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Commentary: The rent really is too damn high 

It’s been a month since I began the arduous, mind-numbing journey to find a new apartment. The process consumes my life, always lingering on the periphery of whatever I’m doing. At any given moment, you can wager I’m thinking about apartments or writing my next beer column.

With my lease expiring at the end of April, I’m getting anxious and feeling defeated. At this point, I’d shack up in the caves beneath the Genesee brewery, so long as the rent was below $750 and they accepted cats. I could shower under High Falls.

Rochester’s rental prices are steadily and aggressively climbing. It is as if the state motto of Excelsior — “ever upward” — has become the mantra of the local rental market. In the words of the housing activist and former gubernatorial candidate Jimmy McMillan, the rent is too damn high.

Get this: The fair-market-value rent for the Rochester metropolitan region, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is higher than in 84 percent of markets nationwide.

My housing expectations aren’t too grandiose. A simple one-bedroom would suffice. But the average one-bedroom has an average monthly price tag of $978, according to Rent Jungle, a company that runs an apartment search engine. That’s a modest 3 percent higher than last year’s average for a one-bedroom, but an eye-popping 18 percent more than in 2018.

What am I to do? Sell my car? Default on my student loans? Go on a ramen noodle diet so I can pay the rent? At least I’m not alone. A Twitter rant on the subject drew responses from disgruntled tenants from across the city, many of whom complained of rents rising by triple digits over the last couple of years.

I’m telling you, the rent is too damn high!

Consider that Rochester’s median household income is around $35,400, according to census data. An apartment at $978 would eat up 33 percent of those earnings.

Households spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent — not including utilities — are considered to be “rent burdened,” a designation that carries higher rates of eviction and, as the Pew Charitable Trusts puts it, “increased financial fragility.”

Now consider that the same census data shows almost half of city households have incomes below $35,000 and that Rochester is the third-poorest city among the largest 75 cities in the country.

Low-income renters receiving assistance are feeling the squeeze, too.

“We have been seeing a pretty steady increase in average rents over the years,” said Shawn Burr, acting executive director of the Rochester Housing Authority, which provides subsidized housing for low-income families and oversees the federal Section 8 housing voucher program. “There’s been some peaks and valleys, but honestly, it’s following the market.”

I’m not a Section 8 renter, nor am I particularly low-income. I’m a single, childless, young professional who makes a modest sum, but not modest enough to qualify for assistance.

You’d think I could find an apartment that wouldn’t bankrupt me. In the South Wedge, where I live, property assessments shot up 37 percent this year. Across the city, assessments rose 19 percent. I’m priced out.

Burr said myriad factors play into rising rental rates, from the housing market to an old stock of buildings which require capital investment to renovate.

The Pew analysis noted that at the national level, rental property demand has been rising since 2008, the peak of the Great Recession.

Twelve years of demand on the upswing has pushed down vacancy rates and bumped up rents to the point that, like I said, they’re just too damn high.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at gfanelli@rochester-citynews.com.

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