One good measure of affordability is this: How much of your paycheck do you spend on housing every month? Experts have traditionally pegged 30% as an optimal amount — people who spend more than that might be considered “housing poor” — though that number is fairly random, and the real answer is “it depends.” Lower-income folks who spend half their paycheck on rent live far more stressful financial lives than high-income folks who spend half their income on a mortgage — the latter group still has plenty left over at the end of the month.
But 30% is certainly a good measuring stick; once you climb over 40%, you are probably in a real danger zone for cash-flow problems. And if nearly half the people in a city spend more than 30% of their income on housing, we can all agree that’s an expensive place to live.
Housing affordability, or the rate of housing-poor citizens, is a nice data point to ponder because it takes several factors into account — home prices, salaries, even unemployment, to some extent.
While stories about housing unaffordablity pile up on news sites — rents are up, home prices are up, first-time homebuyers are disappearing — it’s easy to forget that the housing market is not one thing. It’s hundreds of smaller “things.” Lexington is not San Francisco. Columbus is not Seattle.
So here’s a little gem tucked into the Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey, courtesy of the Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. Below you will find lists of the 10 most- and least-expensive metro areas to live in the U.S., based on the percentage of residents who spend more than 30% of their income on housing. The headline: People within the U.S. are living vastly different lives based on their housing costs.
Jed Kolko, who called attention to the data in his report on highlights from the recently-released 2014 Census data for the Berkeley Terner Center, told me that the calculation is performed based on a household income question and a monthly housing costs question.
“So it’s a calculation done by the Census based on self-reported data,” he said.
The areas used in the study are called CBSAs, or Core-Based Statistical Areas, as defined by the U.S. Census. Essentially, they group together cities and the suburbs from which workers in those cities might commute. It should be noted that within such large areas, residents’ lifestyles and financial stresses can vary wildly.
And as for the wide disparity between cities, there could be many reasons that fewer people might be housing poor in one area than another — a lot of long-timers, for example.
“Markets with long-term residents would have fewer cost-burdened households because they bought their home long ago and might not have a mortgage any longer,” Kolko said.
In other words, just because fewer people are housing poor in an area doesn’t mean you won’t be housing poor if you move there. Still, if you feel like housing eats up too much of your paycheck, it might be time to consider a move to a place near the top of this list.
I want to hear from you if you already live in one of these “cheaper” places, like Raleigh or Pittsburgh or Kansas City or Oklahoma City. How did you land there? Do you think it really is cheaper, and do you think you feel less stress about money than folks living in San Francisco or Miami? Write in comments below, or email me at Bob@Credit.com
The Least Housing-Poor Areas
10. Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, N.Y. Percent of Households Spending More Than 30% of Income on Housing: 30.6%
9. Columbus, Ohio Percent of Households Spending More Than 30% of Income on Housing: 30.4%
8. Cincinnati, Ohio-Ky.-Ind. Percent of Households Spending More Than 30% of Income on Housing: 30.4%
7. St. Louis, Mo.-Ill. Percent of Households Spending More Than 30% of Income on Housing: 30.2%
6. Raleigh, N.C. Percent of Households Spending More Than 30% of Income on Housing: 29.8%
5. Kansas City, Mo.-Kan. Percent of Households Spending More Than 30% of Income on Housing: 29.8%
4. Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, Minn.-Wis. Percent of Households Spending More Than 30% of Income on Housing: 29.4%
3. Louisville/Jefferson County, Ky.-Ind. Percent of Households Spending More Than 30% of Income on Housing: 29.0%
2. Oklahoma City Percent of Households Spending More Than 30% of Income on Housing: 28.4%
1. Pittsburgh Percent of Households Spending More Than 30% of Income on Housing: 26.8%
Want to know which cities have the most housing-poor residents? Head over to Credit.com to see the Least Affordable Places to Live in the U.S.
This article originally appeared on Credit.com.
Bob Sullivan is author of the New York Times best-sellers Gotcha Capitalism and Stop Getting Ripped Off. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and hundreds of other publications. He has appeared as a consumer advocate and technology expert numerous times on NBC's TODAY show, NBC Nightly News, CNBC, NPR's Marketplace, Terry Gross' Fresh Air, and various other radio and TV outlets. He helped start MSNBC.com and wrote there for nearly 20 years, most of it penning the consumer advocacy column The Red Tape Chronicles. See more at www.bobsullivan.net. Follow Bob Sullivan on Facebook or Twitter. More by Bob Sullivan