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24 Most Affordable Cities to Live in for Renters – Find Cheap Housing

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How much does your apartment cost? Depending on where you live, your answer is likely to vary – a lot.

According to RentJungle, the average San Francisco apartment rented for $3,933 per month in April 2019. If you follow the old rule of spending no more than 30% of your income on housing, you’d need to earn at least $157,320 per year to afford the average San Francisco apartment. That’s a tall order, even with the Bay Area’s relatively high incomes.

High rents disproportionately impact people on the lower end of the income scale. In a 2016 report, the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University found that nearly half of all renters are “cost-burdened” – basically, they’re forced to spend too much of their income on housing. In most metropolitan markets, especially expensive regions such as Southern California and South Florida, the vast majority of individual renters earning less than $15,000 per year are cost-burdened.

But these legitimate cost pressures aren’t everywhere. In many markets, apartments remain affordable, even for underemployed and part-time workers with tight budgets, limited or nonexistent savings, and little to no discretionary income.

If you live in an expensive coastal city like New York, Boston, or Seattle, these low-rent meccas are nowhere in sight. But they’re out there. The question is: Where?

Most Affordable U.S. Cities for Renters


Most affordable U.S. cities are far from the coasts. Typically, they are located in the Midwest, Mountain West, and South. Land in these areas tends to be cheaper, with more permissive zoning rules reducing the cost of building new housing and renovating or rehabilitating old housing.

To build this list, I crunched the numbers using exhaustive data sets from real estate intelligence companies like RentCafe and Yardi Matrix, then filtered the results to find the most affordable rental markets in the United States. As a benchmark, I used RentCafe’s data on the average apartment size at 30% of area median income – that is, the biggest apartment, on average, a median-income renter can expect to afford in each city without becoming cost-burdened.

Remember, these figures are averages. Some renters get more than the average amount of space without tipping over the 30% threshold. Others aren’t so lucky.

Bear in mind, also, that complex and volatile factors drive housing prices: local land use policies, economic conditions, housing quality, and demand, to name a few. In some seemingly affordable markets, especially in the industrial Midwest, a self-reinforcing cycle of economic stagnation and population outflows dampens housing demand. The fact that rents are low in these markets, where good-paying jobs tend to be scarce, doesn’t mean they’re necessarily desirable for working-age people – and especially not for younger folks craving cosmopolitan surroundings.

Still, many cities on this list have strong economies, diverse employers, great lifestyle amenities, and vibrant cultures. All are sizable, and many belong to relatively low-cost major metropolitan areas. If you crave big-city perks without big-city cost of living, you know where to look.

One final note: Unless otherwise noted, unemployment figures are sourced from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Economy at a Glance application. Population figures are estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

1. Gilbert, Arizona

Glendale City Arizona

  • Population: 248,279
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.3%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 1,174 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 962 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $1,240 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $1.29 per month

Sprawling across the southeastern quadrant of the Valley of the Sun, as the Phoenix metropolitan area is known locally, Gilbert is a few ticks more affordable for renters than its parent city. If you’re relocating to Phoenix for reasons of career or climate, you can’t do better than Gilbert – though it’ll certainly help if you can find work in Gilbert or neighboring communities like Chandler, Tempe, or Scottsdale, rather than drive 30 minutes each way (on a good day) to downtown Phoenix.

That shouldn’t be a problem. Tempe is home to Arizona State University, Scottsdale is a hub for the finance industry, and Chandler has multiple semiconductor firms within its borders. (Hydrophobic computer chips love the dry desert air.) Gilbert itself has a couple big hospitals and a massive public school district. Other major employers in the Valley include the global headquarters or major regional offices for mining giant Freeport McMoran, pet retailer PetSmart, Honeywell’s aerospace division, and U-Haul.

If you’re new to the Valley, by no means should you limit your housing search to Gilbert. Despite rampant population growth, this remains a very affordable region by national standards. In the Phoenix area, Scottsdale, Glendale, Mesa, Chandler, and Phoenix itself are all among the most affordable cities for U.S. renters.


2. Plano, Texas

  • Population: 288,061
  • Unemployment Rate: 2.6%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 1,137 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 935 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $1,278 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $1.37 per month

Plano is a rapidly growing suburban city about 20 miles northeast of Dallas. Routinely ranked among the safest and most family-friendly cities in the United States, it’s also among the most affordable for budget-conscious renters.

This in spite of Plano’s legendary attractiveness to major corporations. The city boasts more corporate headquarters than just about any other community of comparable size, in Texas or anywhere else. Among the household-name corporations calling Plano home are packaged foods behemoth Frito-Lay, Capital One Finance Corporation (which has a major branch office here), Toyota Motors North America, Bank of America Home Loans, and department store giant JCPenney. Plano has two major medical facilities within its borders, as well.

Like the Phoenix area, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is a very affordable place for renters (and homebuyers, but that’s another story). Both Garland (to Plano’s immediate southeast) and Irving (just northwest of Dallas, about 25 miles from central Plano) rank among the cheapest places to rent without spending more than 30% of household income.


3. Virginia Beach, Virginia

  • Population: 450,189
  • Unemployment Rate: 2.8%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 1,077 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 972 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $1,176 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $1.21 per month

Virginia Beach is the largest city in Hampton Roads, a waterlogged (but picturesque) metropolitan area in Virginia’s southeastern corner. With the world’s longest uninterrupted pleasure beach (according to the Guinness Book of World Records) and a portion of the country’s largest naval complex, Virginia Beach lives something of a double life. Sun, sand, and serious military hardware manage to coexist here, notwithstanding the occasional hurricane.

Virginia Beach’s vast land area probably contributes to its overall affordability for renters. Away from the densely built beach, the city is a decentralized collection of low-density residential neighborhoods, low-rise commercial areas, parking lots, and green space. There’s plenty of room for Virginia Beach to grow. Thanks to its unmatched lifestyle amenities and defense-oriented economy, little reason to think it won’t.

Hampton Roads isn’t uniformly affordable for renters; the region’s highly mobile population makes it easy enough for landlords to jack up rents when tenants change. But Virginia Beach isn’t the only city that makes the affordability cut. Nearby Chesapeake, vast swathes of which remain undeveloped, is nearly as budget-friendly as it neighbor.


4. North Las Vegas, Nevada

North Las Vegas Nevada

  • Population: 245,949
  • Unemployment Rate: 4.3%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 1,033 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 958 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $1,050 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $1.10 per month

North Las Vegas is another desert city with beautiful mountain views and a sprawling metro area. Located north of Las Vegas proper, it’s heavily reliant on the Las Vegas Valley’s famous gaming and entertainment industries, with many locals working for casinos, resorts, entertainment companies, and the various support businesses. However, the area is gaining regional recognition in the technology sector, thanks to the availability of cheap land.

It’s worth noting that North Las Vegas was devastated by the housing collapse of the late 2000s, with the city’s comparatively low rents partially an artifact of that crisis. That said, the local economy is in much better shape than in the immediate aftermath of the collapse.

As the region continues to recover, North Las Vegas shares affordability honors with three nearby cities:

  • Henderson, on the southwestern fringes of Las Vegas’s urban sprawl
  • Paradise, a centrally located community that’s home to much of the Las Vegas Strip
  • Las Vegas proper, covered in greater detail below.

5. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Oklahoma City Oklahoma

  • Population: 649,021
  • Unemployment Rate: 2.9%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 973 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 849 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $754 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $0.89 per month

The capital of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City sprawls across three counties, making it the eighth-largest U.S. city by land area. The city’s housing market benefits from the seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap, flat land surrounding the urban core. A strong economy has pushed developers to continue building new projects.

Though its economy is still reliant on energy and agriculture, Oklahoma City has largely freed itself from the destructive boom-and-bust cycles – fomented by volatile oil, gas, and cattle prices – that hampered its growth throughout much of the 20th century. Nevertheless, Oklahoma City is one of the few major cities situated atop an active oil field. Many residents earn income from oil and gas leases. The city is also home to Stockyards City, the world’s largest livestock market and a bona fide Old West tourist attraction.

Aside from livestock and energy, Oklahoma City’s economy relies on logistics, aerospace, finance, healthcare, and state government. The area’s largest employers include the State of Oklahoma, Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center, Integris Health, Hobby Lobby, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, and Chesapeake Energy Corporation. Tinker Air Force Base, located beyond the city limits, is a major economic anchor for the region as well.


6. Wichita, Kansas

Wichita City Kansas

  • Population: 389,255
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.7%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 965 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 792 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $643 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $0.81 per month

Kansas’ largest city, not far from the geographic center of the United States, is amazingly affordable. Named for the Wichita people who lived in the area for centuries before the arrival of European settlers, modern Wichita is a diversified hub of industry, logistics, and services.

Though surrounded by farmlands, Wichita itself is heavily industrialized, historically one of the United States’ largest aircraft manufacturing hubs. Today, more than 50 aircraft companies and suppliers operate facilities in Wichita and surrounding communities.

Other major employers include Cargill Meat Solutions, Koch Industries (an energy and agribusiness conglomerate better known for its owners’ conservative politics), Coleman Company (an outdoor recreation supplier), and Chance Morgan (a roller coaster manufacturer). Wichita State University and Wesley Medical Center employ thousands, adding much-needed diversity to the local economy.

Wichita’s signature annual event is the Wichita Riverfest, which attracts nearly 400,000 visitors each year. The city also hosts the Tallgrass Film Festival, an international art film exhibition.


7. Tulsa, Oklahoma

Tulsa City Oklahoma

  • Population: 400,669
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.2%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 960 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 820 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $685 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $0.84 per month

Despite its hard-to-shake reputation as “the Buckle of the Bible Belt,” Tulsa is a surprisingly cosmopolitan city located in northeastern Oklahoma, at the edge of the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. Once an oil boomtown, Tulsa suffered mightily as the center of American energy production shifted west. Following a long period of economic stagnation in the late 20th century, the city has rebounded and diversified.

As the effects of climate change grow more pronounced and the world shifts away from carbon-intensive sources of energy, Tulsa is likely to further reduce its dependence on legacy oil and gas producers like Williams Companies, Syntroleum, and ONEOK. These days, Tulsans are more likely to work in aerospace (American Airlines’ local maintenance facility is the largest aircraft maintenance hub in the world) or the financial sector (BOK Financial Corporation, a major regional bank, is headquartered here).

Tulsa’s signature event, the Tulsa State Fair, attracts nearly one million visitors during a 10-day period each fall. The city is also popular with foodies, thanks to a distinctive style of barbecue that’s difficult to find outside northeastern Oklahoma. The municipal park system, which features more than 100 parks and 6,000-plus acres of green space, is nationally recognized.


8. Omaha, Nebraska

Omaha City Nebraska

  • Population: 468,262
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.2%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 905 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 924 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $905 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $0.98 per month

Located about an hour northeast of Lincoln, the state capital (and another affordable place for renters), Omaha is Nebraska’s largest city. The city began life as a cow town thanks to the massive Omaha Stockyards complex and nearby meatpacking plants, but it’s far more than that today. Modern Omaha is an insurance and railroad hub, a key center of finance and engineering, and the home of famed value investor Warren Buffett and his venerable conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway.

Other major Omaha employers include Kiewit Corporation (a construction company), Valmont Industries, Green Plains Renewable Energy, Mutual of Omaha, and Union Pacific Corporation. The city is rumored to be the birthplace of the Reuben sandwich and the ski lift – somewhat surprising given the surrounding area’s gentle topography. Omaha’s best-known annual event is the College World Series, which attracts tens of thousands of baseball fans every year.


9. Arlington, Virginia

  • Population: 237,521
  • Unemployment Rate: 2.0%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 902 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 866 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $2,149 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $2.48 per month

Arlington is a tiny county sandwiched between the Potomac River, the independent city of Alexandria, and the much larger county of Fairfax. Arlington is largely urban in character, with plenty of walkable neighborhoods and a fantastic public transportation system.

For outsiders – and plenty of locals, too – Arlington’s relative affordability for renters is something of a mystery. It’s smack in the middle of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area; the Washington Monument is visible from high points throughout the county. Local home values are steep, with single-family homes priced at double or triple the national median. And the region’s booming economy is about to kick into an even higher gear as Amazon opens a major East Coast hub inside the county limits.

The resulting influx of well-to-do techies may shatter Arlington’s affordable dream. For now, who’s to argue with an unabashed good thing? If you’re looking for a hip foothold in the D.C. area without D.C.-level rents, Arlington is it.

10. Raleigh, North Carolina

  • Population: 469,298
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.8%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 893 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 960 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $1,164 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $1.21 per month

Raleigh is North Carolina’s state capital and second-largest city. As one of the fastest-growing cities in a fast-growing state, it’s emblematic of the economic vitality that’s drawn so many outsiders to this part of the country over the past few decades – yet it remains one of the best bargains for renters east of the Mississippi.

In part, Raleigh owes its appeal to a regional cluster of top-tier research universities. Together with the neighboring communities of Durham, Chapel Hill, and Cary, Raleigh anchors the famed Research Triangle, home to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, and North Carolina State University. As one of the country’s top life sciences hubs, the Triangle draws from a global pool of scientific talent.

Numerically, Raleigh’s job market is driven by state government, education, and healthcare. Top private employers include Advance Auto Parts, First Citizens BancShares, Red Hat, and Waste Industries.


11. Columbus, Ohio

Columbus City Ohio

  • Population: 892,533
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.0%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 878 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 885 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $918 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $1.04 per month

Located in the geographical center of Ohio, Columbus is its state’s capital city and home to its flagship public university. (That’s The Ohio State University, for readers who couldn’t care less about college sports or Midwestern land grant universities.) Though Columbus is the biggest city in Ohio by population, the surrounding metropolitan area is only the state’s third largest.

Columbus has changed a lot over the years. Its first noteworthy industry was horse-drawn buggy manufacturing. Following the demise of the buggy business, the city quickly developed a more diversified manufacturing base, later expanding into professional services. Today, the city’s largest employers include Ohio State University, the state government of Ohio, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, Big Lots, Cardinal Health, Wendy’s, and Huntington Bancshares.

It’s worth noting that Ohio State University supports a vibrant startup economy – somewhat unusual in the industrial Midwest – and a diverse cultural scene to match. That means Columbus might just be Ohio’s best place to start a new business and hit the town after a long day at work, without paying coastal prices for drinks, food, or housing.


12. Fort Wayne, Indiana

Fort Wayne Indana

  • Population: 267,633
  • Unemployment Rate: 2.9%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 866 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 882 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $760 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $0.86 per month

Once little more than a trading post on the American frontier, the arrival of the railroad transformed Fort Wayne into a thriving manufacturing hub. By the early 20th century, it was one of the most important manufacturing centers between Pittsburgh and Chicago, with companies such as General Electric and International Harvester employing thousands of residents.

Sadly, Fort Wayne’s manufacturing economy collapsed in the 1970s and ’80s, hollowing out the city’s middle class and dramatically lowering local wages, living standards, and morale. The city’s trajectory wasn’t unique, but it fell farther and faster than many other Midwestern manufacturing hubs. It’s taken decades for the local economy to dig out.

Lately, Fort Wayne has focused – with some success – on growing its logistics, healthcare, professional services, and defense exposures. That’s helped to put a floor under local housing prices while boosting median incomes relative to prevailing rents, which remain low due to modest demand and ample housing supply.

Major Fort Wayne-area employers include Do It Best (a hardware brand with franchise locations across the Midwest and beyond), North American Van Lines, Steel Dynamics, and Frontier Communications. The city’s signature annual event is the Johnny Appleseed Festival, which attracts some 300,000 visitors to the city park where the real-life John Chapman purportedly lies in repose.


13. Bakersfield, California

  • Population: 383,579
  • Unemployment Rate: 4.4%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 862 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 861 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $992 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $1.15 per month

Located near the southern terminus of California’s breadbasket, the Central Valley, Bakersfield is just over 100 miles north of central Los Angeles – less than two hours by car on a good day. Culturally and economically, Bakersfield couldn’t be more different from its bigger neighbor.

Unlike L.A., whose superficial glamour belies an endlessly diverse economy, Bakersfield is dominated by two industries: agriculture and energy. Indeed, Bakersfield – not Midland, Texas, or Williston, North Dakota – is the seat of the country’s most productive oil-producing county. The surrounding croplands are among the nation’s most fertile, thanks to temperate winters, unquenchable sunshine, and vast groundwater reserves that – though their eventual drawdown is virtually certain to provoke an environmental catastrophe like the one already in progress in far southern California’s Imperial Valley – remain adequate for now. Thanks to its sunny climate and persistent winds, Bakersfield is emerging as a major renewable energy hub, promising new sources of employment as the region’s fossil fuel industry declines.

Bakersfield is no paradise, though. Yes, Sequoia National Forest and the rest of the southern Sierra Nevada mountains lie within easy driving distance, providing welcome respite from the summer heat. But, come summer, the valley itself is dry, dusty, and forbidding. It’s also home to the curious fungal pathogen responsible for valley fever, a serious and potentially fatal illness that disproportionately affects agricultural workers and is likely to become more common as the Central Valley’s climate warms and dries.

Still, if you’re looking for an affordable foothold in sunny southern California and easy access to the high Sierras, Bakersfield is your best bet.


14. Greensboro, North Carolina

Greensboro North Carolina

  • Population: 294,722
  • Unemployment Rate: 4.4%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 858 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 937 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $876 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $0.93 per month

Greensboro, the largest municipality in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina, has lately seen more than its share of economic disruption. Greensboro was once a major seat of power for the tobacco industry; employment in that sector has declined precipitously since the late 20th century. Textile manufacturing was once a big business here, too, but competition from cheaper markets such as Mexico and China has slowed production.

Still, Greensboro is doing quite well. The city is a regional hub for finance, logistics, healthcare, manufacturing, and high-tech research. Major employers in the area include Honda Aircraft, Volvo Trucks, Mack Trucks, Lincoln Financial Group, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, FedEx, and the United States Postal Service.

Winston-Salem, another Piedmont Triad city, deserves an honorable mention here as well. Greensboro and Winston, as it’s known locally, are well within commuting distance of one another, and the latter is only marginally less affordable for budget-conscious renters.


15. Corpus Christi, Texas

  • Population: 326,554
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.4%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 845 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 849 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $965 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $1.14 per month

Hundreds of miles from the renter-friendly suburbs of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Corpus Christi offers a breezier, slower-paced take on affordability. Among the United States’ most populous beach towns, only Virginia Beach can match Corpus Christi’s affordability. Miami, this is not, though it’s nearly as warm – virtually frost-free, in fact, thanks to persistent warm breezes off the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite ample supplies of sun and sand, Corpus Christi is more than a year-round tourist destination. With the largest helicopter repair facility in the world, among other specialized facilities, Naval Air Station Corpus Christi is a major local employer. The adjacent civilian port is the country’s fifth-largest by volume, and the surrounding waters harbor extensive oil and gas reserves.

Corpus Christi’s Gulfside location is a double-edged sword. To say Corpus is hurricane-prone would be an understatement; the city’s stormwater management system can barely keep up with run-of-the-mill thunderstorms. Rising sea levels exacerbate the threat, as does beach and channel erosion caused by human activity. The good news, for renters: Carrying flood insurance and cleaning up after storms are problems for your landlord.


16. Fremont, California

  • Population: 237,807
  • Unemployment Rate: 2.1%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 843 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 831 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $2,406 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $2.90 per month

A renter-friendly city in the San Francisco Bay Area? Really?

You’re not dreaming. Fremont isn’t exactly San Francisco; located in the southern East Bay or northern South Bay, depending on your preference, it’s much closer in context and character to San Jose. But it’s near enough to the heart of Silicon Valley to serve renters who can’t afford (or justify) impossibly high housing prices in exclusive communities like Palo Alto and Mountain View. Prevailing rents here are 30% to 40% lower than in communities right across the Bay – still pricey by national standards, but a steal compared with what’s next door.

For those not interested in testing the Bay Area’s reputation for long commutes, Fremont has a solid in-town employment base. Tesla, the electric car and battery manufacturer, employs thousands at a massive facility here; other major employers include hard disk manufacturer Western Digital, medtech firm Boston Scientific, data storage firm Seagate, and health giant Kaiser Permanente.


17. Jacksonville, Florida

Jacksonville City Florida

  • Population: 903,889
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.2%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 838 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 966 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $1,063 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $1.10 per month

Covering 747 square miles of land, Jacksonville is the largest U.S. city by land area and one of the dozen or so largest by population. Located in northeastern Florida’s First Coast region, Jacksonville has been inhabited by native peoples for thousands of years. It also housed some of the first permanent European settlements in the continental United States, established years before the British arrived in Massachusetts and Virginia.

Following the Civil War, Jacksonville has been an important hub for the U.S. Navy. And, since it’s one of the most affordable places in Florida, it has gained favor as a budget-friendly vacation town and retirement destination.

Jacksonville isn’t entirely about fun in the sun though. Lots of people work here, especially in the finance, logistics, and retail sectors. Major companies include CSX Corporation, Fidelity National Financial, Southeastern Grocers, Swisher International, RailAmerica, and the Port of Jacksonville. As in Virginia Beach, these workers have plenty of room to spread out, thanks to Jacksonville’s seemingly endless hinterland, and new multifamily housing starts easily keep pace with the region’s rapidly growing population.


18. Las Vegas, Nevada

Las Vegas Nevada

  • Population: 644,644
  • Unemployment Rate: 4.2%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 820 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 894 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $1,051 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $1.18 per month

Although it’s adjacent to North Las Vegas, Las Vegas earns a separate entry on this list by virtue of its central place in the public imagination.

Millions of people visit the Las Vegas Strip every year, it’s true. Many never venture beyond it. Since most of the Strip is actually located in the neighboring unincorporated towns of Winchester and Paradise, these less adventurous visitors may never actually set foot in Las Vegas proper.

They’re missing out. Beyond the Strip (most of which is actually located in the neighboring unincorporated towns of Winchester and Paradise) and the kitschy downtown casinos, Las Vegas looks much like any other large city in the southwestern United States, with tidy gated communities and Mission-style houses sprawling out toward the mountains rimming the valley.

Though tens of thousands of locals work in the hospitality, gaming, food service, and transportation industries, tech companies (anchored by footwear giant Zappos) have been growing as well. That’s putting the area on the radar for young, mobile professionals who have no interest in the gaming industry.


19. Lexington, Kentucky

Lexington City Kentucky

  • Population: 323,780
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.1%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 810 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 901 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $898 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $1.00 per month

Lexington is Kentucky’s second largest city. Despite Louisville’s claim to the Kentucky Derby, Lexington bills itself as the “horse capital of the world,” thanks to the surrounding Bluegrass region’s deeply ingrained equestrian culture. It’s also a major educational center for the Mid-South, with the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University collectively educating tens of thousands of students each year.

Despite its agrarian roots, Lexington’s economy is diverse and surprisingly forward-looking. In addition to the University of Kentucky, major employers include UPS, Amazon, Trane, Toyota (which operates a major manufacturing plant nearby), IBM, Lockheed-Martin, Lexmark International, and Link-Belt Construction Equipment (a crane manufacturer). There’s plenty of affordable rental housing to go around, both in the student-heavy urban core and the suburban apartment communities ringing it.


20. Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis City Tennessee

  • Population: 650,618
  • Unemployment Rate: 4.0%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 806 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 910 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $788 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $0.86 per month

Downtown Memphis is perched on a bluff above the Mississippi River, and the city spreads outward in three directions from there. Many outlying communities in the Memphis metropolitan area, including portions of northern Mississippi and eastern Arkansas, are even more affordable than Memphis proper, though crossing the river daily can be a chore for commuters.

Though the region’s economy has seen its share of ups and downs, it’s built on a solid base that includes the global headquarters of AutoZone, FedEx, and International Paper. Other major Memphis-area employers include Cargill Cotton, American Residential Services, Carrier, Merck, and Medtronic.

Memphis is known as a bastion of barbecue and music (locals brag about the distinctive Memphis style). The Memphis International Jazz Festival and Beale Street Music Festival are world-renowned. Nearby Graceland is a magnificent tribute to Elvis Presley and the musical genres he spawned. Memphis also hosted consequential events of the civil rights movement, including the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


21. El Paso, Texas

Elpaso City Texas

  • Population: 682,669
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.1%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 800 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 814 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $770 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $0.95 per month

Located in the westernmost corner of Texas, arid El Paso holds down the United States’ portion of the El Paso-Juarez metropolitan area, also known as Paso del Norte. With nearly 3 million residents, Paso del Norte is the largest contiguous urban area bisected by the U.S.-Mexico border.

First-time visitors to Paso del Norte are invariably shocked by the region’s economic and cultural cohesiveness. Indeed, the border is a real economic asset that has, over time, transformed the region a major hub for international trade and manufacturing. El Paso is the largest U.S. port of entry on the Mexico border, surpassing the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa crossings near San Diego. Though drug cartel violence is a legitimate concern on the Juarez side of the border, El Paso is safer than most similarly sized U.S. cities, with a friendly, close-knit vibe that makes it feel much smaller than its 700,000 souls.

Many El Paso residents work in the public sector. Fort Bliss, a massive military base near the city, is a major pillar of the economy. So are the local public school districts, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the City of El Paso, the County of El Paso, and the University of Texas at El Paso. Major private sector employers include Automatic Data Processing, DISH Network, University Medical Center, Western Refining, and Helen of Troy Limited (the parent company of recognizable consumer brands such as Dr. Scholl’s and OXO).


22. Kansas City, Missouri

Kansas City Missouri

  • Population: 491,918
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.3%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 798 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 899 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $979 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $1.09 per month

Kansas City is the anchor of a major metropolitan area straddling the Kansas and Missouri borders. Thanks to its central location within the continental United States, Kansas City is a major logistics hub and a central operation for the Federal Government. In fact, more than 100 federal agencies have a presence in the city and its suburbs, including the Internal Revenue Service, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the General Services Administration, and the Social Security Administration. When it arrived in the 20th century, the federal employment base provided valuable stability in an agricultural region previously prone to economic boom-and-bust cycles.

Aside from the Federal Government, Kansas City’s employment base includes heavy manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture. Ford and General Motors both have major manufacturing plants here. So does Honeywell, whose Kansas City facility manufactures non-nuclear components for the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. Sanofi-Aventis, a pharmaceutical giant, has an important research facility that focuses on animal health. Dairy Farmers of America, one of the country’s largest agricultural cooperatives, is headquartered in the area as well.


23. Indianapolis, Indiana

Indianapolis City Indiana

  • Population: 867,125
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.1%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 797 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 879 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $858 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $0.98 per month

Fondly known as the “Crossroads of America,” or simply, “Indy,” Indianapolis is strategically located within a day’s drive of many of the United States’s largest cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Unsurprisingly, Indy is a major manufacturing and logistics hub. The area is home to three Fortune 500 companies: Anthem, Simon Property Group, and Eli Lilly and Company. Other major companies with global headquarters or large facilities include Republic Airways Holdings, Finish Line, hhgregg, Calumet Specialty Products Partners, and Allison Transmission Holdings. In the Great Lakes region, Indy’s thriving startup economy – helped along by the region’s high quality of life and low cost of living – is second only to Chicago’s.

Indianapolis has a vibrant, diverse culture too. Its best-known event is the annual Indianapolis 500 auto race – by some measures the world’s largest single-day sporting event. Indy has also hosted the Super Bowl and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament – not surprising given it’s the home to the NCAA headquarters, the governing body for collegiate athletics in the United States.


24. Lincoln, Nebraska

Lincoln City Nebraska

  • Population: 287,401
  • Unemployment Rate: 2.8%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 796 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 943 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $959 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $1.02 per month

Nebraska’s second-largest city is the state capital and home of the flagship campus of the University of Nebraska, the region’s third-largest employer. Unsurprisingly, the local culture is heavily influenced by the university and its huge student population. College football is the unquestioned regional pastime here; Husker fans are near-religious in their fervor.

In addition to the university, the State of Nebraska, Lincoln Public Schools, and several regional healthcare companies provide a solid, stable base of employment. Lincoln isn’t the most glamorous, beautiful, or exciting city in the world, but it’s affordable, friendly, and close-knit – a great place for newly arrived renters to find their feet and make a go of things.


Least Affordable U.S. Cities for Renters

Let’s also take a look at the five most expensive U.S. markets for renters. We’ll use the same area median income benchmark to illustrate that incomes don’t always keep pace with rents. If you’re earning close to the area median income and you’re not willing to spend more than 30% of your monthly pay on housing, you’re probably best served by finding roommates to share a multi-bedroom apartment.

1. New York, New York

Manhattan New York

  • Population: 8,398,748
  • Unemployment Rate: 3.7% (includes all of New York City and surrounding suburbs)
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 265 (Brooklyn); 290 (Manhattan); 419 (Queens)
  • Average Apartment Size: 697 (Brooklyn); 723 (Manhattan); 731 (Queens)
  • Average Apartment Rent: $2,796 (Brooklyn); $4,113 (Manhattan); $2,195 (Queens)
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $4.01 per month (Brooklyn); $5.69 per month (Manhattan); $3.00 per month (Queens)

New York City needs no introduction. Nor is anyone likely to be surprised by the fact that the United States’ densely populated media and finance capital is an expensive place to live. With around 300 square miles of usable land area and a population of about 8.4 million (and growing), New York simply has too many people competing for too little space.

Until recently, New Yorkers unlucky enough not to work on Wall Street could take solace in the relative affordability of the outer boroughs: Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and especially Staten Island. But that’s no longer the case. Only distant Staten Island remains uniformly affordable; those not interested in enduring a daily ferry ride or apocalyptic bridge traffic probably need to settle for a roommate (or three). If you’d like to know precisely what your rent covers in various New York neighborhoods, check out our article on the minimum income needed to afford a one-bedroom apartment in New York City.


2. Boston, Massachusetts

Boston City Massachusetts

  • Population: 667,137
  • Unemployment Rate: 2.9%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 266 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 813 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $3,325 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $4.09 per month

Boston‘s charming wood-frame and brick houses hearken back to a simpler time before indoor plumbing and internal combustion. Everything seems a bit cozier here – streets are narrower, blocks are shorter, and houses are smaller. So it’s not surprising that dwellings in Boston and the many smaller, just-as-densely populated cities around it tend to be modestly sized too. The upshot of Boston’s cozy, pricey housing stock is a diverse, perennially strong economy fueled by innovative healthcare companies, major financial firms, global insurance organizations, and some of the world’s top universities.


3. Los Angeles, California

  • Population: 3,990,456
  • Unemployment Rate: 4.0%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 333 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 792 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $2,463 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $3.11 per month

The second-largest city in the United States has an affordability problem to match its heft. The issue is exacerbated by L.A.’s vast extent and infamous traffic. The most desirable, jobs-rich parts of the region, north and west of the downtown core, also carry the highest prevailing rents and home prices. For Angelenos who can afford to set up shop in Pacific Palisades or Brentwood, or neighboring independent cities like Santa Monica or Beverly Hills, the prospect of cheaper housing in Covina or Ontario simply doesn’t outweigh the prospect of sitting in traffic day in and day out.


4. Oakland, California

Oakland City California

  • Population: 429,082
  • Unemployment Rate: 2.8%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 340 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 794 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $2,684 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $3.38 per month

Just a few miles from San Francisco, Oakland has its own look and feel. By the Bay Area’s inflated standards, its housing stock is a bargain, but Oakland’s relative dearth of high-paying jobs mean it’s actually tougher to find a place on 30% of area median income here than across the Bay, where sky-high salaries go far. Like their compatriots in more affordable Bay Area cities like Fremont, many Oakland residents find themselves commuting to San Francisco or nearby Berkeley, where the University of California’s flagship campus supports a vibrant innovation economy.


5. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

  • Population: 1,584,138
  • Unemployment Rate: 4.9%
  • What You Get for 30% of Area Median Income: 368 square feet
  • Average Apartment Size: 798 square feet
  • Average Apartment Rent: $1,592 per month
  • Price Per Square Foot at Average Rent: $1.99 per month

Informally (and pejoratively) known as New York City’s “sixth borough,” Philadelphia was long an affordable alternative to the country’s largest city – one technically within commuting distance. Today, Philly is only marginally less expensive than its larger neighbor, especially for renters. If you’re willing to endure a longer commute, look for rental housing in less-than-charming satellite cities like Doylestown, Pottstown, or West Chester; if you’re set on vintage housing in an up-and-coming core neighborhood like Fishtown or Brewerytown, be prepared to pay a premium for it.


Final Word

The old cliché about every real estate market being different holds true. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see stark differences across fairly short distances. I live in Minneapolis, where 30% of area median income nets 465 square feet – pretty cozy, by American standards. In neighboring St. Paul, just across the Mississippi River, 30% of area median income is good for about 100 square feet – not a vast difference, to be sure, but certainly more breathing room.

The relative priciness of Minneapolis rental housing wound up the deciding factor in my family’s decision to buy a house in an up-and-coming Minneapolis neighborhood. Compared with nearby rental housing, the place seemed like a steal, and we reasoned that the area’s owner-occupied housing values had more room to run. Had we been looking for housing in a more affordable metro for renters, we surely would have thought more carefully about  whether to rent or buy.

Do you feel like you’re getting enough space for your money in your city? How does your city’s housing affordability stack up to these bargain-friendly communities?

Brian Martucci
Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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