You know it, we know it: The rent is too damn high. What you may not know is this: The situation is getting worse — very quickly.

A handful of booming real estate markets — including cities like Denver, San Jose, San Francisco and, yes, Honolulu — saw rents rise 10 percent or more in 2014, according to data cited in a recently released housing report from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Such price increases — as well as lesser ones in many other cities — are partly the result of a marked shift in which fewer Americans own the homes they live in and more people become tenants. More competition to rent homes in places that have failed to create enough housing is helping to drive up rents even when incomes don’t keep pace. Shifting demographics, meanwhile, are only bolstering the ranks of aspiring renters nationwide.

Add it all up and these are good times to be a landlord — especially one with a mortgage set when real estate was cheaper. But even plenty of newer landlords who bought during the (ongoing) real estate price surge, are poised to benefit.

makiki condominium honolulu

Average rents on homes across Oahu, including these condominiums in the Makiki neighborhood, are getting more expensive.

The reason? The era of rising rents is far from over, according to the report entitled, “The State of the Nation’s Housing.”

The nation’s residential rental market — which has been growing in size and value for years — is actually accelerating, says the report, which forecasts that the 2010s will be the strongest decade for rental demand in American history.

Our Rising Rents

Rents rarely increase in a uniform way. Dramatic price hikes are possible when portions of the market are underserved. That explains why the average rent on a three-bedroom home on Oahu surged to $2,675 in July, according to data from the real estate data provider RentRange LLC. In just 12 months, the cost jumped 15 percent.

Only California’s Bay Area, where the average three-bedroom home is scratching at $3,000 per month, is pricier. But while out-sized tech industry incomes in Silicon Valley, San Francisco and the East Bay have juiced those areas’ economies and rental markets, Honolulu has not enjoyed any similar salary surge.

Renters of housing of all sizes face palpably higher rents, but big-home tenants are weathering the most aggressive rental tides on Oahu. The price of the average four-bedroom apartment in Honolulu leapt from $2,600 a year ago to $3,200 in July, according to RentRange.com. That’s a 23 percent hike.

What is behind such increases? For one, as housing experts note, rents tend to eventually sync up with rising mortgages so there is a catch-up element to the recent and sometimes dramatic surges in housing values in places like Hawaii.

There is a long roster of statistics and demographic data to suggest that rents are rising due to many cities’ inability to keep up with the growing demand for housing. In the absence of regulation, like rent controls, when more and more aspiring tenants compete for too-few rentals the result is higher prices.

The price of the average four-bedroom apartment in Honolulu leapt from $2,600 a year ago to $3,200 in July, according to RentRange.com. That’s a 23-percent hike.

The Joint Center for Housing Studies report cites a vast — and ongoing — influx of new renters around the country. As the enormous “baby boomer” generation ages, many people around retirement age are downsizing their lives. In some cases, this involves selling their homes to retire and then living a simpler renter’s life. The largest swath of additional renters come from this age group’s ranks, the report says.

Another great demographic shift is coming from the opposite end of the spectrum. Members of the young adult generation, often referred to as millennials, are increasingly moving out of the family homes as more of them find work that allows them to afford to do so.

By the year 2025, the Harvard study forecasts that people under the age of 30 will make up as many as 20 million new households. Given the high cost of real estate, relatively few are likely to be in a position to afford their own homes; the rest will likely add to the flood of new renters.

Those young adults are entering a housing market that has changed dramatically since the real estate market peaked prior to the recession of 2008. Home ownership rates have already fallen for eight consecutive years.

Today the 64.5 percent of Americans who own the home they live in, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, marks the lowest ownership rate since 1993.

The ownership tide is far lower in Hawaii where just 56 percent of residents own the home they live in. On pricey Oahu, where the median home sells for about $700,000, 55 percent of people possess their own home or condo.

As for the 45 percent of people who rent in Honolulu, they don’t enjoy any of the long-term economic benefits of ownership, like rising home values, but they increasingly pay the price for other people’s mortgages.

Rental housing increase

Marina Riker/Civil Beat

Rent’s Growing Burden

Housing is the single largest expense for 90 percent of workers nationwide, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies report. The more people spend on rent, the less they have for everything else.

That constitutes a handicap to Hawaii’s economy because residents have less money left over to spend on goods and services that might stimulate the local economy.

On a personal level, the weight of high rents relative to tenants’ incomes leaves them economically vulnerable. The trend toward more people renting has coincided with another trend toward tenants putting out an ever-larger percentage of their incomes on rent, leaving less money for other bills — including health and education — and savings for retirement.

This is a growing problem nationally. The barometer for a healthy rent is generally deemed to be 30 percent or less of a household’s income. The Harvard study says that half of renters in the U.S. spend more than that amount on housing costs, with about one renter in four forking more than 50 percent of income to the landlord.

The situation is particularly dire for low-income residents of the 10 most expensive metro areas — including Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Honolulu. In those metropolitan areas, three in four renters who earn between $30,000 and $45,000 spend an unhealthy percentage of their income on rent.

Even among a large slice of middle-income residents in those areas — people who earn $45,000 to $75,000 — about 50 percent face such cost pressures.

apartment rent increase

Marina Riker/Civil Beat

Hawaii’s New Carpenters?

One thing that could potentially stem the rise in rents in the islands, and in many other places, is the expected increases in the Federal Reserve’s benchmark interest rates, which are near zero. Those rates are a primary component in defining the cost of home loans.

Barring a surprising new jolt to the economy, forecasters almost universally agree that rate hikes are coming soon. Raising the cost of borrowing to buy a house means many buyers will have less money left over to purchase one. In the absence of other factors, this could slow the housing market and, ultimately, the rise of rents.

On the other hand, given that wealth has concentrated in the hands of fewer Americans in recent years, a smaller number of people have the ability to buy a larger percentage of all housing. Some of them, along with international investors, may continue to profit handsomely by buying and renting out those homes at market rents.

People who can’t afford to buy a home — along with others who forgo ownership for other reasons — still need to live somewhere. Most of them have little choice but to rent.

The realization that more housing is necessary to respond to the growing needs of such people goes a long way toward explaining the wave of new multifamily units being built nationally. Commerce Department numbers indicate that more new projects were initiated in June than at any time since the late 1980s.

Even here in the islands, where development projects tend to move forward in stops and starts, there are growing signs that construction is picking up speed well beyond the cranes over Kakaako. One recent indicator: the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters, better known as the carpenters union, is seeking 500 new carpenters to respond to additional construction needs, including those related to development along the rail line.

So until something upends the equation — whether lurching economic winds, international tensions or game-changing action by policymakers — there are plenty of reasons to believe that rents will continue to rise.

Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of rents or real estate in the islands, whether about you or someone you know? If so, drop me a note at epape@civilbeat.com.

You can also find Civil Beat’s entire ongoing Living Hawaii series here.

And you can also continue the broader conversation and discuss practical and political solutions by joining Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii.

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