WASHINGTON — San Francisco has outlandishly high rents — among the highest in the nation — yet a striking number of tenants there can afford to plunk down as much as $3,000 for a studio apartment.
Higher incomes for the tech gurus increasingly populating San Francisco make its renters the least financially burdened of the 50 largest U.S. cities, according a new analysis of Census Bureau data by ApartmentList.
The government considers renters to be strained if more than 30 percent of their incomes go toward housing. Only 42.5 percent of San Francisco tenants met this threshold in 2014, compared with a national average of 51.8 percent.
"We expected some of the highest cost burdens in the Bay Area, but apparently the combination of rent control and increasing wages in the city have done enough to minimize the pain," said Andrew Woo, a manager for growth strategy at the online service ApartmentList.
Similar patterns exist in other cities with high concentrations of technology firms and educated millennial workers, including Denver, Austin and Seattle. The median rent in Denver has risen 37 percent since 2007 to $993. Yet the median income for a renter climbed by the same percentage to $39,000, preserving a degree of affordability in one of the country's hottest housing markets.
The analysis suggests that stagnant wages — rather than just the mounting costs of construction and building maintenance — are driving a crisis in housing affordability. Just 24 percent of renters nationwide faced burdensome housing costs in 1960, a share that peaked at 53.4 percent in 2011 as the United States began to slowly recover from the Great Recession.
The affordability problems have emerged as fewer Americans have the financial resources to own a home. More than 36 percent of households now rent. That figure has steadily risen since 2004 with the formation and then the bursting of the housing bubble, according to government data released Tuesday.
A 14.8 surge in apartment and building construction year-to-date has offset some of the price pressures. Yet rents in newly built properties are prohibitively high for many Americans whose incomes have yet to fully recover more than six years after the recession ended. The median rent listed for a new apartment unit was $1,290 in 2013. That level would be burdensome for more than two-thirds of renter households, according to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Since the recession, the proportion of burdened renters in several cities has risen as incomes have trailed housing costs. In New York City, fully 55.1 percent of renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, up from 49.8 percent in 2007. The share of burdened renters has also risen substantially in the wake of the recession in Boston, Los Angeles and Memphis.
Nearly two-thirds of Detroit renters are financially burdened. Their incomes have actually fallen by $345 since 2008 to $17,340. But the least affordable major city is Miami, where 37 percent pay more their half income on rent and 66.2 percent qualify as financially burdened.
Those cities lack the economic opportunities of the Bay Area in northern California.
Jarrett Herold moved to San Francisco last year from Pittsburgh, taking a job at the courier and shipping startup Shyp. He shares a one-bedroom apartment with his girlfriend, paying a combined $2,990 a month. They enjoy a perk that also limits their living costs: Breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided by their employers to keep them working.
Yet despite the pricey rent, he says that living in the city has been a worthwhile investment in his career.
"I've learned more in a year than I did in my last job at a traditional company," Herold said.