Forget lattes, avocado toast: Young folks are spending half their money on rent. That’s the problem

Jess Peterson often spent half her income on rent in her 20s.

It’s an age-old question: Is life harder or easier for today’s young people? Well, score a “win” for the millennials. Younger adults are spending a stunning amount of money on rent — $93,000 by age 30, according to a new study. More important, rent sucks up about 45% of their income during this first, critical decade in the workforce. That leaves precious little leftover to save for a down payment and work towards entering that second phase of adulthood — household formation.

This story first appeared on Credit.com. Read it there. 

How does that compare to earlier generations? Not well. Researchers at RentCafe who crunched numbers available from the U.S. Census say that, yes, on this front, things are harder for today’s 30-somethings. GenX adults spent only 41% of their income on rent by age 30 ($82,000, inflation adjusted) while baby boomers spent just 36% (about $71,000).

“Been there, done that,” said Jess Peterson, 29, who moved to New York City after college to work in the fashion industry. She says she spent anywhere between 30-65% of her income on rent in those years. “The money I spent on rent in my early 20s disgusts me in a lot of ways.”

Things are not looking up for the next generation, sometimes called GenZ, either. RentCafe estimates that they’ll spend just more than $100,000 on rent by age 30, or nearly half their expected income during their 20s.

“If their income won’t keep the same pace with rent growth, the so-called Internet generation will be the most rent-burdened in U.S. history,” warned Adrian Rosenberg, communications specialist for RentCafe.com.

It’s worth noting that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers anyone who spends more than 30 percent of their income “cost-burdened.” Those who spend 50% or more are described as “severely cost burdened.” In other words, we’re headed towards a social structure where the average young person typically spends half their income just to put a roof over their heads, essentially defining an entire generation as severely cost burdened.

For perspective, in 1960, only 24% of renters were even cost-burdened, spending more than 30% of their income on housing, according to ApartmentList.com.

“Millennials do make more money than any other generation before them, but they’re also said to be spending more on things that are not necessarily essential, like Uber rides, pricey coffee or eating out,” says RentCafe.com. But most of their income is devoured, not by takeout, but by housing costs, the firm says.  “The rent difference between millennials and baby boomers is twice as big as the income difference.”

Peterson’s story is typical. She said she initially tried to keep her New York City housing costs low, but she couldn’t make that work.

“I spent as little as I could on rent initially in New York,” she said. “Around the age of 22, I resorted to long commutes in neighborhoods no one was raving about. I got mugged, fairly quickly. Then the debt and sky-high rent seemed to be a safer and happier option.”

She paid between $700 and $1,600 per month during the next nine years – still, she always had roommates.

“I worked as hard as I could to try and get ahead, to get out of the constant hole of living paycheck to paycheck. I almost tripled my salary in 9 years, but it wasn’t enough,” she said. So two years ago, she moved to Pittsburg and started over.

One logical reason that young adults are spending more on rent: their preference for living in big, hip cities, which tend to be more expensive. According to Neilsen, millennials are living in urban centers at a higher rate than any previous generation, helping create a trend that U.S. sees cities growing faster than suburbs for the first time since the 1920s. Nielsen also says that two-thirds of young people say they prefer living in cities.

That trend has helped fuel a huge run-up in rents in popular cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston. Rents in Seattle soared 39.% percent in the past five years. Rents rose 20.2 perent in Boston during that time.

But avoiding booming cities doesn’t provide the relief it once did, either. Mid-sized cities are getting hit with big increases now, too. According to RentCafe, Orlando saw the nation’s fastest rent growth among urban areas over the past year, with an increase of 7.6 percent. Reno, Nevada, came in second with 7.0 percent year-over-year growth, followed by Sacramento, which saw rents grow by 6.8 percent.

Renters aren’t finding much relief by abandoning urban areas, either. Small cities claimed 19 of the top 20 largest rent increases in the U.S during the past 12 months. Odessa and Midland Texas both saw increases of nearly 40%. Fort Collins, Colo., was up 9.9%, while nearby Greeley was up 9.0%. In fact, RentCafe puts Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona on a watchlist of fast growing markets, with many places in those states seeing rent increases well above 5% in the past year.

Meanwhile, younger adults are postponing life events like marriage, children and home purchases anyway. Mortgage Professional America says that homeownership rates among those younger than 35 has fallen from 43.6% to 35.9% in the past decade. Young adults today are well aware of the consequences that GenX’rs faced when they overextended themselves to purchase homes during the housing bubble. Renting also offers greater flexibility at a time when job changes, and even career changes, are common. That increases competition, and price, for rentals.

Within the housing market, other forces are conspiring against would-be millennial buyers, too. Small, cheaper “starter” homes have been slowly disappearing from the market – a trend accelerated by the housing collapse, when institutional investors purchased millions of cheaper homes and turned them into single-family rental units. The Urban Institute reported last year that single-family rentals were the fastest-growing portion of the housing market.

That leaves the “cheap” end of the housing market very thin on supply, which makes things harder on first-time buyers. Trulia.com said in March that the nationwide median list price for a starter home is $180,931, up nearly 10% a year ago. Buyers must spent 41% of their income on their mortgage, up from 37% in 12 months.

In other words, young adults are caught between a rock and a hard place – both rent and mortgage eat up more than 40% of their incomes.

Peterson is doing better now that she has found less-oppressive housing costs in Pittsburgh; she even sees a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s still a pretty dim light, however.

“I can finally say I pay 25% of my pay towards rent. However, still not living alone. I think the first step is getting to that lower percentage, whatever way possible,” she said. “I have only just begun to think it possible to buy real estate. However, not alone. Only with a partner do I feel capable of making it happen.”

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About Bob Sullivan 1286 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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