The Rent is Too Damn High! Really, Though, Jimmy’s Got a Point

Here are the numbers to back up Jimmy McMillan's now-famous rant.

By Hatty Lee, Kai Wright Oct 20, 2010

New York State politics boasts a combination of corruption and incompetence that is legendary–and that is far more likely to produce a curse than a giggle from most voters. But Monday’s gubernatorial debate generated belly laughs nationwide, when it introduced everybody to our perennial candidate Jimmy McMillan, who runs under the Rent Is Too Damn HIgh Party’s line. McMillan added a human touch to the carnivalesque atmosphere at Monday’s debate, where GOP candidate Carl "I’ll Take You Out" Paladino and lifelong gubernatorial preener Andrew Cuomo were joined by six others, including a former madam.

McMillan’s platform is self-explanatory. The Vietnam vet and retired postal worker from Brooklyn has run for mayor at least three times, according to the New York Daily News (and has drawn controversy for previous assertions that the rent problem starts with Jewish landlords). He repeated his slogan to celebrity-making effect at Monday night’s debate. "It all boils down to one thing: rent. It’s too damn high!" McMillan declared. By morning, he was making the national media rounds, introducing levity to an all-too-depressing election cycle.

But here’s the thing–Jimmy’s got a point. All over the country, the rent is too damn high. We dug out the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2010 report on affordable housing nationwide, and it’s not a pretty picture.

First, here are the standards for measuring affordable housing: Everybody from personal finance gurus to housing advocates agree that if you’re spending more than 30 percent of your income on rent, it’s not affordable. Above that mark, doing things like eating and saving for a rainy day get complicated. So the Coalition took that standard and compared it to what’s called the "fair market rent" for states and counties around the country. Fair market rent is set each year by the federal housing department, to guide its assistance programs. It serves as the government’s official estimate of what’s a reasonably priced unit compared to a region’s overall rental market.

Using these standards, the Coalition found that in no state can an individual working a full-time, minimum-wage job afford a two-bedroom apartment for herself and her family. In fact, in 28 states and territories, including Washington, D.C., you need more than two full-time jobs. Drilling down further, with the exception of some areas in Puerto Rico, a full-time, minimum-wage worker can’t meet the affordability standard for a two-bedroom apartment in any U.S. county. So, get used to piling the kids into bed with you. 

The list of most-expensive counties is predictable–San Francisco tops it off.

One big driver is that the housing bubble inflated rents to absurd levels, and crowded out new affordable housing developments at the same time. The Coalition report cites a congressional study that found the nation’s stock of high-rent units shot up by 94 percent between 2001 and 2007, while the stock of affordable apartments declined by 6 percent. That made things tough enough, and then the crash came, bringing more than a million new renters into the market between 2007 and 2008. Of course, the bottom has kept falling for millions of people, as the middle class collapses into record poverty and the jobs crisis drags on. Little surprise that the number of renters who report "doubling up" with another family has increased by 25 percent since 2005.

So, yeah, the rent is too damn high! 

McMillan may not make gubernatorial material, but let’s hope his 15 minutes of fame will prompt whoever wins to take affordable housing seriously. Here’s a map from ColorLines’ infographic designer-extraordinaire Hatty Lee. Share it, too, when you’re Facebooking McMillan’s awesome debate rants.