The New York Times ran a story last week that raised some eyebrows among its Seattle readers.

According to the article, Seattle is the eighth-most-affordable city in the U.S. for single renters. Needless to say, there was a lot of pushback on social media.

Seattle has one of the highest costs of living in the country. So what’s behind this ranking?

To be fair to The New York Times, they only reported this — they didn’t do the actual research. The rankings were produced by RentHop, an online platform that helps renters find apartments.

RentHop ranked the 50 largest U.S. cities using two data points: median studio apartment rents and average incomes for single people. Seattle was deemed among the most affordable because, even though the cost of a studio apartment is very high, so are the average incomes of single people.

According to RentHop’s report, the typical single person in Seattle makes an eye-popping $89,644 a year. Even though rental costs for a studio are quite high at $1,395 per month, that still pencils out to only 19% of the typical single person’s income. That ranks Seattle as the eighth-most-affordable big city.


But let’s take a look at that income figure. It comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s data for the average “nonfamily household income.”

So what is a nonfamily household?

According to Census Bureau definitions, it is a household in which none of the occupants are related. That does, of course, include single-person households. But there are other types of households where nobody is related: households of unmarried partners and households with roommates.

And unlike households of people who live alone, these types of households often have multiple wage earners who all contribute to the total household income.

For example, let’s say there is a household with three roommates, each of whom earns $40,000. The Census Bureau would record that as a household with an income of $120,000.

So it’s somewhat misleading to use an income figure for single people that includes roommate and unmarried-partner households. You wind up with a much higher average income by factoring in these households with multiple wage earners.

Of course, using this nonfamily household income figure would be inaccurate for all the cities in the report, not just Seattle. Even so, it would probably be more out of whack for Seattle than for most of the other cities.


That’s because we have a very high percentage of roommate and unmarried partner households compared with other large cities. In 2016, I wrote a column about how soaring housing costs helped turn Seattle into the No. 1 roommate city in the U.S. At the time, 12.5% of the adult population here lived with either roommates or an unmarried partner.

I think RentHop should have used a different figure for income, one that also comes from the Census Bureau: Median household income for a one-person household. This would more accurately capture data on the income for single people because a one-person household is, by definition, a single person.

Also, I would use a median figure for income rather than an average, as RentHop did. The median is the midway point — half the households earn more, half the households earn less. The average figure for income is typically higher because averages can be skewed upward by extremely high earners. A median can’t be skewed in this way.

The median income for a one-person household in Seattle, according to the latest census data, is $54,970. That’s a far cry from the $89,644 figure that RentHop used.

Using the $54,970 income figure, if the median Seattle studio goes for $1,395, that would mean Seattle singles typically pay 31% of their income on rent.

While that’s certainly higher than the 19% RentHop figure, it’s still lower than in some cities. It’s just above the threshold for a rent-burdened household, which is 30% or more of income spent on rent.


But I’m also wondering about the accuracy of RentHop’s median studio apartment rent figure for Seattle ($1,395). That is $855 lower than Boston’s median of $2,250, and $563 lower than Washington, D.C.’s $1,958. I would have thought rents in Seattle were much closer to these two cities.

RentHop shows Seattle studio apartment rents as cheaper than a lot of other cities I wouldn’t expect, including Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and Raleigh, North Carolina. RentHop calculated these median rent figures using its own data.

RentHop says it examined about 1.2 million studio listings posted in 2020 and 2021 (through October) to find the median studio apartment rent in Seattle. Meanwhile, Apartment List has the average rent for a studio apartment as of October 2021 at $1,698.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say that the $1,395 median for a Seattle studio apartment is right. Then it’s true that for the average single earner in Seattle, the city is reasonably affordable.

But when we ask if a city is affordable or not, I don’t necessarily think we are asking if it’s affordable to someone who earns the median income. Remember, a median means that half the households make less — often, a lot less.

How affordable is Seattle to someone making the minimum wage, which is as much as $17.27 per hour? For a full-time worker, that translates to monthly earnings of just under $3,000.

That means a minimum-wage worker who rents a $1,395-per-month studio apartment in Seattle is shelling out roughly 47% of income toward rent.

And that isn’t affordable by anyone’s definition.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the percentage of income spent on rent in Seattle using the figure for median income for a one-person household.