1 What Does It Cost to Live in the Overlooked Parts of a City? | The Billfold

What Does It Cost to Live in the Overlooked Parts of a City?

Echo Park in Central Los Angeles.

I live in Houston which, outside of the Midwest, is possibly the most affordable large city in the U.S. My one-bedroom apartment, in one of the safest neighborhoods in the city, costs $600 with comparables going up to $800. My favorite independent coffee shop is two blocks away and most of my friends live within a five-mile radius, and yet I’m thinking hard and fast about moving. I’m looking to pursue some pretty quixotic artistic ambitions, and it’s tough doing so in a place where people look at you a little funny if you tell them that you are a writer, as if you just told them that you also hunt unicorns on the weekend.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been poking around the web, half-determinedly, looking for “cost of living” articles to estimate how much money I’ll need to make this move. I’ve worked mostly for nonprofits and local government agencies since finishing college, so I needed articles which would give me accurate information about how someone lives in Los Angeles or New York on a modest salary. A few of the articles I found gave really good snapshots of the costs in major cities, but they almost exclusively focus on upper-income areas. Apartment Therapy, for example, has been running a series on the cost of living in various American cities. Each post includes general COL indicators like the price of a gallon of milk or a pint of beer, but it also selects three “representative” neighborhoods in each city and lists average rents and home values in those areas.

For San Francisco, the author picked Russian Hill, Portrero Hill, and the Mission District, overlooking cheaper areas like the Fillmore or the Tenderloin. The author of the Los Angeles piece decided to focus on Santa Monica, Studio City, and Silver Lake, not considering Echo Park or the transitioning parts of South L.A. and the Valley. In the Brooklyn piece, the three neighborhoods featured were Greenpoint (lower end), Park Slope (mid-range), and DUMBO (high-cost), but no one who has paid attention to prices in Kings County would call Greenpoint’s rents on the lower end, not when Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bay Ridge, and Ridgewood exist.

Part of the reason for this is that these pieces tend to be aimed at established people with “real jobs,” young professionals with higher amounts of disposable incomes, or intern types who have family help, all of whom are looking to live in “trendy” areas. But another reason for this focus on upper-income areas is that because neighborhoods like Dorchester in Boston, Riverside in Austin, or Humboldt Park in Chicago tend to be browner and poorer, they are invisible to the well-to-do looking to move to these cities.

So, as I’m considering moving to New York, or Chicago, or the Bay Area, I’m having serious trouble finding good on-the-ground estimates of how much it actually costs for someone like me to live there, someone who will most likely work in a poorly paid field (i.e. non-profit sector) and does not mind living in more diverse communities. On websites like CNN Money or Kiplinger’s, the cost of living estimates generally presume an “upper-middle class family of four-lifestyle,” with income requirements for coastal cities in the $70K-$120K range. With Craigslist, I had the opposite problem. While many newcomers to New York or Chicago have found decent and affordable apartments on Craigslist, the website is a repository of obvious scams, usurious broker fees, and “worst room“-style units that would be called closets in any other part of the country. I have looked at real estate websites, but again, there appears to be a bias toward higher prices on those sites because of the self-selection effect of an owner using an agent.

More than the depressing fare available on Craigslist, or the pricey offerings listed on Halstead Realty, I have found that there is a serious disconnect between the average rent for a halfway decent place and the average wage earned by residents of those cities. According to the American Community Survey, the per-capita income in NYC was $30,200 while REIS, a real estate research firm found that the average yearly rent was $37,287. A report by the Urban Institute, which analyses housing data, shows that someone working at the minimum wage would have to work at total of 97.6 hours to afford to rent an apartment in Chicago at fair market rent.

There are some obvious explanations for the chasm between incomes and living costs in those major cities. One could say that those cities are outliers because of their astronomical salaries and distorted (rent control!) housing markets. One could also say that using the minimum wage as an indicator of income is unfair as low-income residents in those cities typically receive supplemental assistance in the form of public housing subsidies. The question that remains, and it is the question which concerns me most, is what about the average, middle-income people in those cities who earn between $30K-$60K a year? Where do they live? And where can I get some information on how to find a place in their neighborhood?

For now, I’m going to save money and, at the same time, try to hack what I am certain is a shadow housing market—one that has no digital life, where workaday people, people who work in administrative positions, or in trades, or in entry-level positions pay reasonable amounts of money for housing in places like Jackson Heights in New York and the Western Addition in San Francisco. It’s unlikely that I am going to make much headway until I actually move to one of these cities and start walking around, looking for signs in windows, informal listings at parties and events, listening for people talking about their absentee landlord or their cheap pre-war walk-up.

Until then, I hope that as the housing market continues its current revival, the governmental agencies, fair housing organizations, and community leaders in those cities would organize an effort to exert some downward pressure on rent prices. That could mean more rent control, more limits on luxury development, more community rehabilitation in forgotten neighborhoods like Englewood in Chicago and Brownsville in Brooklyn. It could also mean simply enforcing some laws (see: Fair Housing Act of 1968) already on the books. Ultimately though, it boils down to whether those who can afford to pay higher rents and those who own the housing stock decide to stop this progression towards creating Little Monacos around the U.S., islands of wealth and whiteness.


Aboubacar Ndiaye is a writer currently living in Houston. Follow him on Twitter and/or here: http://thehardask.com. Photo: Andrew Gorden


42 Comments / Post A Comment

joyballz (#2,000)

If it helps, I pay $630 + utilities to live with 2 roommates in Lakeview in Chicago. I paid $500 to live with 1 roommate two years ago in Andersonville. Studios or 1beds can be close to double for the same areas. Friends of mine have found the most value in Logan Square, but I <3 being by the lake and strongly dislike the blue line.

triplea (#1,234)

@joyballz I pay about $750+utilities to live w/ 2 roommates in Lakeview. With a new job (hopefully soon) I’m hoping to save and hoard and get a 1 bedroom in 2014. Definitely love the lake and dislike the blue line, too!!

@joyballz I have to give the Blue Line some love! I live in Irving Park ($780/1 b.r.) and work near O’Hare, so the Blue Line means a 20-minute commute max, no car necessary. Yes, the train fills with vagrants after 11 pm, but hey, they need a place to keep warm/cool, and the run is 1’10″ end to end, so whatever. You just let ‘em be.

joyballz (#2,000)

@Intravenus de Milo Oh, I’m just being a hater. The Blue Line has its perks. Like getting me from work to Handlebar for midweek fried avocado tacos.

joyballz (#2,000)

@triplea Good luck!! Leave your dishes dirty in the sink for as long as you want!!

deepomega (#22)

This is great, although I think part of the problem is “by the time anyone’s writing about it it’s too late.” Like, Echo Park is past transitioning/overlooked right now. Highland Park is a few years behind Echo Park, and it’s hard enough to find anything there. If you want to find the really good deals/neighborhoods that nobody’s fighting over, you need insider info. (E.g. I can highly recommend [REDACTED] in LA, which nobody has heard of even tho it’s great.)

garli (#4,150)

Do you know anyone in those cities? I don’t live in a city, but I live somewhere that crazy rent and low paying jobs coexist. I moved here for grad school (read: I didn’t have a ton of cash) and took a room in a 3 bedroom apartment with 3 other girls. (Two were sharing the master). The situation was crappy. I didn’t love the girls I lived with, the walls were so thin I could hear my neighbor sneeze and blah blah blah.

But with in 6 months I had a way better situation living with people I met and in a slightly shady part of town.

I guess what I’m saying is the best way to find out is just go do it. I’ve done that a few times and only really regretted it once.

Chicagoan-Humboldt Park to be precise. I pay $850 +utilities for an enormous one bedroom with a porch and a fenced in yard. It’s wonderful, completely safe, and a three-minute walk to the bus (35 minute work commute to downtown). I lived in Logan, but got priced out-again, it’s past transitioning at this point, so most people are holding on to their apartments if they’ve found something reasonable. I paid $825 last year for a one bedroom in UK village, but the rent on that has gone well over $1000 since I left. Similarly, almost three years ago when I moved here, it was $650/person to rent a 2 bedroom on the blvd of logan sq-that would be about $1500 total now. I refuse to live in Chicago and pay any more than $700/month to live with a roommate-and now that I’ve found this place, I’ll never leave!!

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Jake Reinhardt Yeah, I pay $625 for a one bedroom in an uncool but very safe and accessible neighborhood — I think the author of this post is more in line with our “uncool” areas than the Lakeview folks above. $700 for TWO roommates? AHHH

@aetataureate Yeah, I mean, also…how do they think that neighborhoods get ‘cool’? They don’t usually just start out that way.

triplea (#1,234)

@Jake Reinhardt Well for me it’s more about safety and convenience but yea you’re right it’s bc it’s cool and I totally love paying that much.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@triplea I mean, sarcasm aside, there are plenty of safe and convenient locations in Chicago that aren’t that expensive or crowded? Lakeview in particular doesn’t feel safe to me because all the main streets are crowded with people at all times and after a certain point in the day they’re all drunk? No thanks.

hellonheels (#1,407)

One plus of SF is, if you are willing to live with roommates, you can typically find a room in a house that has been rented by the same master tenant for several years and thus effectively pay whatever the market rate was that many years ago. Rent control allows rents to be raised only a very small amount each year, so finding something in the $750-1000 range is possible (though HIGHLY competitive, think 100+ people showing up for open houses, etc.), However, if you are looking to rent a new place cheap, I wouldn’t even bother with the Fillmore (getting trendy) or the TL (many parts are not safe). I’d look at the Sunset, the Richmond, or maybe the way outer Mission if you don’t like being enveloped in fog 80% of the time.

dham (#2,271)

I think it really depends on the kind of life you lead as much as the pay. For example, you can live really well in Brooklyn on like 30-40K if you have roommates, no dependents, no large monthly debt payments, and no real desire to accumulate savings. But if you are working 40 hours a week with an hour commute each way, you might quickly forget why you bothered to move to New York. Some friends are working 60+ hours a week in “non-profit type” careers, and the ones who are homebodies start to hate the city, whereas those who truly want to go to some event 6 nights a week cannot imagine leaving.

Artists have a different time of it, because the reasons for being here are sometimes clearer: this is where the people they want to talk to about writing/painting/dance/theater etc are doing it, ergo it makes sense that they’re hustling. But if the hustle means you quit writing, again, the existential crisis sets in.

flickafly (#4,808)

i grew up in houston and the gulf coast. I miss houston’s art scene and easy living in montrose/museum district. however i now live in Chicago and can say that I love living in Logan Square/Humboldt Park area. I share a place with my partner and we pay $1300 for a 3 bedroom (with a studio space upstairs – we’re artists). There are places in the area for around $800 for 1 bedrooms if you want to live alone.

i lived on the lake/red line for a long time. you can find cheap rents in edgewater, rogers park. I always thought being on the lake was the best thing, but now that I actually live in an area with some seriously amazing things in walking distance of my apartment, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the east side.

so yeah for chicago:
North side/red line neighborhoods – Edgewater, rogers Park, Uptown
Southish/Pink line – Pilsen
NW/blue line – humboldt park, logan square, albany park (though make sure you’re near a cta train or bus there!)
Also maybe ukrainian village (it’s starting to get expensive though), lincoln square, andersonville (the last two are def getting expensive, but you might find a good roommate sitch)

@flickafly I would rule out logan square and UK village if you’re going for more affordable…just in the last year, rents have gone up like 18% in those areas. crazy.

flickafly (#4,808)

@Jake Reinhardt yeah – it’s annoying too. isn’t that across the board in chi though? maybe not 18% but rents have gone up all over the city. we actually moved to logan because we were priced out of uptown (plus uptown just isn’t nearly as great for a slew of reasons).

however I think (though I have no comprehensive data) that those areas (logan/ukrainian) are still way cooler and less expensive than sayyyyy lincoln park/wicker/wrigley,

@flickafly Oh yeah, agreed!

aetataureate (#1,310)

@flickafly I don’t know anyone who lives in LP/Wicker/Wrigley who isn’t an asshole. Seriously.

triplea (#1,234)

@aetataureate You’re right, I guess we all can’t be as cool as you.

Eric18 (#4,486)

@aetataureate Then stop hanging out with assholes.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@triplea Sorry you’re so defensive about . . . where you chose to live? I’m not cool and neither is my neighborhood and that’s why it’s cheap as F to live there.

Roommates. That’s pretty much the only way most of the people I know working in non-profit or lower-paid fields get by in New York. (I’m in the $40K range.) Or, you get very, very lucky.

pinches (#3,520)

I work in the non-profit sector in NYC (in housing services/tenant-landlord issues actually), and I can’t afford to live here comfortably if I weren’t living at home. If I get a room for $800-1000/month, I could technically afford that but I won’t be able to save money or contribute to my 403b.

Most of my friends find leads about sublets and rooms through friends of friends, word of mouth (Facebook, etc.), which I guess is the shadow market you speak of, because you need an “in” for those deals.

sariberry (#4,420)

I have lived in NYC for seven years and worked in the non-profit sector the entire time. However, NYC housing wasn’t so affordable until last year, when we moved into a rent-stabilized apartment in Washington Heights.

I tell everyone looking to move in NYC to check out Washington Heights/Inwood. It has a large proportion of rent-stabilized (and some rent controlled) apartments. We pay $1475/month for a very large one-bedroom. Granted, I split that with my husband. But $1475 is quite good by NYC standards. Before that, I lived in several neighborhoods in downtown Manhattan, where I paid close to $1475/month for my own bedrooms in itty-bitty apartments with multiple roommates.

Granted, WaHi/Inwood is far away, and not particularly exciting. But parts of it are gorgeous, especially Fort Tryon Park, and the A train runs express. So for those looking around NYC, especially after a few years when the city’s luster has worn off and you just want to find some f*ing affordable housing already – I really encourage you to check it out.

sea ermine (#122)

@sariberry If you need to be closer to midtown for work, there are a bunch of neighborhoods in Queens (Jackson Heights, Woodside, Sunnyside, etc.) with similar rents. I live in Jackson Heights and really like it, and I have a bunch of friends who live in Washington Heights as well.

swirrlygrrl (#2,398)

@seaermine Plus, so much delicious food in Queens!!

emmabee (#2,008)

@seaermine Yes, ditto on Queens! My commute to midtown is under 30 minutes – about the same as it was when I lived uptown – and we pay $1500/month for a large one bedroom with a separate kitchen, etc.

ETA: We’re right on the Sunnyside/Woodside border.

I totally agree with this. Where are the mid-market real estate options? AFAIK the only way to find anything decent in DC is to spend a year living somewhere terrible in the suburbs until you get to know the neighborhoods. And even then…

Oh and also those reduced-rent places for people on moderate incomes are a real thing you can actually get, a friend of a friend lives in a ridiculously nice place just above a metro stop for like $900/mo. Unfortunately the way the cutoffs work is a little confusing — they tend to fall somewhere between “typical entry-level nonprofit/government salary” and “what you might make after 5 years.”

Eric18 (#4,486)

@stuffisthings Not all the DC suburbs are terrible. In fact, alot of them are MUCH better than the overpriced, crappy neighborhoods in DC. And the varied restaurant options in places like Annandale blow the overpriced crap that DC sells any day of the week.

sea ermine (#122)

So, I am one of those admin assistants living in Jackson Heights, although it isn’t quite as shadowy or as cheap as you think it might be. My apartment cost $1150/month and is rent stabilized (through a tax abatement thing that expires in 2016) which means it’s just over 50% of my take home pay, which is ok now (because, even though it’s a studio, the apartment is pretty big and has a separate kitchen) but is becoming frustrating (mostly because I would like to put 15% of my pay into savings and can’t right now).
I found it by walking around the neighborhood and going into buildings (basically I found buildings that looked nice and creepily followed the residents in) and then calling the property management number on the inside. Rents in Jackson Heights are pretty high though, and are going up, mostly because brokers and landlords are convinced that it’s going to get trendy soon (it probably wont, at least not as much as they think it will) and so they all charge high rents and then since they’re all doing it people have to pay up to stay in their apartment because other neighborhoods cost so much more. You can also find rooms for rent for $500 though (at least according to a million identical handwritten signs around the neighborhood) but I’m pretty sure that a lot of those are scams and the rest are either sketchy or mostly shared housing situations for flight attendants who commute to LaGuardia. Now that I write that out it does maybe sound shadowy but there are also a ton of brokers in the neighborhood and you can find apartments here on places like Streeteasy and NYBits and Craigslist just as easily as I did wandering around the neighborhood (I took my way because I was coming from out of state and needed a place fast, and knew I wanted to be in Jackson Heights).

EH (#3,721)

I lived in Hyde Park on the South Side of Chicago for two years and I thought it was, in general, a lovely neighborhood. I paid $525 per month for a room in a big three bedroom, two bath apartment. A lot of people discount the South Side for many of the reasons you cited – there are some very poor neighborhoods in the area and an abundance of non-White people. There are certain areas that are safer than others, but I would totally recommend the South Side!

hopelessshade (#580)

@EH HP is lovely, and cheap. But when I graduated the University of Chicago, I moved out. Four years was enough.

Penelope Pine (#2,808)

Padmapper.com is great for visualizing the average rents for a neighborhood. Rents are going up all over NYC. If you move here, try to arrive between January and March because the rents drop slightly during those months. I also don’t know anyone who lives in a studio making less than $60k, unless they have serious parental help and/or no savings.

Vib G Yor (#3,566)

When I lived in NYC and made around $60K, I lived in Ditmas Park. That was 3+ years ago, though, and I don’t know how the neighborhood is doing or how the rents have risen. I really loved the neighborhood, though. It was small but friendly, it was on a good train line, near the park, and it had all the amenities I needed. These days I make over 50% more than I did before, and I STILL can’t imagine pouring my money into a $2,600/month apartment. I hope to never live in NYC again.

siege91 (#1,738)

FYI the part of San Francisco that is cheap enough to be fun to live in on less than 45k/year is called Oakland. Or the Sunset, but I have never met a person who lived in the sunset and was like “I enjoy living in the sunset”.

kthkskddn (#2,342)

@siege91 Whoa now Oakland is its own city.

ajlovesya (#4,807)

After living in Philly for a bit for school and work, I moved back to NYC in 2008. I was making $36,000/year and my take home was about $2200/month.

At the time I was deeply influenced by the 50/20/30 approach to managing my money (which I read about in All Your Worth by Senator Elizabeth Warren and her daughter). So at first, I lived in Ridgewood with a roommate. My rent was $720/month, all inclusive. Found this on Craigslist.

After nearly a year and a bit of a falling out with that roommate, I moved to Bay Ridge, where my rent was the same plus $100 for utilities (which included heat and hot water—I was shocked at that—and cable/internet which I didnt have before) but I did get a raise from $36K to $38K so it didnt eat too much from my budget.

Because I am from NYC (although I recently made the jump to Jersey) I never felt compelled to do a ton of NYC-esque things. I spent a lot of time with my family (whom I love but for a variety of reasons I couldn’t live with) and many of my friends were in similar positions: we cooked a lot and pigged out at the various nonprofit events we had to manage/attend. Additionally, sometimes I had cable, sometimes I didnt. I had a very small student loan to pay off and did that within a year. There were tradeoffs but I definitely felt comfortable.

But this was in 2008 — I imagine things have changed…?

hollysh (#2,108)

I lived in Chicago for a couple of years while I was going to Loyola, which is in Rogers Park on the far north end of the city (it borders the start of Evanston). Loyola is it’s own problematic pocket of whiteness and brings a lot of shitty stuff to Rogers Park (terrible developments, shutting down local business to put in chains catering to students, etc. etc. etc.) but I am grateful for my time there getting to know that little pocket of Chicago. I knew people when I was living there who paid $600 for apartments with views of the lake, backed onto the beach. Don’t move to NYC, move to Chicago! If you can hack the long L rides, the north side is great (see also, Uptown, Edgewater – all the stops with names like British butlers). I don’t know the south side as well, but I reckon you could find a cheap place in Chicago no problem.

Eric18 (#4,486)

@hollysh “Pocket of whiteness.” Were you born a moron, or did you have to work at it? If someone lamented “pockets of blackness” do you think that would be tolerated?

I’m just sad that my home city was polluted by a disgusting creature like you. Thank God you left.

Markovaa (#1,509)

I would recommend looking into Queens if you decide to move to NYC. It is the most diverse city per capita in the country according to the last census so its a really interesting place to live. When I lived in Astoria, I loved going to the cheap and amazing taco joints ($1.50 per taco) or Flushing for Chinese food. You can definitely have fun on the cheap in NYC but the city makes you work for it. If you really want to live cheaply, get a roommate.

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