The Median Income Gives Renters Access to More Than Two Thirds of the Stock in Raleigh, San Francisco and Omaha

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Key takeaways:

  • The median income provides burden-free access to 49% of all U.S. rentals, up from 38% in 2011.
  • Access to rental housing has improved in 40 of the 50 largest cities between 2011 and 2017.
  • Big paychecks, expensive homes and rent control have led to a unique situation in San Francisco.

Ten years after the latest big meltdown of the housing market, when the mortgage crisis shot the demand for apartments to the stratosphere, we can finally say we are sailing in calmer waters. One way to measure this change is by rent burden, which defines an affordable rent as one that takes 30% or less of a household’s income. However, being able to comfortably afford an apartment is just part of the story. A broader way to understand the rental market is by looking at accessibility, since comparing incomes against the number of units that are affordable gives an entirely different picture of a rental market.

The basic idea behind accessibility is fairly simple. It’s the percentage of all apartments in a market that one can afford with a given income.  A look at the cross-section of where the job market and the housing market intertwine reveals what the rental market has to offer and for how much, and most importantly, how much of it can renters afford.

The highest accessibility rates are shaped by solid incomes rather than cheap rents

As a general trend, renting has become far more popular over the past decade or so in the U.S. Of course, the housing crisis is always a convenient explanation for the increased number of renter households, as renting was the only way out for many. There is however more than one factor at play.

According to ACS one-year estimates, the nationwide median gross rent has seen a 16% increase from 2011 to 2017 but at the same time the median income for renter households has grown by no less than 26%. (Check out the interactive table at the end of the article to see the data broken down for the 50 largest cities.) As a result, the median renter income now grants burden-free access to 49% of the total U.S. rental stock – up 11 percentage points from the 2011 share of just 38%. The millennial generation is also highly motivated to live in urban areas close to job opportunities, which adds massively to the popularity of renting. The speedy evolution of the tech industry has further amplified this phenomenon since fast-growing companies generally offer competitive salaries and recruit many young professionals who have yet to buy their first home.

Accessibility rate change - national 2011-2017

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that tech hubs perform very well when it comes to renter incomes. Couple that with the modest rents of a secondary housing market and you have the recipe for the apartment market with the highest rate of accessibility. Renters earning a median income can choose from a staggering 71% of all apartments in Raleigh, NC. Incomes here have risen far beyond their 2011 level – renters now earn 44% more, while rents have only increased by 29%, in part due to supply-side increases via robust development activity in the city’s multifamily market.

The median income in San Francisco, CA also allows renters to choose from as much as 68% of the inventory. How? First of all, the median renter household income clocks in at $92,123, almost 2.4x the national level. The favorable labor market conditions have of course affected this figure directly, but as an indirect effect they have also pushed the median home price to $1.5M. This makes renting the only way to go for many – even for those with paychecks that most homeowners elsewhere in the country only dream about. With the barrier to entry at a dizzying height, some 65% of the city’s population now lives in rental homes and San Francisco has become a city of wealthy renters. As a previous study revealed, households that earn upwards of $150,000 are more likely to choose renting over a mortgage, and sure enough, more than a quarter of all renter households fall into this income range.
Another defining characteristic that makes a large share of the market accessible is that 60% or so of the stock is subject to rent control. This is also key to understanding why accessibility has increased at such a high rate. Although renters now take home 67% more money compared to 2011, rents have shown a relatively slow 30% increase over the same period – similar to that in Raleigh.

Omaha, NE, Columbus, OH, and Oklahoma City, OK took spots 3 through 5, respectively. Unlike in Raleigh and San Francisco, the median renter household income in these cities is comparable to the national level and the high accessibility rates are attributable to relatively cheap rents instead of remarkable salaries. In terms of growth, however, rents have been sluggish compared to incomes – up by only 21%, while renter incomes have seen a 39% uptick in six years – so the 6-year increases in accessibility have been driven by fast income growth in these cases too.

rental housing accessibility - top 10 most accessible markets

The least accessible rental markets in America’s 50 most populous cities were New Orleans, LA and Philadelphia, PA neck-and-neck with both cities offering just 16% of the stock to renter households on the median income looking for burden-free housing. What’s worse, accessibility has declined in both cities and neither of them were doing very well in 2011 to begin with – New Orleans slid back one percentage point from an initial 17%, while Philadelphia dropped 6 pp. from 22%. Detroit, MI has the third-lowest accessibility rate for rental housing out of the largest cities, 21%, but at least it’s a 9-point improvement over the dismal 12% recorded in 2011.

Thr list is completed the following U.S. cities: Miami, FL, Los Angeles, CA, Milwaukee, WI, Baltimore, MD, Fresno, CA, Sacramento, CA, Memphis, TN.

rental housing accessibility - top 10 least accessible markets

Pool of choices is growing in most large cities

In 40 of the 50 largest cities, the share of accessible apartment stock has increased between 2011 and 2017, and in most of them quite significantly. More than half of these, 21 cities have seen the proportions of the income and the composition of the market improving by at least 10 percentage points. Raleigh and San Francisco top this list as well, where the share of affordable stock has extended from the 2011 figure by 28 and 25 pp., respectively. ColumbusJacksonvilleOmahaPortland and Minneapolis have also seen increases of 20 pp. or more in six years. Although Oklahoma City registered a more modest, 13-pp. shift, it’s still impressive considering the already high starting point of 45% in 2011. Meanwhile, at national level the share of affordable apartments has come within a hair’s breadth to the magic 50% mark, up 11 pp. from the 38% registered six years prior.

The other major cities with an increase in share of accessible apartment stock between 2011 and 2017 are: Arlington, TX, Wichita, KS, Fort Worth, TX, Mesa, AZ, Phoenix, AZ, Tulsa, OK, Louisville, KY, Kansas City, MO, San Antonio, TX, Albuquerque, NM, San Jose, CA, Chicago, IL, Atlanta, GA, Nashville, TN, San Diego, CA, New York, NY, Oakland, CA, Indianapolis, IN, and Boston, MA.

There are, however, nine cities in the top 50 where median income earners have fewer options than they used to. Looking solely at the magnitude of change, Virginia Beach and El Paso seem to be the hardest-hit, where the pool of choices has shrunk by 14 p.p and 9 p.p, respectively. However, the situation is much more daunting in Philadelphia and New Orleans. In these two cities, renters had very few options to begin with. Both Philly’s initial 22% and the already critically low 17% of New Orleans have now reached 16%.

Dallas is the only city out of the 50 most populous where the share of apartments accessible burden-free for a renter household earning the median income has remained the same from 2011 to 2017, at 51%.

The table below shows the top 10 cities by improvement in rental housing accessibility between 2011 and 2017. Expand the table to see the full list and click on the column headers to sort the entries differently or to see them in reverse order.

CityAccessibility Rate (2011)Accessibility Rate (2017)Accessibility Rate Change
(percentage points)
Rank Change
Raleigh, NC43%71%28+13
San Francisco, CA43%68%25+13
Columbus, OH37%61%24+22
Jacksonville, FL29%52%23+28
Omaha, NE43%64%21+13
Portland, OR33%53%20+24
Minneapolis, MN31%51%20+20
Long Beach, CA32%48%16+11
Oakland, CA27%42%15+6
Atlanta, GA29%43%14+9
Chicago, IL31%45%14+8
Oklahoma City, OK45%58%13+5
New York City, NY30%42%12+3
Washington, DC38%50%12+6
Memphis, TN21%33%12+4
San Diego, CA31%42%11+3
Albuquerque, NM36%46%10+2
Louisville, KY38%48%10+4
Milwaukee, WI19%29%10+3
Kansas City, MO38%48%10+4
Detroit, MI12%21%9+2
Fresno, CA22%31%90
San Antonio, TX38%47%9+1
Boston, MA28%37%9+1
Nashville, TN34%42%8-4
Arlington, TX44%52%8+4
Fort Worth, TX43%51%8+4
Phoenix, AZ42%49%7+1
Tulsa, OK42%48%6+1
Indianapolis, IN34%39%5-9
Baltimore, MD25%30%5-2
Mesa, AZ45%50%5-4
San Jose, CA40%45%5-5
Wichita, KS48%52%4-2
Miami, FL20%23%30
Tucson, AZ32%35%3-7
Houston, TX49%52%3-3
Denver, CO45%47%2-11
Los Angeles, CA21%23%20
Austin, TX50%51%1-9
Dallas, TX51%51%0-9
Sacramento, CA33%32%-1-11
Seattle, WA48%47%-1-15
New Orleans, LA17%16%-1-1
Charlotte, NC42%40%-2-17
Las Vegas, NV46%43%-3-20
Colorado Springs, CO 47%42%-5-23
Philadelphia, PA22%16%-6-5
El Paso, TX49%40%-9-31
Virginia Beach, VA58%44%-14-27

These significant changes in housing accessibility have resulted in a spectacular game of snakes and ladders. Jacksonville, FL takes pride in having the 10th most accessible housing stock for renters, a remarkable achievement considering it was at 38th, a 28-place climb in just six years. Portland, OR has catapulted itself 24 places higher in the same period, from 30th straight to 6th place. Columbus, OH ran the third-fastest sprint in the race for most accessible city, now being 22 places further up from 26th, just missing the podium at 4th place.

Back in 2011 Virginia Beach, VA offered the largest share of housing, renters with a median income could afford 58% of the stock. Fast-forward six years, and the city has now barely made it to the top 30, having slid back 27 positions. Dallas and Austin were also on the podium, but the two Texas cities have been overtaken by 9 cities each, thus falling out of the top 10. The 27-place fallback of Virginia Beach is not even the biggest decline among the 50 largest cities: El Paso, TX has lost a whopping 31 places, now ranked 36th down from 5th place.

Use the search box in the interactive table below for detailed information about your city, or click on the column headers to sort the 50 largest cities by the data point of your choice.

CityRental Stock (2017)Median Renter Household Income (2011) Median Renter Household Income (2017)Income ChangeMedian Gross Rent (2011)Median Gross Rent (2017)Rent Change
Albuquerque, NM84,228$26,013$31,04119%$734$83714%
Arlington, TX57,149$30,967$41,10133%$796$99024%
Atlanta, GA109,464$29,353$38,55631%$916$1,10421%
Austin, TX203,369$36,061$50,51040%$905$1,24437%
Baltimore, MD122,593$24,402$33,34037%$880$1,03518%
Boston, MA170,457$33,085$45,52938%$1,238$1,54124%
Charlotte, NC153,138$31,141$44,18042%$851$1,08828%
Chicago, IL562,989$30,248$39,07029%$905$1,06718%
Colorado Springs, CO 75,137$33,834$38,50014%$834$1,09331%
Columbus, OH192,977$28,542$38,31734%$776$91718%
Dallas, TX303,764$32,058$40,53326%$794$99225%
Denver, CO144,773$32,265$49,27753%$849$1,28651%
Detroit, MI130,912$16,425$21,13129%$741$7826%
El Paso, TX90,855$28,217$29,4314%$706$83218%
Fort Worth, TX125,743$29,102$41,00141%$795$99425%
Fresno, CA87,873$26,955$33,38124%$866$95410%
Houston, TX465,685$31,658$39,22224%$808$98622%
Indianapolis, IN151,173$26,094$32,32824%$742$87017%
Jacksonville, FL146,426$30,842$38,23924%$904$9889%
Kansas City, MO91,783$28,225$35,96027%$778$91918%
Las Vegas, NV109,562$34,792$40,51516%$934$1,07115%
Long Beach, CA98,673$36,808$46,39426%$1,064$1,27820%
Los Angeles, CA861,808$33,385$45,08135%$1,135$1,39723%
Louisville, KY96,190$23,679$32,48837%$675$81020%
Memphis, TN128,688$24,559$29,93922%$785$86310%
Mesa, AZ66,027$31,071$39,19226%$837$1,00320%
Miami, FL118,346$24,473$32,60033%$906$1,16529%
Milwaukee, WI132,171$22,876$28,91526%$737$82011%
Minneapolis, MN90,541$26,984$39,62047%$783$98926%
Nashville, TN126,069$28,046$44,19958%$795$1,07936%
New Orleans, LA78,422$22,143$23,7997%$914$9625%
New York City, NY2,076,517$37,891$47,11624%$1,168$1,37918%
Oakland, CA94,305$33,601$52,00855%$1,049$1,39433%
Oklahoma City, OK91,901$27,073$35,61632%$733$84115%
Omaha, NE78,055$28,186$39,12939%$738$89221%
Philadelphia, PA286,192$23,855$24,6863%$853$96914%
Phoenix, AZ240,096$30,596$40,39432%$815$1,01324%
Portland, OR120,500$30,092$45,13050%$876$1,21639%
Raleigh, NC84,470$31,731$45,60344%$837$1,08229%
Sacramento, CA95,102$32,179$42,16431%$954$1,21527%
San Antonio, TX217,293$28,577$35,16923%$787$92618%
San Diego, CA260,635$43,735$57,63532%$1,277$1,64229%
San Francisco, CA223,346$55,032$92,12367%$1,407$1,83630%
San Jose, CA134,163$47,035$76,59863%$1,385$2,10952%
Seattle, WA170,489$40,993$62,26952%$1,024$1,55552%
Tucson, AZ99,436$24,366$28,77018%$701$81717%
Tulsa, OK76,458$25,997$31,48221%$692$81117%
Virginia Beach, VA57,949$45,261$55,11022%$1,183$1,32112%
Washington, DC158,550$44,902$55,71024%$1,216$1,49923%
Wichita, KS61,256

  • This study analyzes the accessibility of the rental housing market in the 50 most populous U.S. cities as well as nationwide in 2017, and also in comparison with 2011.
  • The analysis is based on the total number of rental units, the median renter household income and gross rents using ACS one-year estimates for 2017 as well as for 2011, as provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • A 30% rent-to-income ratio was considered the threshold for accessibility.
  • Accessibility was measured by the percentage of all apartments in a market that a renter household can afford by spending 30% or less of the local median annual income.

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Balazs Szekely, our Senior Creative Writer has a degree in journalism and dynamic career experience spanning radio, print and online media, as well as B2B and B2C copywriting. With extensive experience at several real estate industry publications, he’s well-versed in coworking trends, remote work, lifestyle and health topics. Balazs’ work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as on CBS, CNBC and more. He’s fascinated by photography, winter sports and nature, and, in his free time, you may find him away from home on a city break. You can drop Balazs a line via email.

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