Stop calling Phoenix affordable
Rent in the Phoenix area keeps increasing, forcing renters to make tough decisions to stay afloat. Here are three of their stories.
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At kitchen tables across Arizona, people sit down to do the kind of math the skyrocketing rental costs require.
Can they afford to stay in their apartment, where their landlord is increasing the rent? Is there anything affordable on the market that fits their needs? Do they have to move out of town or out of state? Can they even afford to move? Do they have to get roommates again? Can family take them in?
Rents are increasing rapidly in the Phoenix area, with renters facing price hikes at their current homes and even higher prices if they try to move.
“The rent prices don't seem to match with reality,” Amanda LaVarier, a renter who moved from Phoenix because of high prices, said.
Data from realtors and rental websites show Phoenix’s rent increasing at faster rates than much of the country. Home sale and rental demand is high, and supply can’t keep up. Landlords increase the rent by hundreds of dollars per month because they can. One recent analysis set the average rent for a 1-bedroom in Phoenix at more than $1,300, up 24% from last year. Other estimates say rents are up almost 30%. Wages increased last year, too, but at nowhere near that rate.
We’re focusing today on three people fighting against their rental woes: One who moved to Tucson for cheaper rent and is staying with a friend while she saves money, one who moved in with her in-laws at age 38 because they couldn’t afford a home that fit their family in the current market, and one whose rent will increase in September who’s trying to figure out what to do about it.
They want their elected leaders to take notice and take action on housing prices, though they aren’t sure how. They just know that current public policy isn’t working, and it doesn’t seem like the housing crisis will get better soon.
There aren’t enough units that fit the definition of affordable housing to meet the need, but that’s only one part of the problem. Even prices on housing that was never considered “affordable” by government definitions are out of control. And the idea of Phoenix as an affordable oasis is increasingly a myth.
The Arizona Legislature has floated a few ideas to take a crack at the idea, but none have found much traction or gone as far as housing advocates say is needed to meaningfully address the scope of the housing affordability crisis. Cities across the state have tried some proposals, like tiny homes, to address the need, but they run into neighbors who don’t want their property values to decrease and state laws that tie their hands.
Back in with the parents
Elizabeth Salazar moved in with her in-laws, where four generations of the family now live, earlier this year.
The 38-year-old, her husband and her nine-month old baby couldn’t afford the likely rent increase at their $1,595 three-bedroom rental in the Moon Valley neighborhood in Phoenix, not when they had to contend with potential child care costs and the wild car market to replace a vehicle with a busted transmission.
They moved to Moon Valley after being priced out of central Phoenix a few years back, but then they faced the same problem again. Their landlord was going to increase rent in their next lease but wouldn’t say by how much, and the lease expiration date loomed.
They started crunching the numbers. While searching for child care options, it became clear that Salazar’s husband should leave his job; he only would bring in a couple hundred dollars per week after the costs of child care. And they had to drain their savings to get a car.
They decided to look at other rental options around the Phoenix area, but with prices skyrocketing all over the Valley and houses in short supply, they simply couldn’t afford to move into their own home.
Facing that “layer cake of bad stuff,” they decided to become a multi-generational household to save up money and, hopefully, ride out the extreme upswing in housing prices.
“We could not find anything that wouldn't take up half of our take-home pay, even if we reduced our square footage usage by half or a third,” Salazar said.
The family can afford to live on Salazer’s salary as a policy advisor at UnidosUS, which she recognizes is a privilege many Arizonans don’t have. They plan to stay at her in-laws’ home in Gilbert, purchased long before home prices skyrocketed here, for eight months or so. Four generations live under one roof in the Gilbert home, including her husband’s grandpa.
While it takes some getting used to to move in with parents when you have a family of your own, it has its benefits, too, Salazar says. Family members can help each other with child care, cooking and chores. Salazar’s family unit uses three rooms in the home, giving her enough space to work from home. But it’s not their house.
The family contracted COVID-19 during the move, and it showed the value of living with family: At a time when she was stressed over big changes and sick, other people could provide relief. Someone else would decide what they were having for dinner.
Still, she said, “it has been a little bit weird, to suddenly not be the person that runs your household, and I’m almost middle-aged.”
Getting roommates, again
After graduating from college in 2020, Blake Lister landed a great entry-level job. He has an apartment of his own, where he works from home for the Human Rights Campaign.
But the 24-year-old expects his lease to increase by several hundred dollars by the time it ends in September. And he fears he’ll have to get roommates again, like he had in college.
He pays $1,250 for his one-bedroom apartment in Phoenix, where he’s lived for about six months. If he switched to a month-to-month lease, it would increase about $250 per month. When his lease ends, he expects a higher increase than that, given the prices he’s seen around town.
“I’m in a position where I can’t afford it, even though I have a good-paying base-level job. I feel like I did everything right, going to college, graduating college, getting a job, and it just feels like, I don't know, there’s not much I can do,” he said.
Moving back in with roommates feels like a step back from his trajectory. Since he’s both living in and working from his apartment, it’ll be an adjustment to live with others again. He’ll probably have less living space and office space, and he’ll have to get used to sharing an apartment with other people again — he’ll lose some of the freedom of living alone. He’ll be back in that dance roommates do: figuring out when you can cook a meal, negotiating over quiet times, making sure no one is running around behind you on a Zoom call.
He wants to buy his own home someday, but with prices skyrocketing and no sign of relief on the horizon, it feels like home ownership will never be within his reach.
“I feel like it started with Millennials, but it's going towards Gen Z now, just things are becoming even more and more unaffordable. … It's not trending in the right direction. I don't see it going well for me, either,” he said.
Moving to Tucson instead
Even for people with decent-paying jobs, finding an affordable place to live in Phoenix’s booming rental market is difficult. But for those with any kind of mark on their credit history, it’s even harder.
Amanda LaVarier switched careers after getting an associate’s degree in accounting. She struggled to find a job afterward, despite applying to tons. She ended up in a call center, where she made about $18 per hour. It wasn’t enough to afford Phoenix, and it wasn’t enough to overcome the pile of financial messes she found herself in.
A car accident put the 39-year-old on medical leave for 10 months — and it totaled her car, leaving her with a bill after the insurance payout didn’t cover her bank loan. She also has a medical bankruptcy on her record from 2019, which she didn’t realize would make many rental agencies turn her away immediately. The bill for her unpaid car loan went to collections, despite her best efforts to work on a payment plan while she didn’t have an income.
“I work and I make more than minimum wage, but yet I can't afford a studio,” LaVarier said.
She applied for a Section 8 housing voucher, but by the time she got off the waiting list, she had no car and her job location was too far away from a place that would rent to her. Her voucher was for Tempe. Her job was in Tolleson, which would’ve put her on a bus for several hours each day.
“Pretty much by the time I got off the waiting list for Section 8, my income level at that point would disqualify me from using it,” she said.
In the past few years, since she got a divorce, she’s lived with her mother, then stayed with a friend, then rented a room in Gilbert. She’s couch-surfed.
And, after years of dealing with a rental market that kept increasing and compounding financial problems, she decided to move to Tucson, where she’s living with a friend. She pays $300 per month for rent and utilities at her friend’s mobile home, and she covers groceries and household supplies.
She’s already seen more affordable housing options there than in the Phoenix area, though Tucson has seen its share of rental price increases, too.
She misses having a space of her own; the last time she had one was the room she rented in Gilbert in 2020. She’s had to sell most of her belongings; what little she has fit in the back of a van on the way to Tucson. She feels unsettled and stressed by the last few years, as she’s bounced in and out of homelessness, albeit not on the streets but on people’s couches. She feels “a decade behind everyone else my age.”
She found work in Tucson, and she hopes to use her tax return to help rent a place. But she has to call around first to see if her credit history or bankruptcy will disqualify her. She wouldn’t have moved to Tucson were it not for the rental prices in Phoenix.
“I have lived in Phoenix pretty much my whole life, but I didn't have, really, the option to stay when the rent prices went crazy,” she said.
Tell us your rent story in the comments! How have you been able to weather the price increases of the past few years? Will you be able to own a home one day? Did you get into the market before it all went haywire?