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U.S. Renters Paid a Staggering $4.5 Trillion to Landlords, According to Zillow

AFFORDABLE HOUSING-A little more than a year ago, Zillow, the real estate site, came out with an eye-popping statistic: between 2010 and 2019, renters in the United States paid landlords a staggering $4.5 trillion.

That’s not a typo: $4.5 TRILLION. Zillow’s study never got much traction with the mainstream media, but it shows how landlords have been squeezing every last cent out of renters over the past decade — and they show no signs of letting up.

Zillow released the report in December 2019. For housing justice activists, who’ve long witnessed the wreckage caused by wildly inflated rents in middle- and working-class communities, the numbers were still mind-boggling. 

“On Dec. 1,” Zillow wrote in 2019, “the nation’s renters didn’t just make their last rent payment of the year — their landlords also collected their last rent payment of what was a very lucrative decade.”

Obscenely lucrative may be more like it, considering how millions of lives have been upended.

U.S. renters not only paid landlords $4.5 trillion during the 2010s, but $512 billion in 2019 alone. Zillow points out that $4.5 trillion is higher than the 2018 GDP of Germany ($4 trillion), and $512 billion is larger than the 2018 GDP of Thailand ($505 billion) and just less than Argentina’s ($518 billion). 

A massive sum of money.

Unsurprisingly, numerous California cities show up in Zillow’s top 35 list of U.S. metro areas where renters have paid the most to landlords in 2019. New York City ranks number one, with $56.5 billion. Los Angeles is number two — renters have shelled out $39.1 billion to landlords. San Francisco is number three, with $16.4 billion. San Diego ($10.3 billion), Riverside ($7.4 billion), San Jose ($6.5 billion), and Sacramento ($4.8 billion) also appear in the top 35. No other state has as many cities on Zillow’s list.

In an interactive graphic, Zillow shows total rent paid in cities for each year between 2005 and 2019. In Los Angeles, for example, renters paid landlords $22.7 billion in 2005. For each of the following years through 2019, the total paid rent in LA increased: $24 billion in 2006, $25.7 billion in 2007, $27.5 billion in 2008, $28.2 billion in 2009, and so on. By 2019, LA renters paid landlords $39.1 billion out of their paychecks.

While landlords were raking in billions each year, the consequences have been devastating for renters in California and across the country. In Los Angeles, for example, the total number of unhoused individuals steadily went up between 2018 and 2020: 31,285 in 2018, 36,300 in 2019, and 41,290 in 2020.

People were also becoming more rent burdened — spending 30 percent or more of pretax income on rent. Pew Trusts found that 38 percent of all renter households in the U.S. were rent burdened in 2015, an increase of nearly 19 percent since 2001. The percentage of people who were severely rent burdened (spending 50 percent or more of their income) also increased: from 12 percent in 2001 to 17 percent in 2015. In California, 53.9 percent of households were rent burdened in 2016.

As renters kept paying more billions to landlords between 2010 and 2019, there was also increasing gentrification in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and other cities in California and across the U.S. Housing Is A Human Right, for example, released, in 2019, an award-winning special report that showed Los Angeles was facing a citywide gentrification crisis.  

Landlords, especially corporate landlords such as Blackstone Group (led by billionaire Stephen Schwarzman) and Equity Residential (led by billionaire Sam Zell), have shown zero concern about those consequences — and have fought mightily to stop anyone from reining them in. 

In 2018 and 2020, Blackstone Group, Equity Residential, Essex Property Trust, and other corporate landlords shelled out tens of millions in campaign cash to stop two California ballot measures that would have eased statewide restrictions on local rent control policies.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the chickens have now come home to roost. Exorbitant rents were already slamming tenants before the outbreak. Now with unemployment or lost work hours caused by the pandemic, millions of Americans are struggling even more to pay sky-high rents — and many are falling into back-rent debt. It’s why housing justice activists throughout the U.S. continue to call for rent control. Without regulation, the runaway greed of predatory landlords will rage and ruin for years to come. 

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(Patrick Range McDonald is the award-winning advocacy journalist for Housing Is A Human Right and a CityWatch contributor.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.