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The biggest inflation spikes are in cities thought of as 'affordable,' like Atlanta

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. cities with the highest inflation rates are not New York, not LA, not any of the most expensive metro areas. Instead, the biggest cost-of-living spikes are in the southwest and southeast in places often considered affordable. As residents in those cities are learning, affordable is a relative term. Stephannie Stokes reports from member station WABE in Atlanta.

STEPHANNIE STOKES, BYLINE: I met Shaneequa Cannon at a strip mall east of Atlanta. It's 90 degrees outside, and she says it's too hot to talk inside the house, too expensive to run the AC.

SHANEEQUA CANNON: So I'm actually shopping for an AC unit, a portable one.

STOKES: We sit in a shady spot under a tree. Cannon tells me she's living at her aunt's place right now. She's been there since the end of last year. She moved to Atlanta from Miami six years ago. She was a high school English teacher with young twins and wanted cheaper rents.

Did you find Atlanta affordable at first?

CANNON: At first, heck yeah. Miami would have, like, a 900-square-foot place for $1,500. Or I can come here, get a house with a backyard, and it's $1,000.

STOKES: Things started out great.

CANNON: Until this last year, year and a half.

STOKES: After the pandemic hit, Cannon quit teaching because in-person classes felt unsafe. She started doing some freelance writing, but it was a big hit to her family budget. Only her partner had a stable income. Then the company that owned her home decided to renovate. They offered her one of their other rentals.

CANNON: I was like, OK, so I'll just try to find another one of their properties. Everything was 1,500 and above.

STOKES: She found that was the going rate all over. Cannon was shocked. Rents had increased about 50% since she first got to Atlanta.

BRENT MEYER: Rents and shelter prices are increasing rapidly here in Atlanta.

STOKES: Brent Meyer is an economist with the Atlanta Federal Reserve. He says to understand inflation in the cities where it's highest - Atlanta and also Phoenix - you just have to look at the climbing housing costs.

MEYER: Those trajectories in the Atlanta area are a lot higher than where they are elsewhere in the U.S.

STOKES: So what's going on? Oleg Konstantinovsky is a broker with an Atlanta company called Promove. It helps renters find apartments.

OLEG KONSTANTINOVSKY: There are so many people that have relocated to Atlanta.

STOKES: He points to the pandemic and remote work opportunities. These new residents drive up demand, and that drives up rents.

KONSTANTINOVSKY: If an apartment complex is, say, at 90% occupancy, their prices will be lower. But when they're sitting at 97, 98, they're going to maximize their costs.

STOKES: The home sales market looks similar. Buyers compete for listings and often pay above the asking price. But not everyone is complaining. For some new residents coming to Atlanta, prices here still are a relief.

Hi. How are you?

LAUREL ROSENBERG: Good. How are you?

STOKES: Good. Thank you. Yeah.

Laurel Rosenberg lets me into her home in a northern Atlanta suburb.

I noticed you still have California plates.

ROSENBERG: On all the cars.

STOKES: Yeah.

She moved from an eastern Bay Area suburb last year with her family. Her daughter and son-in-law can no longer afford California and wanted to leave. Rosenberg sold her home for $535,000.

ROSENBERG: Looking at houses out here, I think we paid 435. And this one is literally twice the house on twice the property.

STOKES: She and her daughter's family, including two grandkids, all live there. And the move meant Rosenberg, who is 58, can retire with the cash left over from the sale of her California house.

ROSENBERG: So that's California cash.

STOKES: California money makes it sound like it's a different currency.

ROSENBERG: It is a different currency. Look at our power bill. I mean...

STOKES: Way less than what it was in California. Rosenberg knows new people like her are part of what's making Atlanta more expensive for longtime residents. But she does plan to stay, so what's affordable for her may change, too. For NPR News, I'm Stephannie Stokes in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephannie Stokes
Stephannie Stokes is a producer at WABE’s features desk. The title, “producer,” can mean a lot of things, but her focus is on telling stories. On WABE, you might hear her reporting about a lesser known part of Atlanta’s history, while another day you might catch a sound portrait she produced about a person or place in the region.