Does St. Louis Have a Housing Problem?
How affordable is housing in St. Louis? A recently released report graded the region on just that, and the results were not good. Overall, the report’s authors gave St. Louis City and County a “C” grade. But for residents with the lowest incomes, St. Louis received an “F.” By most metrics, St. Louis normally ranks pretty highly in terms of affordability, so such a poor performance warrants further investigation.
First, there’s the question of what makes housing “affordable.” Academic research on housing (and this report) typically defines “affordable” as housing where the resident spends less than 30% of their income on rent and utilities. This is a key point, because instead of affordability being solely measured by the price of housing, it is also dependent on the income of the people who live there.
Tying affordability to resident income also helps researchers explain how a region can be affordable for some but not all income groups, which is exactly what the report shows for St. Louis. For the wealthiest in the region, finding an affordable place to live is easy—St. Louis earns an “A” grade for this demographic. There’s also sufficient affordable housing for those making around and somewhat below the area’s median income (AMI). The same cannot be said for those making less than 30% of the AMI, which represents a family of three making less than $23,000 per year in total.
One problem with tying affordability to income is that it’s yet another imperfect measure for gaining insight into what residents find affordable, especially for those with lower incomes. For example, if you don’t have a car or another means of transportation, housing that’s miles away from your place of work that costs 30% of your income is likely not affordable once you account for daily commute costs. Or, if your income is low enough to qualify for other government programs (food stamps, housing vouchers, etc.) paying more than 30% of your monthly income may still be affordable for you despite what the income guidelines suggest.
So, what does it mean for a region to have an affordability problem? According to the report, you have to look at the number of people earning different incomes and compare that to the number of housing options that would be affordable for them. For example, the wealthiest St. Louisans have an enormous surplus of affordable housing options. But the poorest (<30% AMI) face a shortage of approximately 35,000 units, which is why St. Louis received an “F” for this group. To put this in context, affordable housing for the family described above would mean a 2–3-bedroom residence that costs (with utilities) less than $560 per month, which is understandably hard to find. Given the limitations of the income figures provided above, it’s hard to tell whether this estimated shortage is under or overestimating the housing affordability situation in St. Louis.
Perhaps the toughest question is what should be done given all this information. At the very least, before our elected officials start talking about solutions, they should get a better grip on the extent of the problem.