Study Uses Craigslist to Examine Rental Housing Markets

A report titled New Insights into Rental Markets across the United States: Web Scraping Big Data to Analyze Craigslist by Geoff Boeing and Paul Waddell of the University of California, Berkeley, uses Craigslist rental listings for an analysis of 415 metropolitan rental housing markets. The median rent nationwide was $1,145 and the average apartment size was two bedrooms. Rent per square foot was highest along the Boston-Washington corridor and along the coast of California. Rents were also high along the coast of southern Florida and in Chicago, Denver and Seattle. Overall the most expensive areas were in the cities of New York, San Francisco, Boston and Santa Barbara and in metropolitan areas in North Dakota.

The authors collected the square footage, asking rent price and location for 11 million Craigslist rental listings over a three-month period in 2014.  Thirty-seven percent of Craigslist listings nationwide were below HUD’s Fair Market Rent (FMR) for their area. Percentages varied significantly among metropolitan areas.  Across all apartment sizes, over two-thirds of Craigslist rental postings in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Kansas City were below FMR, but only seven percent of New York City listings and six percent of Boston listings were below FMR. The typical FMR is set at the 40th percentile of rents for recent movers, therefore 40% of listings would be expected to be under the FMR. Nine metropolitan areas had median listing prices within the forty-percent threshold: Louisville, Seattle, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Grand Rapids, Raleigh, Salt Lake and San Antonio.

Rents within each metropolitan area also varied significantly. For instance, Detroit displayed a rather narrow range of rents per square foot across neighborhoods, while rents in San Francisco’s various neighborhoods fell along a much wider spectrum. Cities like Atlanta, Detroit, Phoenix, and Houston featured relatively narrow rent ranges, whereas New York, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles and DC all showed a wider range of rents per square foot. Wide variations in rents within cities present mobility challenges for voucher holders as metropolitan-wide FMR-based payment standards make it difficult for households to access housing in higher rent neighborhoods.

American Community Survey (ACS) data from 2014 was used to analyze the percent of median income needed to afford the median rent found in listings in each metropolitan area. The authors found that New York, Boston, Miami, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles were home to median rents above 30% of median income, exceeding the commonly accepted rent burden threshold. While this analysis does not factor in rent burden for those below median income levels, the findings do identify areas where affordability poses a distinct challenge.

The authors’ research provides an example of how big data (large-scale data sets) from Craigslist, the most popular rental listing site in the U.S., can be used to analyze rents in fluid rental markets. One limitation to the use of such data is that Craigslist apartment listings may not be representative of the entire rental market, capturing only rental homes whose owners advertise on Craigslist. Some markets like New York, for example, are dominated by brokers. Another limitation of the Craigslist data is that not all apartment seekers have access to the internet. Still, the research sheds light on how housing markets can be analyzed in a timelier manner than when using more representative data sources.

New Insights into Rental Markets across the United States: Web Scraping Big Data to Analyze Craigslist is available at: