Monday, July 9, 2012

Fair Market Rent and Another Dubious Infographic

I've seen this infographic a few places now, and it has been causing me some furrowed brow time:
Supposedly, this is a graphic showing how many hours you would have to work per week at a minimum wage job in order to afford a two bedroom apartment in each of the given states.  This version appears to be a year or so out of date, but here's the original report.

I had all sorts of questions about this when I saw it, so of course I went digging.  

To clarify the parameters, affordable is defined to mean 30% of income, and this chart assumes only one income earner per apartment.  Availability of low income housing or other programs is not taken in to account, which is probably where I find this chart most misleading.  Massachusetts has a fairly extensive Section 8 housing program, and from my understanding New York and California do as well.  I couldn't find a ranking for the state distribution of aid levels, but I'd wager the less affordable the state, the more they give out in assistance.

As for the fair market value rents....I couldn't find where they got their figure from.  Rents in Massachusetts vary wildly between the 3 largest city areas.  Boston rents run high....mostly because students rent most of the apartments near the colleges.  Springfield and Worcester however are much cheaper.  The MA website for Section 8 housing cites the difference between Boston and Worcester as almost $450 a month.  It appears the number used above is an average of several areas.  

If you dig further in the report however, it becomes even more interesting.  Apparently New England is the only section of the country that doesn't report whole counties when reporting fair market rates for renters, New England only reports rates for metro areas and surrounding communities.  Is the northeast really that much pricier than the rest of the country, or does their reporting just make them look that way?

While I ultimately appreciate the issue at hand with this chart, I think it would be nice to see a more comprehensive chart including states efforts to address the high housing cost.  On the chart above, NH appears slightly more affordable, but if you google "section 8 housing nh" you will find a lot of people telling you to save yourself the trouble and move to Massachusetts.  Bigger cities tend to mean higher rents AND more social programs.  Throwing them all in to one big average is not the best way of representing information in a usable fashion.


  1. Well, I help poor people find apartments as part of earning my daily bread. I think that $1003 figure is about right for Concord, Manchester, Nashua. You can get cheaper things, but it's hard. Five miles north, west, or east of Franklin-Laconia and on to the border, you could have a fair bit of space for that price. Map, please.


    Plus, as you said, the subsidised housing just isn't in the mix.

    Then there is the fact that few full-time workers make the minimum wage. Those are part-timers. Not that everyone in NH is rolling in the stuff if you've got a job, but you take my point.

    Fourth, there is no record of how many households are 1.5-3.0 incomes. We just can't tell.

    These are advocacy numbers. Not the same as actual reality.

    1. I'm just trying to figure out how this helps actually advocacy when it doesn't include where progress has already been made....seems inefficient to me.

      Oh well, maybe that's why I work in efficiency and not advocacy.

  2. I could likely say the same about my home State.

    (Geographic trivia moment: I live in the Metro Area of a city that is North of a Canadian city. The river that marks the border shares a name with the American city.)

    In the urban core, there are both low-rent and high-rent areas. The low-rent areas are not the best places to live in.

    Rents tend to rise into the suburbs. I think they decline in the rural areas outside of the sprawl. There is a lot of rural area in the State. Some areas see high rents for vacation cottages, and low rents for everything else.

    It's a mix; data that is granularized into State-level chunks hides more than it reveals.

  3. Hi bs king,

    You mentioned that New England is one of the few areas that don't report fair market rents by county. This may sound terribly ignorant of me but I didn't think that New England has counties in the traditional sense of the word. When I worked at the Census Bureau years ago I was told that they used Minor Civil Divisions (MCDs) for New England since they don't have counties (I grew up in Colorado so I will believe just about anything about exotic locales like New England).

    Just to be pedantic I tracked down a Census document on county subdivisions (link here). Looking at Table 8-2 it looks like New England county subdivisions don't involve counties at all (that's not true for all states).

    I hope this isn't too much information but since you like this stuff I figure you won't mind.


    1. Interesting...and of course I don't mind!

      I've always heard them referred to as counties here, but I'm sure there's some technicalities that differ from other states. A little like how we're occasionally reminded that Massachusetts is a Commonwealth, not a state, etc.

      From a quick look at the table, it looks like the older states tend to subdivide more around towns, and the larger western states tend to go around county. Interesting.