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Cost-burdened renters are low in SF, because high-income renters have increased

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“Unfortunately, this is largely the result of high-income renters delaying homeownership”

San Francisco is one of the nation’s least affordable cities for renters, unless you happen to be one of the hundreds of thousands of people who can afford it.

That’s the potentially deceptive takeaway from rental site ApartmentList’s recent analysis of the most recent U.S. Census estimates concerning which cities and counties have the highest number of “rent-burdened” residents.

Rent burdened is a term the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) uses to classify those being squeezed the hardest while paying for a roof over their heads.

Says HUD:

HUD defines cost-burdened families as those “who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing” and “may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and medical care.” Severe rent burden is defined as paying more than 50 percent of one’s income on rent.

It’s a quick and dirty rule of thumb that the federal government has used for decades to gauge the breadth and severity of a housing crisis.

ApartmentList research associate Sydney Bennet says that, according to the most recent American Community Survey, covering the 2015-2016 period, 49.7 percent of Americans live rent-burdened.

Photo via Waterbend

That’s the lowest rate in years, but “unfortunately, this is largely the result of [...] high-income renters delaying homeownership” rather than any easing of the cost of rental.

Since ApartmentList also routinely fingers San Francisco as having the highest rents in the U.S., you might imagine that rent burden in SF also runs pandemic. But not so, says Bennet.

According to the ApartmentList list, a mere 38.3 percent of San Francisco renters qualify as rent burdened, of which the “severely rent burdened” make up a slim majority at 19.6 percent.

That means that of 1,391 metro areas with data compiled by the rental site, SF comes in just 1,287th place.

The reason, Bennet said in an email to Curbed SF, is that while rents are up 26 percent since 2005, incomes are also up 32.5 percent.

Of course, just like the decline in rent burden nationwide, this is not good news at all—it just means that SF has picked up more wealthy renters (who have to pay an arm and a leg) and lost many more of its working-class and low-income renters.

Which is why it’s probably not a coincidence that isolating the larger SF-Oakland-Hayward metro area in the census numbers instead of just the city itself drives the rent burden rate up to 46.8 percent.

Rows of apartments in San Francisco. Photo by Alexander Demyanenko