The Greater Boston Housing Report Card (warning, PDF file), put out by The Boston Foundation, would have you believe that there are people spending 80% (or more) of their income on rent.  The report’s authors misuse data to draw inaccurate conclusions.  (I’m definitely having trouble using smart-sounding words in these entries, I know.)

From the report:

Fenway/Kenmore neighborhood

2004 estimated renter income: $24,132
2004 estimated monthly rent: $1,498
% of median income needed to pay rent in 2004: 74%

Not true.

Why not?

1) earlier in their report, the authors estimate rents on two-bedroom apartments throughout the city.  They estimate a two-bedroom apartment in the Fenway would cost $1,498 per month.  A two-bedroom apartment.  Would one person, making $24,132, rent a two-bedroom apartment?  Why would they?  If they did rent a two-bedroom apartment, they’d have a roommate, thereby reducing their share of the monthly rate to $749.  Rent would therefore require only 37% of their gross income.

But, this is only the first error on their part.

2) the authors say they used the Boston Globe’s classifieds to find average rents for each city in Boston.  Bad.

First, those are advertised rents, not actual rents.  Actual rents may have been lower.

Second, the Globe ads they analyzed were only for two-bedroom apartments, disregarding the fact that many people live in studio or one-bedroom apartments.

Third, using the Boston Globe, a newspaper, to measure rents in the city is the equivalent of using a Walkman when everyone else has an iPod.  No one uses the Globe to rent apartments, anymore.  The authors would have to go to local rental agencies to get accurate information.

Fourth, it is my understanding from what I have read in US census reports that the average rental expense is determined by reviewing local newspapers and recording average rental prices from DISPLAY ADS (not classified ads).  Meaning, from ads put out by developers or owners of multi-unit buildings.  Like, Museum Towers (when it was rentals).  So, obviously, in a city like Boston, you’re missing an extraordinarily HUGE number of rentals, most of which are going to be well below the prices listed for a high-rise, full-service, elevator building.  Bad.

3) The authors state that the average income in the Fenway/Kenmore neighborhood is $24,132.  In the Fenway.  You know, over where – BOSTON UNIVERSITY is located?  And, NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY?  And, EMMANUEL, SIMMONS, THE MUSEUM SCHOOL, WENTWORTH, MASS ART, MASS PHARM, WHEELOCK, among others?

Why is this bad?

The average income quoted in the report is pulled from the 2000 census, adjusted and updated for 2004.  The 2000 census would have gone out to everyone who rented or owned in the city.  Included in that are the city’s 38,000 students (actually, I made up that number, I don’t know how many students actually live in the city).

When asked to report their annual income, most students probably put down $6,000 or $8,000, based on their salaries from the previous summer, painting houses or waitressing at Friendly’s.  When asked for their rents, they put down their share.

However, there was nowhere on the form to put down the fact that these students’ parents were subsidizing and/or completely paying their rents, every month, which more often than not is the case.   Therefore, the student’s annual rent of $8,988 either equaled or exceeded their reported income.

Same is true in the South End and other neighborhoods, but for other reasons.  The South End, believe it or not, has more units of public housing than any other neighborhood.  When asked on their census form to disclose income, many of these residents probably put down $12,000 or $18,000, based on their part-time or full-time salaries.  When asked for their rents, they put down 100% of their rent, accurately.  However, there was nowhere on the form to put down the fact that these renters only pay 30% of their income in rent; the city/state pick up the remainder of their rent.

So, a mother of two renting a three-bedroom apartment and using the Section 8 voucher program might be paying a landlord $2,000 per month in rent, but her share of the rent is only $375, if she makes $15,000 per year.

4) it is impractical, neigh, impossible for the average renter to be paying 74%, 84% or 90% of their gross income in rent, as the report suggests.  Why?  Because no one brings home 74%, 84%, or 90% of their gross income!!!  Taxes and benefits are going to take 25% of anyone’s income, leaving them with 75% to use toward everything else.  The report suggests that the average renter pays more than their take-home pay in rent.

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