The top 10 big cities with low rents (© Getty Images)

Houston's metro area ranks No. 9 on BusinessWeek's list of big cities with affordable rents. / © Getty Images

Amy Gips loves her one-bedroom apartment in a swank Manhattan building that features a gym, golf simulator, yoga studio and massage rooms. But she no longer thinks she can justify paying $4,400 a month in rent, especially now that her ex-boyfriend has moved out.

A week ago, just as the 27-year-old associate at a private equity fund was planning her next move, a letter arrived from the property management company. The rent for the 750-square-foot Chelsea apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Madison Square Park was reduced $900, or about 20%. It changed her calculus, though she hasn't given up on the idea of shopping around for something less than $3,000 a month, with one or two months of free rent thrown in.

For years, rising rents in Manhattan were thought to be as inevitable as baseball at Yankee Stadium. But times change, and in New York, landlords are scrambling to hold on to renters who have been hit by the economic downturn.

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That means renters who are still in good financial shape, like Gips, now have the whip hand. "I was thinking that the rent was so high that there was no way I'd consider staying," says Gips. "Now that they've offered the reduction on their own, I kind of feel I should do a bit of negotiation."

Avoiding empty apartments
During the six months since the financial crisis began in earnest, control of the Manhattan rental market has switched to the tenants, who no longer have to pay broker fees (traditionally about 15%) and who can get up to three free months of rent and even gym memberships thrown in just for signing on the dotted line. The power shift might not be as dramatic in other parts of the country, but rents are getting more affordable from Charlotte, N.C., to San Francisco. And landlords everywhere are getting more creative (and desperate) to hold down vacancies and prevent turnover.

What's your home worth?

Landlords figure it's better to take a hit by offering a month or two of free rent and other freebies than to carry empty apartments that aren't generating income.

It's a nationwide phenomenon, according to Victor Calanog, research director at real-estate data firm Reis. Half of apartment buildings reduced rents in the fourth quarter of last year and the first quarter of this year — the highest percentage since Reis began tracking apartment data in 1980. (By comparison, only 17% of buildings reduced rents in 2007.) And average asking rents fell 0.6%, to $1,046, in the U.S. in the first quarter, compared with the previous quarter, the largest drop since Reis began collecting quarterly data in 1999. And average effective rents, which include free months and other landlord incentives, fell 1.1%, to $984.

Looking for an affordable city rental? Check out MSN Real Estate's Rental guide.

Effective rents fell in 64 of the 79 markets that Reis tracks. Effective rents in San Francisco dropped 2.8% in the first quarter of this year, compared with the previous quarter — the nation's largest quarterly decline. Rents fell 2.6% in New York City (all five boroughs); 1.3% in Charlotte; 2.5% in San Jose, Calif.; 0.9% in San Antonio; 0.9% in Cleveland; 1.2% in Chicago; and 2.3% on Long Island, N.Y. Only a few markets, such as Houston and Dallas, showed increases, Calanog says.

Good time for good deals
BusinessWeek teamed up with Reis to come up with the most affordable large metro areas in terms of rents as a portion of local income. Oklahoma City, where people spent just 12% of their income on rent, was the most affordable. Other cheap markets included Indianapolis; Denver; Fort Worth, Texas; and Cleveland. The least affordable market was New York, where people spent 57% of their income on rent. But even New York is getting more affordable. About 75% of rental buildings reduced rents in the first quarter, Calanog says.

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"Landlords are under increasing pressure as vacancies are moving up," says Calanog. "It's a great time to find deals, even if you're about to renew your lease. Just be prepared to follow through on any credible threats."

Paul Salamanca, chief executive of SkipBrokers.com, an online no-fee rental company for Manhattan apartments, says tenants are negotiating aggressively. "People are saying: 'If you don't help me out, I know another landlord that's willing to,'" Salamanca says.

But landlords around the country aren't reducing rents just because tenants are shopping around. Americans have seen their finances deteriorate amid the ongoing layoffs and pay cuts. Some landlords have dropped rents on a temporary basis to allow tenants time to find a new job.

For people who lose their jobs
About three weeks ago, Cleveland's Goldberg Cos., which owns 9,000 units in Ohio, North Carolina, Florida and Texas, started offering "layoff-proof" leases, which guarantee tenants up to two months of free rent if they provide proof they were laid off. If the tenant is unable to find another job after the two months, they can break the lease with no penalty.

The company hopes to attract tenants who are living with parents or sharing apartments with multiple tenants.

"What's keeping people from renting is fear," says Eric Bell, a senior vice president at Goldberg. "We wanted to give people a cushion or a safety net, so they know they'll have some time to get back on their feet."