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It’s moving season. Across American cities, ahead of new school and college terms, streets fill up with people sweating in the summer heat as they lug furniture and piles of discarded household items. Inevitably, the season ushers in frantic rent negotiations with landlords.
Over the past 20 years rising rents have outpaced wage growth in America. According to Moody’s, a financial-services company, the average share of household income spent on rent hit 30% in 2022, its highest proportion in at least 25 years. That means the average American household is now classed as “rent-burdened” (defined as paying more than 30% of gross salary on rent). For city dwellers, particularly those who wish to live alone—as Carrie Bradshaw, the protagonist of “Sex and the City”, did in New York—finding affordable housing is particularly challenging. By our calculations, in some cities even the humble studio apartment is well beyond the means of the average worker.
Using data on median rent prices from Zumper, an online property platform, The Economist calculated the salary needed to afford to rent a studio apartment in 100 of the largest cities in America. Unsurprisingly, New York tops the list: on average, tenants should probably earn at least $140,000 to comfortably afford a room of their own. Big cities in California, as well as Boston, Miami, Jersey City and Washington, DC make up the top ten, with renters having to earn well above the national median wage of $46,000 if they want to live alone. Fully 57 of the 100 cities, including Atlanta, Charleston and Orlando, require gross salaries higher than the national average.
But of course, wages vary across the country too. To find cities where a studio apartment is within reach for the average earner we developed the “Carrie Bradshaw index”. Using pay data from the American Bureau of Labour Statistics we calculated the ratio of the median salary in each city to the salary needed to afford rent on a studio apartment. In some places the Bradshaw index is greater than 1, meaning living alone is affordable for most workers. Take Seattle, where the $57,000 annual wage that is required to comfortably afford a studio is less than the real median wage of around $62,000. This gives Seattle a Carrie Bradshaw score of 1.1. In Miami however, the median salary of $44,000 is well below the required $89,000, giving it a score of 0.49. A value below 1 means a typical studio is unaffordable for a typical worker.
A total of 62 of the 100 cities have a score below 1. In bad news for aspiring Carries, New York is at one extreme. With an index value of 0.4, the median salary of $57,000 is less than half of what is required to live comfortably alone (although our data on rental prices focuses only on properties in pricey Manhattan, whereas our data on wages includes workers spread across the larger metropolitan area, potentially making the value lower than it should be). Boston and Jersey City, two other east-coast cities, also look unaffordable for most, with scores of 0.66 and 0.48, respectively. But many of the places with Bradshaw index values below 1 are spread across the south and west of the country, where several cities have seen rapid population growth in recent years. Charlotte, North Carolina, with a score of 0.72, was one of the fastest-growing big cities in 2022. An influx of new renters may have contributed to pushing up prices.
But for a flexible renter, some affordable options remain. Take St Louis, Missouri, where the median wage, at $46,000, is nearly one and a half times what is needed to rent a studio, giving it an index value of 1.4. For those craving the hustle and bustle of a bigger city, Cincinnati, Detroit or Minneapolis all offer good value for money. Relocate wisely, and you might even be able to afford the luxury of a separate living room. Or Carrie’s walk-in wardrobe.