Priced-out America:

Detailing how soaring rent and house prices — and flat wages — have made virtually every big city less affordable

With lists of the Top 10 cities for fastest-growing rents and home prices, and the Top 30 most expensive cities for renters and home buyers.

Could it be possible that the average American living in a city has actually gotten poorer during the current economic recovery? It may sound crazy, but it’s not — because housing prices have skyrocketed recently while wages have barely budged.

I spent the past week digging deeply into recent changes in the housing costs and incomes for people in the largest cities in the country, and what I found was depressing. Since 2011, it’s gotten less affordable to rent a home in 94% of the nation’s 50 biggest cities, and less affordable to buy a house in 80% of them — even when you factor in wage growth.

And housing has not just gotten less affordable; things have gotten much worse: Averaged across the nation’s 50 biggest cities, since 2011, rent has grown four times faster than incomes, and home prices have shot up more than five times faster than pay.

According to reams of data I crunched from Zillow (for housing prices) and the U.S. government (for wages), here is the overall change in city dwellers’ financial status during the last four years:

Yes, the additional money being spent on rent (nearly $3,200 a year) has single-handedly wiped out the extra $2,200 a year from your beefed-up paycheck since 2011 — and by the time taxes are taken out, many people will see the rent increase amount to double their actual take-home pay bump. And with the average house purchase up $57,600 in four years, most new homebuyers are seeing their mortgage swallow the pay raise they got during that span. The consequences are obvious: many people wound up with less money to spend on everything else, like food, clothes and travel, or had to dip into their savings, or perhaps go into debt. For some, they could no longer afford to pay the rent and had to move to a lousier apartment, or another city. For many, the dream of buying a house was put off.

The problem is considerably worse in several cities, especially, strangely enough, in places where the economy is booming. I’ll get to a breakdown of each of the 50 biggest cities, from New York to Arlington — along with top 10 lists of the cities with the fastest-growing rent and house prices, and top 30 lists of the most expensive places to rent and buy a home— in a bit. But I found no region is immune from this crisis. Here’s a closer look, starting with the place going through the worst mess of all: California.

Yikes. San Francisco (average house: more than $1 million) leads the nation in rent growth (up 64% in four years, to $4,252), cross-Bay Oakland leads in home price surge (up 67%, to $532,400) and San Jose lands in the top 6 in both categories. The Bay Area is a nightmare, and it’s even spreading to nearby Sacramento — a traditionally much cheaper area now 7th in home price growth with home values growing 42 times faster than local wages.

And many other cities aren’t in much better shape, from Texas and the Southwest to the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest:

These are generally desirable cities, especially for millennials, and each is in the top 10 for either home price or rent growth (or both, in the case of Denver). Austin has seen rent grow 17 times faster than wages. Seattle has “stop the yuppification” signs posted around town as its residents fear becoming the “next San Francisco” for housing costs. Portland, proud of its distinctly weird culture, was recently named by Governing Magazine to be the most gentrified city of the country over the last decade-plus.

Even smaller places that are still on the cheaper side have seen either rent or home prices soar more than 20 percent since 2011 — like Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Columbus, Nashville, Charlotte, Minneapolis, Mesa, Fort Worth, Arlington, Las Vegas and Fresno.

Lastly, the East Coast — while not in quite as big a hole as many places out west — isn’t exactly in great shape:

These jumps are hard felt in the East because Boston is already the 5th-most expensive city for rent (at $2,520), Washington, D.C. is 6th ($2,514), New York is 10th across all its boroughs ($2,219), and Miami is 11th ($2,045).

On that note, here are the top 10 lists for the cities with the fastest-growing rent and home prices, how much it’ll set you back for average housing in those cities today, and how those soaring costs compare to income growth:

And the updated standings for the most expensive places to live among the nation’s 50 largest cities — first, for renters …

(You can find the extra money people are paying on rent in those cities by clicking here.)

… and the most expensive big cities for home buyers:

You’ll notice the top 10 cities, while in different orders, are the same for both rent and house prices, with Bay Area buddies San Francisco and San Jose easily holding the gold and silver medals in both categories.

(While we’re here, you can check out the top 30 list of richest metro areas by clicking here.)

So why is all this craziness happening? Even though the Great Recession officially ended in 2009, it took a couple years for housing prices to shoot back up, and they’ve increased steadily ever since, especially in cities (more on the comparison to smaller towns in a bit). But even when compared to the dot-com boom at the turn of the century and the housing bubble in the middle of last decade, housing prices are higher now and wages are lower, when adjusting for inflation, in many places. And you’d think an economic upturn would mean better wages, especially after all the salary cuts and pay freezes in the recession, but pay actually hasn’t even kept up with inflation during the last four years. Even in Silicon Valley, where it seems new millionaires are minted every day, the average pay increase — tops in the nation — is just a few percentage points more than inflation.

So are we in another housing bubble? If this trend continues, by the end of the decade many cities really will be like San Francisco and Manhattan, where only the wealthy can afford a house, and only people making six-figures can keep an apartment.

There is some good news here. For starters, people who already bought their houses when it was cheaper are now sitting on relative gold mines. Rural and suburban places apparently aren’t in quite as painful a crunch as cities (I didn't study any places outside the top 50 U.S. cities, but here is the average for the entire country — including big and small towns — over the past four years: rent increased 13.7%; house prices grew 15% and incomes ticked up 4.9%; still rough, but not as bad as the biggest 50 cities), so there are still plenty of options for people priced out of the city lifestyle, if they're willing to move to the 'burbs or the country. And obviously there are more people with any income now that unemployment has dropped.

There are also a few cities among the 50 most populous where things aren’t bad at all. Cleveland, Milwaukee and Virginia Beach have seen housing prices grow at about the same, slow rate as incomes since 2011 (in other words: things have stayed cheap). And there are three places where housing has actually gotten slightly more affordable in the last four years. You can probably guess at least one of them: Detroit, Memphis and El Paso.

I first started researching these figures after I posted a couple months ago about leaving the Bay Area — my home for 11 years, with a job I loved as a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News — largely because my girlfriend and I were priced out. I was overwhelmed by the response I got, even from people outside the Bay Area, who said they were going through something similar. But I honestly didn’t think other cities were enduring much of a crisis, and was shocked the further I delved into the numbers, city by city.

Here is my full list of rent, home cost and income growth statistics in each of the 50 most populous U.S. cities, followed by a full list of current rent, house prices and wage growth in each city. I used Zillow's comprehensive city-specific databases for the rent and home price data (comparing May 2011 to May 2015), and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for income data (that data exists by metro area, only, for most cities), then did the percentage change calculations. U.S. inflation during this time was about 6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Comments? Want more data? I’d love to hear your story. Tweet me at or email

And lastly, the full list of current average rents, house prices and wages in each of the big 50 cities, ranked by current average rent:

Mike Rosenberg has been a journalist for the past eight years, most recently as a staff reporter for the San Jose Mercury News.

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