Nearly half of renters say they’ve had to take on debt to pay rent. Which cities have it the worst?

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It should come as no surprise to the average renter that living costs are more expensive than ever. Americans are packing up their lives by themselves or with the help of moving companies, starting new chapters to live more comfortably. These rising costs wouldn’t be an issue for many if wages kept rising at the same rate, but is that the case?

The research team at ConsumerAffairs sought to answer this question by looking at median rent and wage growth in 70 of the most populous metro areas in the U.S. from 2019 to 2023. We also examined prepandemic (before 2020) and pandemic (2020 and after) trends in separate sections and surveyed consumers online to determine how rising rent costs affect everyday Americans. You can read our full methodology below.


Key insights

Rent costs increased at a higher rate than wages from their prepandemic levels (2019 to 2023) nationally, at 30.49% and 20.74%, respectively.

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About 65% of renters spend more than 30% of their monthly income on rent.

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Nearly half (48%) of renters say they’ve had to take on some sort of debt in the past year (credit card debt, personal loans or borrowed funds from family/friends) to pay their monthly rent.

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Knoxville, Tennessee, saw the steepest rent increase from 2019 to 2023, at 57.76%.

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Americans are struggling to keep up with soaring rent costs

Before looking at specific metro areas, it’s important to look at the current state of housing and rent costs nationwide. The median rent in the U.S. is $1,958 per month, while the median wage sits at $48,069 per year. At first glance, wages seem to be climbing higher than rent — with increases of 3.82% and 3.73% from 2022 to 2023, respectively. However, widening the scope of our analysis tells a different story. Between 2019 and 2023, wages saw an overall increase of 20.74%. Rent costs, however, saw a larger (30.49%) increase.

This context helps explain why 38% of the renters we surveyed said they struggle to pay rent without financial strain.

Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told ConsumerAffairs that Congress previously took actions to help low-income individuals and renters. However, she said a lack of follow-through helped contribute to the current housing situation.

“[Previous] actions cut evictions in half, kept millions of renters stably housed and moved many unhoused people into housing,” she said. “Congress then let protections expire and resources be depleted. Renters were faced with unprecedented and unjustifiable rent hikes and brutally high inflation. And as rents increased, so too [did] eviction filings and, ultimately, homelessness.”

Nearly two-thirds of renters we surveyed said they spend more than 30% of their monthly income on rent, and 16% of those respondents revealed that 75% or more of their income goes toward rent. Spending a high percentage of income on housing forces many Americans to live paycheck to paycheck, preventing them from putting money into savings. Some tenants who can’t pay for rent might be able to move back with their parents or crash on a couch, but not all Americans are afforded that privilege.

“Rent increases are driven by several factors, including a growing demand for rental housing and limited supply,” explained Yentel. “Rent increases can also be attributed to a mostly unregulated rental market that — especially in markets where demand far outstrips supply — permits landlords to raise rents as high as the market will allow, without regard to the impact on tenants with low incomes.”

Where is rent growth outpacing wage growth?

The metros associated with the greatest financial strain for renters are those where rising rent costs are outpacing wage growth. Between 2022 and 2023, Omaha, Nebraska, had the largest gap between rent growth and wage growth, at 3.49%. Chicago placed second, with a difference of 2.80%.

Where are wages growing faster than rent?

Looking at the cities where wages have increased faster than rent costs presents a slightly more optimistic picture. The median rent cost in top-ranked Las Vegas, Nevada, did not change between 2022 and 2023. An 11.39% increase in the median wage over that same period made it an interesting outlier. However, it’s important to note that the median rent in the city was still 34.91% higher in 2023 than in 2019.

Wage growth in second-ranked San Antonio, Texas, outpaced rent costs by 9.25% from 2022 to 2023.

American renters are taking on debt to pay rent

Although wages have gone up in the last year, 48% of renters we surveyed said they’ve taken on some form of debt — including credit card debt, personal loans and borrowed funds from family or friends — to afford their monthly rent.

About 38% of those renters said they can’t comfortably afford their rent without facing financial strain. The primary reasons are listed in the graph below.

Nicole Bachaud, a senior economist at Zillow, told ConsumerAffairs that renters are facing an affordability crisis that has been years in the making. “Strong demand, especially from millennials, has run into a housing shortage that’s been brewing for more than a decade,” she said.

Bachaud explained that the sheer weight of these issues could be alleviated by constructing more housing.

“Building more homes is the clearest way to improve housing affordability,” she said. “Measures that make it easier to build, including allowing for more density, will help.”

According to the Urban Institute, each generation’s homeownership rate has been lower than the generation that came before it at the same age. The institute projects that by 2040, the national homeownership rate will decline to 62% from 65%; age groups younger than 75 will have “dramatically” lower rates of homeownership.

Resources to support renters

There are avenues for financial and material support for those struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living and pay their monthly rent. While not everyone may need these resources, keeping them on your radar just in case doesn't hurt.

Renters Rising, a joint project of The Center for Public Democracy and CPD Action, is a national alliance of renters that provides resources to help tenants organize or obtain help.

Tips before moving to a city with high rent costs

The rise in housing costs and the stagnation of wages can create strain on those trying to live comfortably. Here are a few tips for renters looking to move to a city with higher rent costs:

Look for rental assistance.

  • Take a look at any local rent assistance programs in your area that can help you pay for rent, security deposits or utilities.
  • Check out Renters Rising’s site for links to tenant resource organizations for all 50 states.

Split rent costs by living with a roommate or partner.

  • If you’re moving to a new city with a loved one, consider an apartment where you each pay a portion of the rent.

Make use of public transit.

  • If you’re living in a larger, walkable city like Boston, New York City, Philadelphia or Chicago, consider taking public transit to save money on fuel and car maintenance costs. You’ll also save yourself the headache of long drives through rush hour traffic and help limit carbon emissions.

Rent and wage by metro area from 2019 to 2023

The table below shows the median wage and median rent in 70 of the most populous U.S. metro areas for each year from 2019, the year before the pandemic began, to 2023, the year the pandemic ended.

Methodology

To determine how much rent has increased over the past four years, the ConsumerAffairs Research Team looked at data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Zillow. We analyzed 70 of the most populous metros, focusing on median rent and wage growth from 2019 to 2023. Due to data discrepancies, we excluded five metros in the New England region: Boston, Massachusetts; Hartford, Connecticut; New Haven, Connecticut; Providence, Rhode Island; and Worcester, Massachusetts.

To determine how rising rent prices have affected Americans, ConsumerAffairs surveyed 600 renters using Pollfish, a third-party market research and survey platform. We collected survey data for this report from May 26, 2024, through May 27, 2024.

For questions about the data or if you'd like to set up an interview, please contact acurls@consumeraffairs.com.

Reference policy

We love it when people share our findings! If you do, please credit our research by linking back to our original article.


References

ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:

  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics.” Accessed June 5, 2024.Link Here
  2. Zillow, “Housing Data.” Accessed June 5, 2024.Link Here
  3. Urban Institute, “By 2040, the US Will Experience Modest Homeownership Declines. But for Black Households, the Impact Will Be Dramatic.” Accessed June 5, 2024.Link Here

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