Too Early To Declare Victory on Affordability

MLewyn's picture

I just read numerous discussions about how high-cost cities really are cheaper than you might think, based on a study by New York's Citizens'  Budget Commission purporting to show that when housing and transportation costs are combined, New York is actually one of the most affordable cities in the United States.  Since I just left New York, this seemed a bit too good to be true. 

And indeed it is.  The study assumed that the average New York household of renters pays $14,700 in rent- about $1200 a month.  But anyone who has lived in New York knows that there's not much you can get for $1200 per month, unless you are living with roommates (and not even then if you live in Manhattan) or are living in a very poor neighborhood indeed.  I just did a search on and found that even in the Bronx (New York's poorest borough) only 40 or so out of 169 one-bedroom units rented for less than $1200, and only 11 of 32 studios.  In Queens, only 8 out of 150 studios rented for less than $1200, and only 3 out of over 500 one-bedrooms.  And in Brooklyn, only about 20 of 466 studios rented for less than $1200.   

So why would anyone think that the average rent is $1200? My guess is that this figure includes government-subsidized housing and rent-controlled housing, mostly occupied by long-time tenants.  But for someone making locational decisions today, such housing is irrelevant: there are often long-waiting lists for the former, and rent-controlled apartments are also rare.  So if you are comparing cities, it makes more sense to compare what is on the market today: for example, by comparing the $2500 per month I paid in Manhattan to the $900 per month I pay in Kansas City.  (In fairness, I earn so much less here that I still came out ahead in New York, even though unlike most Kansas Citians I do not have a car there). 


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