More evidence Californians are overpaying for housing - Part I

A look at living costs and transit mobility in the western United States.

20140724-0012 Irvine

Transit Talking Points by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

As you well know, the high cost of living all over Southern California has become an epidemic. No longer can many hard working providers of their households purpose 30% of their gross income toward the rent or mortgage payment as recommended by financial experts; that's if they want to live anywhere near a major job hub in the Southland with resources to spare in order to pay for other obligations. Many are forced to dedicate much more than that or resort to dwelling far from their work.

This is why many commute long distances to/from work which clogs both our regional and local transportation infrastructure. That is why we have urban sprawl.

To help isolate and identify this serious problem, we need to see what our neighboring metropolitan regions are doing and compare them to the marketplace here at home. So, I have set up a number of live/commute/work scenarios. The goal is to see whether or not one can live within 10-15 miles of their job hub near a reliable public transit route and purpose 30% of income to the rent as the sole household provider.

Let's suppose all of the workers in this example require at least a 3 bedroom rental unit: 1 master for the couple, 2 for the kids. I'll assume that if a family has 3 or more kids, a 4+ bedroom house would be desired, but chances are both parents would be working under that. But this experiment is to see whether a 4-person household (ie. 2 parents, 2 kids) can afford the rent by one full time working adult. Again, about 30% of the gross household income would go to the house payment or rent. Here's a few scenarios to kick-start this multi-part series:
  • Adam has received an electronics engineer job offer at a major resort hotel in the Las Vegas Strip for $57,000 per year.
  • Rachel is a CPA senior accountant for a firm in downtown Salt Lake City. Her salary is $66,000 per year.
  • John is a District Manager for a major retailer in Portland, Oregon. His office is in downtown. He's paid $64,000.
  • Robert is working his way up the sports ladder at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix. He now makes $40,000.

Later on, I'll take a look at these live/work scenarios:
  • Lisa works in downtown Sacramento; she's paid $45,000.
  • Justin makes $80,000 per year as an IT tech in the Silcon Valley.
  • Chris earns $50,000 per year for San Francisco's tourism sector.
  • Tom earns $64,000 as an accountant in the Irvine Business Complex
  • Mary pockets $55,000 at a university in La Jolla
  • Courtney works in medicine in Murrieta, making $75,000.
  • Marty makes $56,000 working at U.C. Riverside.
  • Kyle earns $44,000 managing a warehouse in Corona.
  • Jill cashes in on $36,000 at San Bernardino.
  • Pete works in broadcasting at Petco Park in San Diego for $80,000.

I'll also cover live/work costs in New York, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia, San Antonio, Dallas, and the major hub points all over Los Angeles.

These next few series of blog posts will go over how the country's top metropolitan city cores fared in terms of workforce housing affordability without government subsidies.

This first portion will cover California's closest neighbors of Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Portland and Phoenix:

Scenario I: Living cost in Las Vegas
Employee Name: Adam
Gross Household Income: $57k
Job location: Las Vegas Strip at Flamingo Rd
Unit Needed: 3+ bedrooms
Rent Budget: About $1,425

You may remember my post about a spacious 2 bedroom apartment near the strip listed for rent for under $1,000 per month. The complex was clean and offered a very short transit ride to/from the Vegas Strip. I will say that after exploring the rental portal site Zillow, Las Vegas has a robust competitive and stable rental market.

Suppose Adam is not materialistic. He just needs a nice, clean place to call home. Just 5 minutes from the Strip on West Flamingo Road, a 4 bedroom, 2 bathroom 1,036 square foot home had an asking rent for...ready?...only $985 per month. That's a four bedroom rental for less than a grand, five minutes away from the Las Vegas Strip, and walking distance to the local shopping center, the Palms, Gold Coast and Rio hotels. How cool is that? Adam can clearly be the sole provider of his household at his $57,000 per year salary. The neighborhood is an older one, but judging by the street view imagery, it's certainly not a ghetto with most of the homes not having barricaded yards.

Okay, what if 1,036 square feet didn't cut it? Less than a mile west, a spacious, 2,150 square foot, 4 bed, 3 bathroom house was on the market for $1,550 or roughly only 32.6% of Adam's salary--still an acceptable threshold. And that leaves one bedroom to spare for a guest, den or office.

While we're in Vegas, a number of studio units had asking rents of under $500 per month. Nevada's minimum wage is $8.25/hour. A full time worker who worked 20 eight hour shifts per month grosses $1,320 monthly. That adds up to about 37.9% of the salary going to the rent, which is a bit on the high side but still acceptable. At $10 per hour which is California's minimum, the gross monthly income would be $1,600 or 31%.

So even the cook at the corner McDonald's can afford to rent a studio near the Las Vegas Strip. 450 miles up the California/Nevada border, Reno's rental market is very similar.

To be clear, the Las Vegas housing market did take a major toll from the 2008 real estate crash and recession. But a December 2015 report from the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors shows that the market is actually stable and developers returning to compete. Efficient regulatory policy must ensure that the Vegas units remain affordable through a competitive market but it also must prevent the greed of power and outside parties from gobbling up the property and forming major price bubbles which can cripple the economy once they finally burst. Prices and property values need to rise in line with working salaries and the economy, not way higher. The 2008 bubble must not be allowed to repeat, period.

Scenario II: Living cost in Salt Lake City
Employee Name: Rachel
Gross Household Income: $66k
Job location: Downtown
Unit Needed: 3+ bedrooms
Rent Budget: About $1,650

Utah’s high-elevation capital with its robust supporting cities also has a very competitive and affordable rental market for buyers. Rachel works in Downtown and has no intention of using the I-15 freeway. She's got the choices, even in the city core.

An older renovated 3 bedroom, 2 bath, 2,158 square foot unit was listed for $1,695 monthly. But here's the headline: The spacious unit would be at least $3,500 per month if it were in Southern California given its location. It is only four blocks from the University of Utah, three blocks from a TRAX Red Line station which operates every 15 minutes with only a 5 minute ride to/from the downtown core, and literally across the street from the Salt Lake Regional Medical Center. Plus, because of the areas' competitive market, the landowner is offering 2 weeks free to the tenant. Why is this not happening in Southern California?

Utah's minimum wage is $7.25 for non-tipped employees. Like Vegas, studio rentals were also below $500. Although a little tight with about 43% of gross income going toward rent, rookies in the workforce can still afford to live on their own. Vast public transit options would make owning a car not quite a necessity in this western city.

Like Vegas, Salt Lake City was also affected by the boom-bust cycle of the recession no thanks to the greed of outside special interests buying up the cheap housing combined with money being lent to buyers who could not afford to pay the debt. Efficient regulatory oversight must prevent major future bubbles while ensuring efficient competition between developers. Salt Lake City is currently in good shape. When I passed through in 2013, the region was growing yet prices remain affordable today.

Scenario III: Living cost in Portland
Employee Name: John
Gross Household Income: $64k
Job location: Downtown Portland
Unit Needed: 3+ bedrooms
Rent Budget: About $1,600

Portland's rental market is not nearly as competitive as Vegas or Salt Lake. It's environmentally-rich ecosystems and endless groves of evergreen forests dictate the development patterns and growth boundaries, especially near the rivers. Because of that, there are many areas of this hub with very expensive prices and rentals, but one can still find some affordable family-friendly units on the east side of the City of Roses as one approaches Gresham. Think of it as a mini Inland Empire connected by mass transit routes. This developed segment is mostly flat and allows for additional in-fill, environmentally friendly housing growth.

Zillow had a beautiful 3 bed, 2.5 bathroom house listed for an asking rent of under $1,400 per month about 12 miles east of downtown in this valley. The spacious home is only a few blocks away from TriMet Route 21 which operates every 30 minutes during the week. The route feeds into the MAX Red Line and the local ride between the MAX station and the local bus stop is about 10-12 minutes. The Red Line light rail ride into Downtown Portland is under 30 minutes. The commute distance for this unit spans 12 miles. Doing the math, 42 minutes for a peak-hour, public transportation trip plus a short transfer within an area with a fairly expensive rental market is very acceptable. Adam can therefore afford to live somewhere near his job with a stay-at-home wife and has the option to use transit. By the way, the MAX Red Line also directly connects to Portland International Airport.

Studios were around $700-800, again much higher than Nevada and Utah. Portland's minimum wage is $10.10 per hour while the rest of Oregon is $9.25. Across the Columbian River, Washington State is $9.47. About 45-50% of the gross income of an entry-level worker would pay the marketplace rent which creeps into unaffordable territory. I think that's a reason why there's a huge drive to push the wages higher in that region. Nevertheless, Portland has a first-rate mass transit system and the buses from Gresham feed into it. With that, it is not car-centric like the Inland Empire. Many of those entering into the workforce as minimum wage employees certainly will not have to own a car to get to/from work and that could help offset the high concentration of income going toward the house.

But the Portland/Vancouver region could use some additional marketplace housing units of all sizes to lower rentals and prevent another bubble in a reverse way; that is, bad red-tape politics obstructing development which inflates prices. I understand that Portland is pro-transit oriented development with its growth boundaries and taming the natural evergreen woodlands that surround the city could have environmental consequences, especially the wildlife corridors and natural waterways. The governments should look into designating such areas as protected habitats.

That means developers should have the incentive to bring urban manufactured housing technology into town so that such ready-made parts can be used to build full size residential towers quickly in existing developed areas. To be clear, the area's rental market is not in terrible shape like Southern California but the governments needs to allow for better competition there with developers.

Scenario III: Living cost in Phoenix
Employee Name: John
Gross Household Income: $40k
Job location: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Downtown
Unit Needed: 3+ bedrooms
Rent Budget: About $1,000

Finally, over to Phoenix, the nation's 6th most populated city. It's topped by New York, LA, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia. So the market there will have a loud voice in the debate. Like Vegas, the Phoenix Valley was hit hard by the greed of the 2008 housing bubble. Today, prices are very affordable for the workforce and its values must remain in line with working salaries. Infrastructure is growing once again with affordable prices.

I gave John a $40k salary knowing that his options would be more limited with a $1,000 rental budget for a 3 bedroom unit. I wanted to see what options are out there for people with similar salaries. Would it still be possible for John to live somewhere desirable with a short commute to/from the stadium as the sole provider of a 4-person household? The answer is yes.

Take a look at this listing where a 1,280 square foot 3 bedroom apartment unit in an older renovated complex is renting for $1,049 per month with a private commons area and community pool. Transit options are good with Valley Metro Route 29 feeding into the Valley Metro Rail system in addition to Route 19 connecting directly into the western portion of Downtown.

Go up a few miles more and an 1,100 square foot apartment unit with 3 bedroom and 2 baths is listed for only $950 per month. Further north into the Deer Valley area, there's a wide selection of recently built 3+ bedroom houses and apartments ranging from $975-$1,400 per month. Studios all over the valley start at around $400-$500 allowing those making the $8.05 minimum wage a chance to live on their own. I can say for certainty that the workforce in the Phoenix Valley can afford to live close to their jobs. Yes, Phoenix has its share of traffic congestion, but it does not even come close to what the 91, I-15 and I-405 corridors experience everyday in Southern California.

More evidence Californian's are overpaying for housing

So there you have it. For the most part, our neighboring western metropolitan areas across the state borders are not doing bad in terms of ensuring housing is affordable for the workforce and their families without government subsidies. I have to admit that I was surprised in a positive way when I looked over Phoenix's rental market considering that it's the 6th largest city in the country with a growing robust economy, marketplace jobs, business-friendly taxation and stable yet affordable housing market. Also, I did not expect to see affordable workforce units renting for under $1,000 per month anywhere near the Las Vegas Strip with its gigantic land values, let alone a four bedroom house walking distance to the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas. I was surprised to see that too.

With that said, the housing bubble of 2008 really damaged the economies of these areas and I do hear some belly-aching within the environmental circles of how Phoenix, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City were examples of urban sprawl with all of the new tracts and connecting freeways. Besides the unfortunate housing crashes and resulting chaos in prices, I believe the growth patterns there worked and with their markets now finally stable, additional infill development should be explored by the industry as the economy grows to keep the prices in line with growing working salaries. The previous growth spurt last decade was certainly spread out but these cities certainly do not need to be classed with the type of urban sprawl we saw in the Inland Empire during the last two decades with one-way commutes lasting in excess of almost two hours no thanks to expensive housing in Orange County, LA and San Diego.

But because Southern California was also hit hard by the recession, especially in the Inland Empire where registered unemployment crept up to 20% at one point, we too should now be in a position where housing supplies are inline with demands, stabilized and affordable for the workforce. But because the state and local governments won't allow developers to address the supply-and-demand issue with the trivial-red tape politics, lack of legal protection from potential frivolous CEQA lawsuits, and outdated land use zoning, that didn't happen and the rising rental bubble will continue to inflate and spiral out of control and creep into the Inland Empire...until either the governments finally get their acts together, or infuriated businesses and residents pack up and leave the region in search for friendlier options. Then everything will change.

Next week, we'll have a look at the rental markets in Dallas, Chicago, San Antonio and Philadelphia. Phily's going to be interesting. I thought that it would be an expensive spot too considering its population density and #5 spot on the most populated list. The studios near downtown are in smaller, older structures, but prices start at $400-500 per month. 3+ bedroom start around $800-$1,000. Chicago's market will also be interesting; it is distorted due to chronic gang violence and homicides south of the downtown area. How has that affected the market demands in the other supporting suburbs and cities? Stay tuned.