A recent post at a website called Apartment Guide has caught a bit of attention on the Westside after it named Santa Monica the most expensive place to rent in the country.

Apartment Guide made the attention-grabbing claim that average rent on a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica is nearly $5,000 a month ($4,799.20, to be exact) and the story got picked up by LAist, Curbed, and even the ultra-conservative publication Breitbart.

While it may have made for a great headline, the study grossly overinflated Santa Monica’s rents.

In fact, the city’s own data pins the median — more accurate than average —  market-rate rent over the last two years at $1,900 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, $2,595 a month for a two-bedroom, and $3,398 a month for a three-or-four bedroom apartment.

The problem with Apartment Guide’s analysis is how limited the data set it uses is:

“The following data has been gathered from Apartmentguide.com and Rent.com active listings in the month of November 2016. The average entry price for each city has been taken from 1 bedroom units,” the site reads.

Apartment Guide’s study used only two sites, both of which are owned by the same parent company of the organization that conducted the study. A quick glance at the listings on both sites reveal that they are mostly big apartments with corporate owners and the sites require payments to post apartment listings. All that information taken together suggests that this study is less a study and more a marketing pitch for the company’s apartment listing services.

A simple foray into Craig’s List, which has a much more representative sample of Santa Monica’s housing stock, shows rents much closer to what the city’s analysis concludes. That data was compiled as part of a report to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to demonstrate a growing need in Santa Monica for deeper rent subsidies for low-income residents.

The city’s report also looks at independent academic and private sector figures for Santa Monica median rents.

Anecdotally, a 600-square-foot, newly-renovated one-bedroom apartment in the same half-century-old building lived in by this author is currently listed at $1,895 a month. It’s still pricey, given the no-frills nature of the unit, but it’s nowhere near what Apartment Guide claims is the average rent.

A graph showing the increase in median market-rate rents in Santa Monica. Image via City of Santa Monica.

It’s clear that Santa Monica, and all of Southern California, is facing a worsening housing affordability problem, however. It’s an issue covered often in this publication. A low vacancy rate, relatively few new housing units being built every year, and a high demand to live in a city which is rich in high-paying jobs and known for quality schools have all combined to create an increasingly expensive housing market.

Addressing the problem effectively, however, requires a more rigorous understanding of the actual severity of the problem as well the root causes.

This problem was addressed in Governor Jerry Brown’s budget, released today:

“California faces a shortage of housing, particularly affordable housing, for its growing population. Though demand has increased steadily, construction rates continue to lag due to a number of barriers, including local zoning and permitting decisions surrounding housing production,” the budget reads, before calling for municipalities to streamline overly-burdensome zoning that drives up the cost of housing.

Perhaps Apartment Guide’s study is more useful as a warning — a glimpse into Santa Monica’s possible future — if the city continues underbuilding housing and rents continue to rise at rates that increasingly make the city unaffordable to lower- and middle- income households.

That trajectory is not an impossible one, given the influence wielded by anti-development activists in the city and the tenacity with which they seek to continually reduce the city’s capacity to allow even a very modest amount of growth. But it is also not an inevitable one, since the impediments to sustainable housing growth are primarily political and politics can change.

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