How to survive 'rent wars' (© fStop/SuperStock)

© fStop/SuperStock

The news about rents is bad, and it keeps getting worse.

In a recent study of apartment rents by real estate website Zillow for The New York Times, the disheartening news is that average rents are outstripping the ability of the middle-income earners to pay them — and the forecast is for rents to keep going up at a much faster rate than income. (Bing: Median household income by ZIP code)

That means the middle-income earners are getting priced out of many housing markets — Zillow found 90 such markets across the U.S. — or they have to make deep cuts in personal spending to get by.

The rule of thumb is that rent plus utilities are not supposed to exceed 30 percent of household income. In the Zillow study, rent alone often exceeded 30 percent of income and not just in Manhattan and San Francisco where that has been the norm for years. Now it also is true in New Orleans where a typical rent is 35 percent of household income. In Chicago it is 31 percent. In Los Angeles it is a numbing 47 percent. In Miami it is 43.2 percent.

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Even Flagstaff, Ariz., clocks in at 37.8 percent. Hattiesburg, Miss,. is 35.8 percent.

Among a very few affordable cities in the Zillow study are Detroit (23.9 percent), Phoenix (25.8 percent), and Washington, D.C. (27.2 percent).

Researchers accordingly have declared a rent affordability crisis.

They also say that because vacancy rates in much of the country are low, rents will continue to edge up.

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Don Harkins, a real estate agent in Orlando, Fla., described the stark reality renters face: "In today's markets when a rental home is in good condition and priced fairly, a landlord will have a plethora of potential tenants to choose from."

That landlord also will be able to nudge rents up every year, and there is nothing a tenant can do, except pay the increases or move.

"We receive a lot of stories of renters having their rents increase by 20 percent to 35 percent at their end of their lease," said Phillip Lee, CEO of RentMatch, an apartment-review site. "In a landlord's market like the one we're currently in, there's no room for negotiation."

"There is no easy way out for renters," said Albert Lu, managing director of WB Wealth Management in The Woodlands, Texas. "They must cut back somewhere to accommodate the new price structure."

Then there is a human face on this. Freelance writer Anne Violette, sole support for a family of five including three toddlers, said that she is getting priced out of the rental market in her present residence Delray Beach, Fla. "I am going to have to move somewhere else simply, because finding a place at the current rate of $1,500 that I pay now is near impossible unless I want to live in a terrible, crime-infested neighborhood with bugs and crime," she said.

She said she had a bright idea — moving to Houston, Texas.

"You can get a really nice place to live for $1,200 to $1,600, and the job market is strong and the schools are much better, too," Violette said.

Just one hitch: "Everyone has the same idea, because I have literally been looking online for over two months and sent in several applications, none of which got there in time because the rental places said they have choices of four to ten people applying for the same place," she said.

A national complication is that nowadays it seems more people want to rent, not own. Some suffered credit dings in the Great Recession. Others found themselves gravely upside down in a house, owing more than it could sell for. Still others saw family members and friends go through such traumas. For them the takeaway is that renting is safer, more predictable. And so rental markets, especially in big cities with good job markets, are flooded with tenants.

What's a tenant to do? Moving to a more affordable town is one option but, as Violette's story proves, there may be a crowd in front of you with exactly the same idea.

The other option: minutely reviewing expenses and cutting out anything that is superfluous, from a landline phone to a daily latte.

"When you're looking for an apartment in a difficult economy where rents and the cost of living are high, it's more important than ever to create a household budget and stick to it," said Ron Leshnower, who blogs about Apartment Living at About.com.

That's no fun? It isn't.

But being homeless is less fun.