Why housing rents have skyrocketed

The economy has been volatile and bumpy since the recession ended in 2009, but one market has seen remarkably consistent growth: housing rents.

The average rent is 15.9 percent higher than at the end of 2009. And rents have risen for 23 quarters straight, according to data from real estate research firm Reis (REIS).

By the fourth quarter of 2009, a few months after the recession officially ended, tenants were paying an average of $964 a month. Since then, rents have risen -- sometimes by as much as 3.2 percent a quarter -- to $1,117 at the end of the third quarter.

Other aspects of the economy haven't seen anywhere near that kind of improvement. Wage and job gains have been unstable, the housing market has been erratic and consumer prices have fluctuated.

Inflation has been nearly nonexistent and appears to be cooling further as gasoline and energy prices continue to drop. The Labor Department's consumer-price index rose by just 0.1 percent in September from August. Prices for food commodities have been falling as well.

Economists now expect a modest uptick in inflation over the next year, led by one category: Rents. "Shelter and rent played a big role this month in supporting prices," economists at Bank of America (BAC) wrote in a September report. Without those increases, the economists said, growth for the month would have been flat.

Why have rents surged so much even amid shaky overall growth? The reasons mostly revolve around the fact that demand has only strengthened while supply has remained tight. Since the financial crisis began in September 2008, more than 5 million foreclosures have been completed, according to data from CoreLogic.

That's a lot of former homeowners who don't qualify for mortgages and are forced to rent.

Another boost for the apartment market is that many younger people coming out of college haven't found jobs -- or, at least, not the kind that make them feel confident about buying a home, said Brad Doremus, senior analyst for Reis. After the recession, banks set strict standards for qualifying for a home loan and were asking applicants for higher down payments. It forced people to rent for longer than they normally would, Doremus told CBS MoneyWatch.

Finally, the job market rebound has often been strongest in urban pockets of the country -- areas that generally have the highest concentration of apartments. That also served to push people into apartment living.

You'd think the supply of apartments would quickly respond to rising demand from renters. But that wasn't the case. The years leading up to the recession didn't see a huge buildup of apartments in metropolitan areas, Doremus said. In fact, the trend was to convert existing apartments into condos.

After the recession, builders took their time shifting into apartment mode. It really wasn't until the past year, that a strong flow of new apartments began to kick in. Developers are now bringing so much new supply onto the market that the vacancy rate increased in the third quarter for the first time since 2009.

"I think we've kind of reached the low point in the cycle in terms of vacancy," Doremus said. At the end of 2009, the average apartment vacancy rate was 8 percent. That fell to a 4.1 percent earlier this year before rising to 4.2 percent in the third quarter.

Banks are now so jazzed about apartment living that they're throwing loads of cash into the market. Lenders handed builders nearly $173 billion in new mortgages last year for apartment complexes with five or more units, according to a new report from the Mortgage Bankers Association. That's an 18 percent increase from 2012.

At some point, rental increases have to slow down. More apartments are coming online now, and wage growth isn't rising fast enough to support further large rent spikes.

"There are only so many rent increases that landlords can inflict on tenants that keep within their budget," said Doremus. But that doesn't mean tenants can expect any rent relief soon. Rents will probably still go up, but the rate should pare back a bit.

Meanwhile, large cities are struggling with how to provide affordable housing to growing populations. In San Francisco, the average monthly rent has jumped 25 percent since 2010 to $2,444. The city has seen intense protests from renters who say they're getting evicted by landlords hoping to attract high-earning employees of Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB) and other technology companies.

In New York's Harlem neighborhood, 50,000 people applied for an affordable-housing building that offered studios for as little as $349 a month. In Boston, officials say 53,000 more housing units are needed by 2030 to keep up with the city's strong population growth. "There is movement by a lot of people into great 24-hour cities, and Boston is certainly one of those," Michael Roberts, senior vice president for AvalonBay Communities Inc., told The Boston Globe.

  • Kim Peterson

    Kim Peterson is a financial journalist covering business and the economy. She has written for several online and print publications, including MSN Money and The Seattle Times.