort of good. Just try to get out of town during SXSW — we can’t imagine locals enjoy it.

2. Pittsburgh: The Steel City doesn’t really make steel anymore, but it isn’t depressed as a result: the steel industry has since been replaced by higher education and medical research. But the city is still cheap to live in — it’s sort of like a hilly version of Philadelphia, with stranger accents. A one-bedroom goes for $904 according to rentbits. You could get by on just $32,550. Google has a campus there, and they pay way more than that.

3. Minneapolis: It might get frigid in the winter, but the Twin Cities are an outstanding place for young people to live. The economy is doing well there, you can get around on a bike (maybe not in the winter), and local specialties include burgers stuffed with molten cheese. Hard as it is to believe, apparently Minnesota is kind of cool. And one-bedroom apartments go for just $930 on average there. You’d need to earn $33,500.

4. New Orleans: The average one-bedroom rent in the charming Crescent City is just $944. You could get by on $34,000 in New Orleans. Some say that this is why it’s called the Big Easy — you can live pretty well in New Orleans without a tremendous amount of money. You would probably drop dead from all the buttery, fried food and to-go sugary alcoholic beverages after a year if you’re not careful, though.

5. Detroit: There’s a certain romance to life in Detroit, for those who find romance in post-apocalyptic landscapes and even more terrifying budget shortfalls. The city might not light up your street at night anymore, but the average one-bedroom apartment goes for just $632 in Detroit, meaning you’d need to earn just $22,700 to afford life there. But we should note here that the rental market is a bit flat there — the average three-bedroom is just $688, meaning you could reasonably live in Detroit for about $2,750 a year, by splitting the rent with a couple friends. In order to make that affordable, you’d need to earn $8,250 a year.

You might even be able to own a home in one of these cities, as insane as that sounds. Ask anyone who bought a building in Greenpoint or Harlem for $1 in the 80′s or 90′s: you never know how in-demand formerly beat-up cities could be in the future. None of these places are getting any cheaper, after all.

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  • Jeff Kassouf

    Replace Detroit with Cleveland. Rent in Cleveland is just as cheap, and there is arguably more cultural amenities, more development,  better transit, and probably just as good (ha, ha) opportunities.

    • http://www.facebook.com/josh.converse1 Josh Converse

      You could also replace it with Columbus.  Or cancer, if you want to stay in the C’s.

  • Mallory

    What about Omaha or Lincoln, NE?

  • Cade Beck

    I live in a three bedroom in Greenpoint Brooklyn just a 10 min walk to Williamsburg for $1,500/mo so my share is only $500. Its not even rent controlled either. I don’t know where they came up with those ridiculous numbers, but there are a lot of deals if you know where to look

    • http://www.mybanktracker.com Alex Matjanec

      Thanks a ridiculous deal. Props to you for finding something that affordable.

  • Haymaker

    If only jobs would pay more than 30k! I’d live in New Orleans but thejob I am up for only pays 30k (but it’s mobile so I can live anywhere). How to make the extra 4k? Bartend one day a week? Hmmmmmm

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