Is Rent Too Damn High in the DC Area?

by Mark Wellborn

The video that’s been making the rounds on the internet the last few days is of Jimmy McMillan’s Rent is Too Damn High performance at the New York governor’s debate, which essentially stole the stage from big-name candidates like Andrew Cuomo.

The Wall Street Journal examined Mr. McMillan’s cause in a recent post on its Developments blog:

Many personal finance experts say you should spend no more than 35% of your gross income on rent whether you live in a high- or low-cost area. Rents in New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. average $2,090 and are among the highest in the nation, running as much as 218% higher than in other major metro areas, according to In most metro areas, income dropped between 2008 and 2009, according to the Commerce Department. In the New York metro area, for example, income fell 4.6% to $52,375, which translates into no more than $1,527 per month.

Earlier this month, Delta Associates released its third quarter report in which it noted that rents in the DC area have soared 7.3 percent for Class A and B apartments over the past twelve months. Specifically, the average rent in the DC area is now $1,643 a month, up from $1,507 a month in Septemeber 2009. By the 35 percent gross income rule, DC area residents would have to make at least $56,300 a year to comfortably pay the current monthly rent.

On a side note, rent advocate Jimmy McMillan has been paying just $800 a month in rent for his one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn (although he foots the bill for his son’s rent as well).

UT readers: Are you paying more or less than 35 percent of your gross income on rent? Let us know in the comments.

See other articles related to: the wall street journal, renting in dc

This article originally published at


  1. more than 35 said at 1:19 pm on Wednesday October 20, 2010:

    More. And unless you live in a group house in Petworth or are making very good money, getting under that 35% threshold is difficult these days

  1. Anita said at 1:34 pm on Wednesday October 20, 2010:

    I make about $65,000 a year and pay $1,800 a month in rent, so come in right under the 35% threshold. I also think I got a good deal on my 1-bed place considering what friends pay, so others in my income situation are probably paying more.

  1. L said at 1:56 pm on Wednesday October 20, 2010:

    Since I’ve lived in DC I’ve paid between 20-30% of my gross income in rent. I couldn’t imagine paying 35%—that’d be over 1/2 after taxes. I’ve always had a roommate, though.

  1. Lucky I guess said at 2:03 pm on Wednesday October 20, 2010:

    I pay 2200 in rent per month, which is just less than 20% of my gross.  I don’t know how people do 35%, as to L’s point above, it would be closer to 50% after taxes and expenses. 

    I thought it was 28% of gross should be your housing targets, and no more than 38% of your total debt payments.  I know that’s the lending rules typically, so why wouldn’t that apply to renting?

  1. jag said at 2:12 pm on Wednesday October 20, 2010:

    Yeah, I don’t pay anywhere near 35%. How would someone ever save anything if they spent that much on rent??? Course I live across the border in Downtown Silver Spring for this exact reason.

  1. Mackenzie said at 3:03 pm on Wednesday October 20, 2010:

    Looking at my paystubs for the job I started at the end of April, 33% of my (pre-tax) income in that period has gone to rent.  That’s 43% of my after-tax income.  I’m in Arlington, paying about $100 less per month than I did in DC.  I’m also sharing a 1-bedroom apartment with a flatmate.

    Last year, 57% of my pre-tax money went to rent (apartment was $100 more, and my old job paid less).  I was in a studio with a flatmate half the year and a 1-bedroom with a flatmate the other half.

  1. anon said at 4:11 pm on Wednesday October 20, 2010:

    own 2 unit row house. renters pay mortgage 100%. spend 0 for living expenses but spend 10,000$/yr for maintenance, though I bought a fixer-upper and renovations are not 100% complete. hopefully i will get them done soon. seems like a good deal after what i read here.

  1. anon 4447 said at 4:28 pm on Wednesday October 20, 2010:

    why don’t renters buy these days?  I just saw a house for $349K, and with just 3.5% down, total mortgage and taxes would be about about $2100, and if you rent 2 of the bedroom of the 3 bedrooms at $900, for you could live for $300.  today’s interest rates are so low.

  1. makingakilling said at 5:50 pm on Wednesday October 20, 2010:

    I bought a 3 bedroom condo a couple years back. I rent it out for $1,300/month OVER what my mortgage payment is. That extra $1300 in my pocket every month is the reason my living costs are around 13% of my gross income. BUY! BUY! BUY!

  1. anotheranon said at 8:04 pm on Wednesday October 20, 2010:

    Until we bought last year, my rent (me and spouse) was about 10% household income for a small 1 bedroom garden apartment near Metro just outside DC. Utilities were included in rent. We didn’t have a dishwasher, central a/c, or in-unit laundry but the unit was clean, well kept up, and in a safe area. We didn’t need a car, so that also kept costs down.  There were people in our complex for whom even the modest apartments were a stretch…but there are also plenty of people who complain about high rents but aren’t willing to make sacrifices.

    With kids, it would be more of a challenge to find an affordable place (our complex, for example, only had one bedrooms).

  1. former Georgetowner said at 11:11 pm on Wednesday October 20, 2010:

    I bought a 2 bedroom condo and I rent out one of the rooms.  My roommate pays me $800/month.  With her contribution, my total housing cost is about 20% of my gross income.  (mortgage + condo fee + utilities).

    I make decent money for my age.  I have no idea how people get by paying more than 35% of their gross income on rent.

  1. joy said at 11:06 am on Thursday October 21, 2010:

    I just did the calculations and was shocked to discover that I only pay 19% of my gross pay in rent even though I live in a Class A 1 BR apt in Downtown Silver Spring.  However, that translates into 34.4% of my net pay (which is a fairer comparison - why does anyone factor in gross pay when that cash isn’t readily available?).  It certainly feels like rent takes up a lot of my pay.

  1. T3 said at 11:06 am on Thursday October 21, 2010:

    Not everybody can afford to buy! Everything that I know and have read says that it is harder to qualify for a home now. 3.5% of 350k is $12,250 (not including closing costs) that is still a lot of money for people. And not everyone is going to get the best interest rate. Sounds like a lot of people on this blog have done a lot of manuvering to keep their housing cost below 35% (roommates, flatmates, renting out income units)
    If you are for whatever reason unable to buy and or have a roommate, I would say rents in this area are way too high.  I, by the way have bought but don’t assume that everybody is able to do what I did. If you are a family with an income in the range of $50k-$70k it is very hard to rent in DC without paying more than 35% of your income on housing.

  1. Janson said at 11:12 am on Thursday October 21, 2010:

    If you’ve just moved to DC to get a job, are at the bottom of the professional ladder, and don’t know the ins and outs of the city, it’s going to be hard not to spend a high proportion of income on rent.

    If you are from here and can’t compete with the itinerant labor pool, god help you. The itinerants are all buying lottery tickets coming here, paying an unsustainable proportion of income in hopes of getting a lucrative job. Like my intern.

    On the other hand, I have never paid more than 24% of my gross for rent (which is my ownership cost ratio now). And I have never lived in a share or outside a premium neighborhood, but my places have been small compared to my peers. And, of course, I still feel poor.

  1. JS said at 11:38 am on Thursday October 21, 2010:

    Are you people that are renting out rooms in your place declaring and paying tax on that rental income?  I do, and I’m unclear if it should count.

  1. Mike said at 12:05 pm on Thursday October 21, 2010:

    We really should be looking at this as net take home vs. gross, as it masks real impact. For example, my percentage of rent is 16.5% of my gross monthly, but jumps to 33% after paying taxes, health care, and retirement savings.  That makes a huge difference.

  1. Kate said at 12:46 pm on Thursday October 21, 2010:

    Far less than 35%, but I’ve been living in the same one bedroom rent controled apartment for the last decade.

  1. aj said at 12:51 pm on Thursday October 21, 2010:

    If I paid my whole mortgage and condo fee, my housing costs would be 39% of my gross monthly income.  fortunately I rent out one of my bedrooms, so my housing expenses are just 22% of my gross monthly income. That’s why I bought a 2-br.

  1. aj said at 12:53 pm on Thursday October 21, 2010:

    correction, I meant 36% without the roommate

  1. lm said at 1:00 pm on Monday October 25, 2010:

    less, but I live in a group house in Petworth.

  1. Adrienne said at 7:17 pm on Monday October 25, 2010:

    I live in Del Ray and pay about 23% of my income for a roomy 1 bedroom apartment (600 square feet with 5 closets!)

    There’s absolutely no way that I could afford to buy in my neighborhood, so it’s renting for me as long as I live here.

  1. Nightvid Cole said at 3:23 pm on Friday December 14, 2012:

    I spend less than 35% of gross income on rent (College Park, MD) and yet the rent expense is still high enough that it makes me unable to own a car.

    I think arbitrary ideals like you should spend X% of your income on housing, etc. are extremely misleading. They assume all your other expenses plus savings add to (100-X)% of your income. Which is not necessarily the case.

    How much you should spend on housing depends not only on income, but also on outgo, that is, what your other expenses are.

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