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Welcome to Expensive Cities, a new series designed to help renters find affordable apartments in the nation’s most unaffordable metros.
Among its many claims to fame, Pittsburgh is the city that invented putting French fries inside the sandwich — a la Primanti Brothers — rather than on the side.
Pittsburgh also illustrates an urban phenomenon the Harvard Political Review called “growing while shrinking.” The Steel City suffered with the 1980s steel industry collapse, yet has since cleverly remade itself as a STEM giant through heavy investments in higher education and technology. Pittsburgh’s burgeoning robotics and biotech industries, along with its relative affordability compared to other large cities, has helped it attract premium employers like Apple, Facebook and Google.
As a result, Pittsburgh’s population of millennials has surged. They came for the city’s top-notch universities and stayed for its good jobs. Well-paid young workers have fueled demand for housing, albeit unevenly.
Median rent for a one-bedroom in Pittsburgh declined slightly to an even $1,100 as of June, a drop of 3.5% since the previous year, according to apartment-listing site Zumper. But in upscale Bakery Square, site of the former Nabisco Bakery that now houses Google and the University of Pittsburgh, one-bedroom apartments list for an average of $1,576 a month.
In South Side Flats, where two- and three-story Victorian buildings house eclectic shops, bars and trendy restaurants, the average rent is $1,318, according to Apartments.com. Renters insurance is Pittsburgh costs between $9 and $17.
The intense wave of hiring at shiny tech firms, as well as Pittsburgh’s reputable hospitals and universities, drove demand for new apartments in recent years. A building boom ensued: Developers rushed to build 4,590 luxury apartment units in the past five years.
Happily, for would-be renters, developers seem to have overshot the mark. With thousands more apartment units still under construction, Pittsburgh currently has a temporary glut of rental units.
Given today’s market dynamics, budget-minded renters can snag reasonable deals even in the somewhat fancier areas. Here are three up-and-coming Pittsburgh neighborhoods, convenient to downtown, where renters will get the best bang for their buck.
A formerly-industrial neighborhood, Lawrenceville’s 180-degree revitalization began after the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) built its well-regarded Children’s Hospital in 2009.
“Now it’s a designated hipster hangout,” says Shana Callahan, market analyst at CoStar Group, the parent company of Apartments.com. The highly-walkable area sits along the Allegheny River, and has a trendy mix of hole-in-the-wall restaurants, fine dining and craft breweries along Butler Street.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $970, but less expensive options are out there. A 750-square-foot condo in a converted carriage house with an eat-in kitchen and a shared patio recently listed for $875.
Once gritty, East Liberty has retained much of its original character even as dilapidated properties have been remodeled into high-end apartments. A long-shuttered YMCA was turned into a chic boutique hotel, where guests can play nostalgic games like corn hole and ping pong in what was once the building’s gym. Together with Lawrenceville, East Liberty was named one of the country’s “coolest neighborhoods” by Money magazine last year.
“University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon students utilize the area for off-campus housing due to its proximity to those campuses,” Callahan says. “East Liberty also provides a base for new grads transitioning to the workforce.”
The average rent for a one-bedroom is $1,200, Callahan says. A bright unit with large windows and new stainless steel appliances within a 10-minute walk of Whole Foods recently listed for $950.
If Bakery Square’s charm calls, but the monthly budget doesn’t allow a grand-and-a-half for rent, Shadyside might be just the ticket. Shadyside is adjacent to all the amenities of Bakery Square, but average rents are nearly $400 cheaper.
This neighborhood is especially convenient for those employed at UPMC, Carnegie Mellon or Google.
“Shadyside is close to top employers and offers a cheaper alternative to Bakery Square,” says Callahan. It’s also close to the bike trail at Mellon Park.
The average rent for a one-bedroom is $1,180, but there are many promising listings in Shadyside under $900, provided a brand-new building is not a requirement.
Before you sign a lease in Pittsburgh, press the building’s management for a few concessions, like two free months of rent or a discount on parking fees. While Pittsburgh’s glut of apartments will likely resolve itself before too long, it is currently a renter’s market. Landlords are likely to bargain a little rather than lose a renter in today’s market conditions.
Check out these tips for negotiating with a landlord.
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