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In Tampa Bay, burdened renters abound as home ownership stays low

Masons work atop the 9-story Avanti apartment building under construction in downtown St. Petersburg. The Tampa Bay area has gained thousands of new rental units since 2006 as growing numbers of people rent rather than buy. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Oct. 6, 2017

The Tampa Bay area is increasingly a region of renters.

A decade after the housing crash, nearly 38 percent of bay area households are in rental properties, a new study shows. That compares to less than 30 percent in 2006, just before real estate values plunged and sent tens of thousands of Tampa Bay homes into foreclosure.

And many of those renters are unlikely to become homeowners anytime soon, according to New York University researchers. Almost 25 percent of bay area rental households are "severely rent-burdened'' — they spend more than half of their income on rent — and have scant resources left for food, health care and education let alone the down payment for a house.

"For other people, investing in a mortgage may be more affordable," says Beverly Williams, who has been renting an apartment in the Port Tampa area for a decade.

Two years ago, Williams applied for a mortgage to see if she would qualify. Although pre-approved, she ultimately was turned down because her debts, including car payments, ate up too much of her income as a cashier.

Besides, she adds, "I want financial freedom. I don't want to be tied into a 30-plus-year loan."

Williams is among the swelling ranks of renters who have kept U.S. home ownership levels near a 50-year low. For their 2017 National Rental Housing Landscape report released today, NYU researchers surveyed the country's 53 largest metro areas and found:

• The percentage of households that are renting has risen in almost every part of the country even though foreclosures hit their peak in 2010. "The sustained increase in renter share after 2012 is notable, given this declining foreclosure rate, the general economic recovery and falling unemployment," the study says.

• Rents have increased almost everywhere. Tampa Bay is among the few exceptions; the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment has dropped from $1,000 in 2006 to $960. But that is still more than in 26 other areas including Houston, Charlotte, Minneapolis, Nashville and Cleveland.

• The increase in renters nationally has spurred a boom in new-apartment construction but it comes with a downside. The median rent for apartments that recently went on the market is higher than for older units, suggesting that renters likely will face a rent hike if they move.

In Tampa Bay, households earning the median income of $49,000 could afford 66 percent of recently available units. That is down from 75 percent a decade ago.

• The share of U.S. households that are rent-burdened is higher than in 2006 and far higher than in earlier decades. In Tampa Bay, 23.5 percent of households are severely rent-burdened, putting it in the top 20 of metro areas where renters spend a disproportionately large chunk of their income on rent.

RELATED COVERAGE: Why are so few Tampa Bay houses for sale? They're being rented.

The NYU study does not delve into the reasons people rent, though there are many.

Shana Kopp, for example, has been renting an apartment in north St. Petersburg since she and her husband divorced a few years ago and he got the house.

There are advantages to renting, Kopp, 38, has found: "The faucet in the kitchen sink blew off one day and water was shooting everywhere," she says. Instead of having to get it fixed herself, she called the landlord.

But Kopp, who is disabled from spinal injuries and uses a cane, would like to have a house again one day. That way she could open the door and let her dog Leo out into the yard at times when it is especially hard for her to walk. If she had her own place, she could also install a wall oven: "I can't bend over."

Kopp is realistic, though, about prospects for home ownership. "The market has gone nuts," she says. "Houses that sold for $35,000 two years ago are $130,000 now."

Over in Tampa, Victor Alvarez is in no hurry to buy. He and his wife moved from Estonia two months ago — "we wanted to go somewhere warmer" — and are renting an apartment in South Tampa.

As an engineer, the 33-year-old Alvarez is in a profession that allows for considerable mobility. He has also lived in France and Spain. And not being tied down to a house gives him even more freedom.

"We kind of like to travel and change all the time," he says.

RELATED COVERAGE: The decline in homeownership in the Tampa Bay area needs to end quickly.

The NYU study found a slight dip nationally between 2012 and 2015 in the percentage of households paying a burdensome amount of rent. But it attributed that largely to more prosperous renters like Alvarez.

"The recent decline in the share of rent-burdened households should be cautiously interpreted," the study warned. "The income of the typical renter household increased as the economy recovered, but part of this increase came from the change in the composition of the renter population as more high socio-economic status households chose to rent their homes" instead of buying.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate

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