Garrett deGraffenreid, a 23-year-old New York University graduate student, knew the rent on his one-bedroom Manhattan apartment would jump when he saw a Trader Joe’s grocery store pop up down the block. “The writing was on the wall,” he says.
What he didn’t anticipate was just how much his rent would rise. Last year deGraffenreid signed a contract for $1,600 per monthly. A notice was sent to them on Feb. 11 advising that the new lease, which would begin next month, would be $2750 per month. That’s 69% more.
“It felt defeating,” says deGraffenreid. He responded to the notice with a plea for a more reasonable rent increase, but was met with a “brick wall” response. The gist of their message was: ‘”There’s nothing you can do so don’t waste your time trying. Have fun!’”
He isn’t alone. Rent spikes of up to double digits in other parts of the country are also common. According to Zumper rental platform, Henderson in Nevada saw rents rise 26% from 2021-2022. New York City renters experienced a 30% jump. Rents will rise 39% in Miami, according to most people. Nationally, the average monthly rent for a 1-bedroom apartment rose 12% between March 2021 & March 2022. It was the eleventh year in a row that average one-bedroom rents have reached an all time high.
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For millions, these rent hikes are not merely uncomfortable; they’re existential. If you can’t afford your new lease, but you also can’t afford the thousands of dollars required to move—what happens? The problem is also intractable, since it’s born of a deep, nationwide disconnect between supply and demand: There just aren’t enough affordable places to live, period.
Housing construction has moved at a snail’s pace since 2008, but the timeline slowed even further during the pandemic, while widespread remote work policies have precipitated massive influxes of renters to traditionally affordable locales. It’s also a top-down problem: as home prices rose 17% last year—the highest year on record—many would-be buyers were forced to remain in the rental game. With a gap of 4.6 million new apartments requiring completion by 2030 in order to meet demand, and 10-plus million more needing renovations, according to the National Apartment Association, the problem of rising rents doesn’t appear to be a short-term blip.
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Congress, meanwhile, has allocated a whole lot of money to renters in a bind, but it’s unclear if folks like deGraffenreid stand to gain. In order to prevent evictions in the public health crisis, legislators appropriated almost $47 billion between 2020 and 2021. Experts say that $22 billion remains unspent and could be used in theory to assist people who are facing displacement due to rent spikes. But it’s unclear how that will happen. Many regions, including New York City, are out of funding, while others have stipulated that tenants must have lost their job due to COVID-19—which would exclude renters like deGraffenreid and Kraus.
There is certainly not enough to meet the colossal number of renters experiencing unexpected lease or moving costs, but even if some renters find a way to access the funds, it’s a short-term fix to a long-term crisis.
“We actually have to fix this problem in the long run,” says Ann Olivia, vice president for housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “and we have to make people whole right now.”
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Sara Longstaff is a Miami mother with two special needs kids. Her lease is up and she will be facing an increase in rent on her 3-bedroom unit. A new company is buying her building. They are offering the 3-bedroom units for 30% less than what Sara currently pays. Longstaff began looking at other listings in anticipation of a possible move. For the $850 per month that she can afford, the only unit she has found is “a trailer with no air conditioning.”
In Boston, recent college graduate Amelia Kraus was able to negotiate her landlord’s proposed price increase of 20% down from 25%, but only after giving up her parking spot and reminding her landlord that she didn’t call the health department when her building’s basement was flooded with standing water and feces. It would be difficult to move to a place that is slightly less expensive, she claims, adding that the costs associated with it would make her break even.
Eric Swedlund is a freelance writer who lives in Tucson, Arizona. He has been hit by an almost 30% increase in rent. He’s saving up for the cost of moving to a slightly cheaper apartment, but he won’t have enough by his lease’s end date. Although his apartment allows him to rent monthly for a higher price, it will limit his freedom to move. Another option is to couchsurf. “I might try to find some storage and crash with a friend for a while,” he says, “until I find something better.”
Solutions: Unspent Aid Money, Rent Caps
It is more complicated than just bad landlords exploiting hot markets. Austin landlord Erin Hittman, Texas felt guilty about raising the rent on her one unit by 20%. Her property tax bill was then sent. Hittman, despite the rental increase, will still be in debt by more than $1,000 per month after taking into account local taxes. “I’m losing a ton of money by being a landlord,” she says. “I’m fortunate I can hold on to this house for a little bit longer at this rate, and I’m going to honor the year lease that starts in July for my tenants because I gave them my word. But after this year, the 20% increase that I’m charging, it’s going to have to go way up.”
Solving the problem isn’t simple either. There are cities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota, plus Boston, Santa Ana and Santa Ana, California, that have ballot measures to allow cities to set annual rent caps. But this could lead to smaller landlords being discouraged from entering the market, which can result in lower competition and higher prices over the long-term.
In addition to the $47 billion in rental assistance, Congress also appropriated $350 billion to facilitate “State and Local Fiscal Recovery” from the pandemic. Millions of these funds were not designated for eligible projects as of April. These include providing hazard payment to critical workers and replacing revenue lost. Olivia urges the governments to funnel some of the remaining funds to housing needs. This includes helping renters to cope with high prices in the short-term, building additional housing to alleviate the demand-supply mismatch and strengthening the current housing voucher program for low-income renters.
With his lease ending in less than two weeks, deGraffenreid can’t wait for that sort of aid. He’s ecstatic to have just been approved for a slightly cheaper lease in Queens for $2,325, but the move itself is going to cost him and his partner about $5,400 that they didn’t plan for and can’t afford without family help—a crutch that many people don’t have.
Worse yet—if current trends are any indication—renters may find themselves having to do it all over again next year.
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