New rental properties at any price point, like this one planned for the 1400 block of South Street, will help keep renting affordable if the growth in supply outpaces the growth in demand – it’s basic Econ 101.
Whatever your opinion on the subject, there’s no denying that housing affordability has become one of the Issues of the Day. We’ve long maintained (for instance, here and here) that, at least by East Coast standards, housing remains affordable overall in Philadelphia, and the problems we do have stem more from the city’s high poverty rate and the desire to maintain a mix of incomes in gentrifying neighborhoods than anything to do with the cost of housing itself.
But the welter of conflicting arguments and reports on the issue have begun to make our head spin. The latest: a report from real estate data site Zillow that states that rents in Philly may be bumping up against the threshold of unaffordability.
According to Zillow figures as reported by NBC10, a household earning the area median income will spend 28.2 percent of it on the rent on the median-priced rental property. That’s a significant jump from its historic level: from 1985 to 2000, rents ate up only 18.2 percent of the area median income.
While that 28.2 percent figure remains below the national average of 29.6 percent, it is worrisome because the rule of thumb for rentals is that rent and utilities should account for no more than 30 percent of income.
(And if that 28.2 percent makes renting in Philly almost unaffordable, then it appears we do have a nationwide housing affordability problem.)
But when one considers the lower median income in the city itself, affordable rental housing does become a matter for concern. According to numbers provided to NBC10 by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Philadelphia is $1,135. A renter would have to earn an hourly wage of $21.83 — $5 an hour more than what an average Philly renter earns, according to the NLIHC — in order to afford that apartment.
The easiest solution to the problem is the Econ 101 one: Build more rental units, period. Even an increase in the supply of expensive apartments frees up existing units for other renters, and if the increase in supply outpaces the increase in population, then rents will fall for the vacant units as landlords try to lure renters to their empty apartments.
At least in Center City and environs, builders have increasingly been doing just that, according to a recent Center City District report. A number of initiatives launched by City Council members also seek to increase the supply of affordable housing. But most of those focus on subsidizing the cost of construction. The real issue is enabling the would-be renter — or buyer — to afford what is being built, and that calls for different approaches.
Rents Unaffordable in Philadelphia: Study (NBC10.com)