California ranks 3rd-worst value for renters

”Survey says” looks at various rankings and scorecards judging geographic locations while noting these grades are best seen as a mix of artful interpretation and data.

Buzz: Only two states are worse deals for renters than California.

Source: My trusty spreadsheet compared Census Bureau housing data, comparing 2021 to 2016 for 50 states plus the District of Columbia. To create a value metric for renting, states were scored on five-year change in rental costs, 2021 share of financially burdened renters, the burden’s 2016-21 change, 2016-21 change in rental households, and residents per rental unit 2021. Rankings were derived from a state’s average grade.


My scorecard put California as the third-worst value for renters ahead of only Nevada and Arizona. After California came Georgia and Florida.

The best states were North Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Montana and Ohio.


These five years of housing history included a pandemic push to find larger living spaces and mortgage rates at historic lows, which boosted homeownership by 11% nationwide vs. 1% growth in renter households.

Sadly, folks who didn’t own a home were hit by with soaring rent costs and significant stress on family finances.

But let’s start with the basics. California had the most renting households with 5.73 million or 13.6% of the nation’s 42 million. Those tenants equal 44% of households in the state, the third-largest largest share of renters behind. D.C. at 58% and New York at 45%. After California was Nevada at 41%, and Hawaii and Texas at 37%.

But consider a measure of popularity (or not), the five-year change in the number of renters.

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California saw tenant households shrink by 1.5% between 2016 and 2021. That still ranked 34th best.

The biggest dip was in West Virginia, off 9.9%, then Hawaii, off 6.2%, Michigan, off 6.1%, Rhode Island, off 6% and Louisiana, off 4.8%. In total, 24 states had fewer renters.

Utah had the No. 1 gain with 18% more renters, then D.C. at 10%. Texas was up 9%, New Jersey rose 6% and Washington state increased by 5%.

So why the California decline? Eye the price tag.

Renting in California had a $1,750-a-month median cost in 2021, with only Hawaii higher at $1,774. After California came D.C. at $1,668, Colorado at $1,491 and Massachusetts at $1,487.

But it’s really about how much rent moved upward.

California tenants suffered the sixth-biggest rent-cost inflation in 2016-21 – up 27%. Top increases were found in Idaho, Washington state, and Nevada at 31%, Arizona at 28% and Colorado at 27%.

Those rising rents made balancing a household budget work tricky.

Lofty rent expenses left 3.2 million California tenant households financially “burdened,” which is defined as 30% or more of income going to housing costs.

No state had more. No. 2 was Texas at 2 million, New York at 1.8 million Florida at 1.6 million and Illinois at 745,000.

That financially struggling flock means 56% of California tenants were defined as “burdened” by rent vs. 51% nationally and the third-highest U.S. level of “unaffordability.”

Florida had the largest share of burdened renters at 59%, then Hawaii at 58%. Louisiana and Nevada followed California with 56%.

Perhaps the best news in the Census rental report for California tenants was that the number of burdened renters fell in 2016-21 – down 1%. But that decline is more tied to the drop in renters statewide that any financial progress.

Nationally, financially stressed renters rose by 4% nationally with increases in 34 states. The biggest jump was in Utah, up 26%, then Alaska at 21%, Wyoming at 18%, Texas at 17% and Nevada at 14%.

And tenants jam into California’s pricey rentals.

In 2021, the typical California rental unit had 2.73 people – the highest in the nation. No. 2 was Hawaii at 2.67, then Utah at 2.51, Nevada at 2.49 and Mississippi at 2.45. Florida was No. 7 at 2.43.

Note that “crowded” housing isn’t just about sharing costs. Density is often high in states like California and Utah which have relatively youthful populations with many families with children.

Bottom line

To help explain poor rankings like California’s, I sliced the states into thirds – from worst grades to best. What did it tell me about the 17 lowest-value states for rentals?

They’re pricey: Rent expenses ran $1,382 a month in the low-ranked states in 2021 vs. $957 in the top-value states. That’s a 44% gap.

They’re getting pricier: These costs grew 24% in the bottom 17 between 2016 and 2021 vs. a 16% gain in top-value states.

They’re a bigger burden: 37% of renters in low-ranked states were financially stressed in 2021 by housing costs vs. 31% in top-value states.

They’re crowded: 2.44 people per rental unit in low-ranked states vs. 2.13 in top-value states.

But renters seem to flock to places that might roughly pencil out as a bum deal.

Low-ranked states had 24.3 million renter households in 2021 vs. 8.4 million in top-ranked states. And over five years, the renter group grew by 1.7% in low-ranked states while shrinking 1.3% in top-value states.

Why the popularity of seemingly low-graded states? Real estate’s three-most important words: Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.

The lowest-ranked states created 3 million jobs in 2016-2021 vs. a loss of 460,000 jobs in the top-value states.

Renters seek opportunity, even if it’s a costlier voyage.

Jonathan Lansner is the business columnist for the Southern California News Group. He can be reached at

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