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Updated on Tuesday, May 7, 2019
Most U.S. workers’ real wages have been stagnant over the past four decades, according to analysis from the Pew Research Center. With the prices of crucial expenses such as housing and healthcare increasing over these decades as well, consumers’ purchasing power today is about the same as in the 1970s. These circumstances have contributed to the belief that overall, Americans’ incomes aren’t keeping up with the rising costs of living.We set out to analyze U.S. Census Bureau data for America’s 100 largest metros to compare incomes to housing costs. Our findings show that this trend might be reversing — at least for residents of America’s biggest cities.
Compared to three years ago, the typical household in these cities has more money left over after paying for housing. In other words, even though housing costs have risen over the last three years, the dollar amount of wages have grown faster and exceeded the dollar pricing increases for both renting and owning a home.
In fact, famously-expensive metros saw the biggest jumps in the gap between income and housing costs. This trend also holds in places where rents take a greater share of household income.
- The median household in each of the 100 largest metros takes home more cash after paying for housing than they did three years ago.
- Households in San Francisco saw the biggest gain in gross income after housing costs, up $10,642 more per year compared to three years previous. For renters, the amount is $9,982, and for homeowners with a mortgage the amount is $12,178.
- Annual savings at the other end of the list are still substantial. The median household in Albuquerque, N.M. has an extra $1,750 a year — $1,438 for renters and $2,194 for homeowners with a mortgage.
- Rent costs are increasing at a faster rate than costs for households who own their own homes and still have a mortgage in every metro. Even so, wage growth has outstripped those increases.
- The 2017 homeownership costs in most metros exceeds the 30% marker that is traditionally used as a guideline for affordable housing costs. This suggests that homeownership is still not affordable for most households in those metros.
- In a few places, the percentage of a household’s income spent on rent has increased — such as in Denver; Colorado Spring, Colo.; and San Jose, Calif. Even so, these households still take home more dollars after paying rent than they did three years ago.
- The effect is especially pronounced in famously expensive cities; the first seven metros on our list, from San Francisco to Boston, are notorious for high rent costs.
- Median housing costs have actually dropped in a handful of cities, such as Atlanta (down by $24 per year), Birmingham, Ala. ($24), Chicago ($24), Cleveland ($84), Detroit ($144), Jacksonville, Fla. ($36) and Las Vegas ($216).
- Rents have risen at a faster rate than homeownership costs, but median costs for the latter are still higher across the board. As a result, homeowners today have more funds leftover after paying their mortgages and property expenses, even though they are spending a greater percentage of their incomes on housing.
- Median rents in every metro lie comfortably below the 30% mark of median gross income, but homeownership costs exceed the 30% rule in most places.
Our study compared local incomes to housing costs in the top 100 metros. We then ranked them based on how much local wages have increased compared to housing costs, dollar for dollar, with the highest increase starting at 1 (in green on the map above) and going to the lowest at 100 (in red).
Hover over the map to see the ranking of each city and how much incomes after housing costs have increased in the past three years.
10 cities where incomes are rising faster than housing costs
When income rises faster than housing costs, our study found, this puts thousands more dollars per year into people’s pockets.
With these extra funds, households might find they have more funds available to cover other living expenses, from groceries to utilities to healthcare. This money can ease the demands placed on households by consumer debt such as credit cards, auto loans or personal loans. It could even grant them more room in their budgets to save, get out of debt or invest.
Here, we highlight the 10 cities in which the gap between median incomes and housing costs is growing the fastest.
1. San Francisco
San Francisco has become notorious in the past decade for its soaring housing costs, but it appears that local incomes are finally catching up. This city had the highest increase in local incomes left over after housing costs — for both renters and homeowners.
Overall, San Franciscans have $10,642 more in gross income after paying for housing than they did three years ago. That translates to a gain of $9,982 for renters, and $12,178 for homeowners.
Despite these high dollar amount increases, the percentage of the median gross income required to cover the median rent has remained mostly unchanged, falling just 0.2%. By contrast, San Francisco had the steepest decline in the percentage of a local median income required to cover homeownership costs — down 12.3% from three years ago.
2. San Jose, California
Neighboring San Francisco is San Jose, the next city where residents saw the largest increases in incomes overall, rising $12,849 in the past three years. This increase helped typical workers pocket $9,909 more in gross annual income after paying housing costs, compared to three years previous.
Rent costs rose faster than home owning costs over those years, too. Renters’ after-housing income rose $9,117 in the past three years, compared to $11,913 more for homeowners.
Despite having one of the largest increases dollar-for-dollar, however, San Jose’s numbers are less impressive when comparing housing costs directly to income. The percentage of the city’s median gross income required to cover median housing costs fell by just 0.8% in the past three years — the smallest decrease of any city we surveyed.
In Seattle, the median gross income increased by $8,300 per year in just three years. Local workers’ paychecks increased far faster than their housing costs, which were up $1,164 during the same period — resulting in a net gain of $7,136 overall.
During the three years we looked at, Seattle homeownership costs decreased by 10.3% relative to income while rent costs were up 2.6% compared to incomes. The three-year increase in income after housing costs was $6,272 for renters, and $8,180 for homeowners. In actual dollars, this meant homeowners netted $1,908 more per year from rising incomes than their renting neighbors.
4. Austin, Texas
At No. 4 is Austin, where the amount of a median gross income left over after paying median housing costs increased by $6,737 per year. This number specific to renters is $6,125, and homeowners are taking home $7,025 more after housing costs per year.
This is thanks again to rising local incomes, which shot up $7,817 from 2014 to 2017 while median housing costs increased by just $1,080.
Overall, the percentage of a gross median income required to cover Austin’s median housing costs fell by 4.5% over those three years.
5. Portland, Oregon
Portland is No. 5 among cities where incomes have increased the most compared to housing costs in over the past three years. This net gain in dollars is $6,733, reflecting median incomes that increases $7,825 per year compared to a rise of just $1,092 in annual housing costs.
Homeowners in Portland saw the biggest gains; the percentage of the median income required to cover the costs of owning a home fell by 11.2%. In dollars, homeowners here had an average of $7,693 more of their gross income leftover after covering housing costs than three years previous. For renters, this figure is $6,025.
Notably, Portland ranked No. 7 out of 50 in our rankings of the places where Americans live the most balanced lifestyles.
Next is the Mile High City, Denver, where increases in income outstripped the rise in housing costs to grant locals an average of $6,418 more in annual income, after housing costs. This is based on the $7,678 rise in Denver’s median income in the past three years, which outsrippted the $1,260 rise in housing costs during the same period.
Rising rent costs, however, have countered some of the income gains for Denver residents. For workers earning the local median income, the percentage of their pay that would be devoted to rent costs actually rose by 7.7% over three years — the steepest increase of any city we surveyed. Compare that to a 3.1% fall in costs-to-income for homeowners.
Another high cost-of-living city makes the list with Boston. Fortunately, the median annual income was up $7,344 from 2014 to 2017, helping to make up for some of the city’s high costs. Housing costs rose $1,008 per year during the same period.
In all, a typical Bostonian has $6,336 more in gross income leftover after paying for housing, compared to three years ago. This same figure is $5,952 for renters, specifically, and $7,128 for homeowners.
8. Bridgeport, Connecticut
In the city of Bridgeport, slower-rising housing costs are also contributing to a widening gap between housing costs and incomes. Here, annual housing costs are just $432 higher than they were three years ago — the smallest increase in housing costs among the top 10 cities.
That means that more of the $6,610 increase in incomes from 2014 to 2017 will make its way into Bridgeport resident’s pockets being eaten up by housing costs.
In all, the three-year increase in incomes after accounting for housing costs is $6,178 .This number is actually higher for local homeowners, at $7,018, and lower for renters,$5,266.
9. Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville locals have $5,984 more in gross income after paying housing costs today than they did three years ago. Housing costs rose $576 during that time, while incomes were up $6,560.
While this isn’t the highest dollar amount, it reflects a drop of 6.7 percentage points in the ratio of housing costs to income. In other words, Nashville is the top 10 city where locals who saw the biggest increase in the percentage of their income they get to keep rather than pay toward housing.
10. Salt Lake City
Rounding out the list is Salt Lake City, which ranked in the top cities to live out your golden years. Despite a boom in housing costs in the past 15 years, wages in this Utah city have also increased. From 2014 to 2017, the median household income rose $6,309, exceeding the $456 rise in housing costs for a total gain of $5,853 for Salt Lake City locals.
In all, Salt Lake City residents are still coming out ahead, with more money leftover after paying for housing compared to three years previous.
Understanding the metrics
Comparing data from the American Community Survey for 2017 to 2014, analysts subtracted the change in median household income from the change in median housing costs (annualized) to determine the three-year change in gross income left over after paying for housing.
In addition, we also calculated the change in the percentage of income a median household would spend on median housing costs, and then we repeated the exercise for median rents and median costs for homeowners who have mortgages. In all, this generated the following findings for each city:
- 3-Year change in gross income left over after housing costs (annual)
- 3-Year change in gross income left over after rent (annual)
- 3-Year change in gross income left over after homeownership costs, including mortgage (annual)
- 3-Year change in the percentage of the median gross income required for median housing costs
- 3-Year change in the percentage of the median gross income required for median rent
- 3-Year change in the percentage of the median gross income required for median homeownership costs, including mortgage
Scroll to the end of this piece for a table that includes these full study findings for each city.
The median housing cost estimate is inclusive of every household within a Metropolitan Statistical Areas, which may include a city and surrounding communities. The rent estimate is limited to people who pay rent, and we limited the homeownership costs (which includes costs such as taxes and insurance) to those with a mortgage. We excluded homeowners without a mortgage, as their housing costs are likely to stay close to flat and wouldn’t reflect area changes in housing costs.
In several instances, we found that a higher proportion of median income was required to pay the median rent in 2017 than it was in 2014. Even in these cases, the median households brought home more money after paying rent.
Conventional wisdom says that households should spend no more than 30% of their gross income on housing costs. In every metro we reviewed, the ratio of median income required to pay median rent fall comfortably below this line. Yet rents were more likely to have increased on pace with wages, meaning renters saw smaller gains in after-housing income than homeowners.
The ratio of housing costs to income homeowners, however, exceeds that limit in most metros, implying that homeownership is still not affordable for the typical household. Together, these findings suggest that while homeowners’ housing costs rise more slowly than renters’, they must use a large chunk of income to cover those costs than do renters.
Below is a table with the full findings for all 100 cities in our study. After the column listing the city, the leftmost three columns shows the change, in dollars, of gross income left after paying for housing costs. The rightmost three columns show the change in the percentage of the median income needed to pay for the median housing costs in that city.
Researchers compared 2017 and 2014 median household income, as well as 2017 and 2014 median housing costs, median gross rent, and median housing costs for homeowners with a mortgage. The results were aggregated to the 100 largest municipal statistical areas, and the data is from the American Community Survey 5-Year estimates from the U.S. Census.