Real Estate

Miamians Spend Nation's Highest Share of Income on Rent, Census Data Shows

Miamians adore Moonlight, the Barry Jenkins-directed paean to growing up poor, black, and gay in the Liberty City projects, because it truly gets Miami. Take a scene near the end, when the main character, Chiron, drives his long-lost love interest, Kevin, down Biscayne Boulevard and Kevin mentions he doesn't have a car. Chiron is aghast — life without a car in Miami must be hell, he opines.

It's clear to any Miamian why he can't afford a ride, though: Kevin works at a diner, has a kid, and pays rent. Of course money is tight.

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau backs that feeling. The recently released figures show that Miamians spend a larger percentage of their income on rent than residents of any other U.S. city. That list includes famously expensive cities such as New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

On Saturday, the Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released their regular American Housing Survey, which tracked housing affordability trends in the nation's 25 largest metropolitan areas. According to that data, Miamians spend 27 percent of their income on rent, a percentage that tops every other major metro in the United States.

Only Los Angeles, Riverside-San Bernardino (California), northern New Jersey, and New York City came close: Residents in New York and L.A. spent 25 percent of their income on rent, and northern New Jersey and Riverside residents spent a median of 26 percent.

The data shows that Miami, more than any city in the nation, is suffering from a one-two punch: Rents keep on rising, but jobs that pay living wages have remained scarce.

For example: It costs more to live in San Francisco than it does Miami. But San Franciscans are, on average, less rent-burdened than Miamians. They're spending only 24 percent of their income on rent despite living in an objectively more expensive city.

Why? They're making more money: The California city's median household income is $84,440. Miami's is half that, $43,000. (Median incomes in Seattle, New York, and Los Angeles are $74,000, $60,000, and $54,000.)

The reasons are obvious. Industries in cities such as San Fran, Los Angeles, and New York — the tech, film, and banking capitals of the world — are thriving. All three cities are also home to a host of world-class universities to train new generations of workers. The same can't be said for Miami. The Magic City's main homegrown products remain tourism and sunshine, which don't lend themselves to high-paying jobs for the middle class. Hoteliers get rich, but anyone who doesn't already have a trust fund to fall back on is stuck waiting tables or tending bar.

But in the meantime, outside investors continue to jack up city real-estate prices. Miami's middle class is constantly fighting a losing battle against wealthy Russian and Latin American investors for affordable homes. The city's small middle and lower classes simply can't compete with a worldwide stash of oligarchs investing in second, third, and fourth homes.

But Miami-Dade's city governments have always been keen to let the rent continue rising, which means Miami consistently leads the nation in depressing statistics, such as topping the list of cities with the most cost-burdened renters in the country.

Until that changes, locals like Kevin in Moonlight will always be stuck taking the bus.

(h/t Rob Wile)
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.