A Regional View of the MiLB Housing Crisis by Justin Stofferahn September 14, 2021 Like millions across the country, minor league players are facing a housing crisis. The practice of using host families to house prospects was put on hold due to the pandemic, leaving players responsible for obtaining their own housing. Things have not gone well. While stories have come to light bit-by-bit, team-by-team, a piece last month by Brittany Ghiroli of The Athletic is one of the more comprehensive looks at the minor league housing crisis to date. Ghiroli’s story details a number of ways in which minor league players get squeezed by housing, all of which is best summed up by this quote from catcher Caleb Joseph: “Finding a place to put your head at night is the hardest, most stressful thing to do as a minor leaguer.” Joseph would know, as he slept in his team’s clubhouse one year to save on housing. The comments by Joseph, who spent 2014-2020 in the majors, also underscore that while the situation with host families is specific to this season, housing has long been an issue for minor leaguers. But in light of Ghiroli’s piece and the amount of reporting on this issue recently, I was interested in putting some numbers to the stories players have shared, particularly since housing costs can vary greatly from market to market and minor league teams are scattered across the country. This analysis began with locating rental data. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) annually calculates Fair Market rent values across the country that are used in determining the amount of subsidy provided by various public housing programs. Within this data collection, HUD publishes estimated median rent values for over 2,600 areas in the United States. Those areas can be counties, metropolitan statistical areas, and HUD-defined metro areas. Every minor league team, with exception of the Vancouver Canadians (I used the median rent from the Canadian Census), fits into one of these areas, providing a median rent for every club. This data provides a team-by-team look at how far players’ salaries go in covering the cost of housing. Using the weekly salaries published in stories about the 2021 increases to the minor league minimum salaries, it is possible to create monthly amounts. It should be noted that there are various scenarios in which these minimums might not apply to a player. Players can earn more for multiple seasons at a certain level, if they are on the 40-man roster, or if they have signed a minor league deal as a free agent. However, much of this is most applicable to players in Triple-A, while the data shows that the most expensive housing markets are in Single-A! 2021 MiLB Monthly Salaries Level Amount Low-A $2,000 High-A $2,000 Double-A $2,400 Triple-A $2,800 SOURCE: Associated Press By placing each team in a HUD market, most of which line up with the Metropolitan Statistical Area a club is located in, a median one-bedroom rental amount can be assigned to each team. The real amounts minor leaguers are facing is likely even higher as players have to search out for shorter-term rentals because their seasons only last 4-5 months. Ghiroli’s story says most players are unable to find leases less than six months, meaning their five month salary is stretched even thinner than reflected here, not to mention players receive no compensation for spring training activities or postseason play. This analysis also does not reflect that this pay is pre-tax. Simply put, this analysis in many cases is looking at a best-case scenario that itself is pretty bleak. HUD defines a household that pays more than 30% of it’s income as cost-burdened and above 50% as severely cost-burdened. Of the 120 affiliated minor league teams, 109 of them are in housing markets where the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment would leave players earning the minimum salary cost-burdened. Looking across the entire minor leagues, players earning the minimum would dedicate over 45% of their salary to cover rent. That share ranges from a high of 57.44% for players in Low-A to a low 35.98% for Triple-A players. Median Rent (1BR) as Share of Minimum Salary Level Avg. Median Rent Share of Minimum Salary Teams Cost-Burdened Teams Severely Cost-Burdened AAA $1,007 35.98% 23 0 AA $933 38.88% 26 5 High-A $956 47.79% 30 10 Low-A $1,149 57.44% 30 19 SOURCE: US Department of Housing & Urban Development This data helps reveal that despite the common portrayal of the minor leagues as rooted in sleepy, and thus inexpensive, small Midwestern towns, many teams are located in expensive markets like San Jose (the most expensive) and Brooklyn. Of the 2,600 markets in the HUD data, just about 7% of them have median rents for one-bedroom apartments above $1,000. Of the 120 minor league teams, 54 of them are in markets where the median rent is over $1,000. Strikingly, the level of play with the highest rents are the Low-A markets, where players not only earn the least but also 19 of the 30 teams are in markets that leave players earning the minimum salary severely cost-burdened. MiLB 10 Costliest Rental Markets Team City Team State Level Affiliate Monthly Salary Median Rent (1BR) Median Rent (2BR) San Jose Giants CA Low-A Giants $2,000 $2,663 $3,158 Brooklyn (NYC) Cyclones NY High-A Mets $2,000 $1,970 $2,244 Everett AquaSox WA High-A Mariners $2,000 $1,809 $2,126 Fredricksburg Nationals VA Low-A Nationals $2,000 $1,691 $1,927 Bowie Baysox MD AA Orioles $2,400 $1,691 $1,927 Jupiter Hammerheads FL Low-A Marlins $2,000 $1,445 $1,814 Palm Beach (Jupiter) Cardinals FL Low-A Cardinals $2,000 $1,445 $1,814 Vancouver* Canadians BC High-A Blue Jays $2,000 $1,436 $1,436 Hillsboro Hops OR High-A D-backs $2,000 $1,372 $1,575 SOURCE: US Department of Housing & Urban Development *Data from Canadian Census This scenario assumes players live on their own, when many have roommates. Unfortunately some of the stories that have come to light are of six players cramming into an apartment furnished with air mattresses, which is ridiculous. Instead let’s focus on a more reasonable scenario, one of two players combining their monthly salaries and seeking out a two-bedroom apartment, as HUD calculates median rents for several different bedroom sizes. While the picture improves, it still leaves players stretched pretty thin. Median Rent (2BR) as Share of Minimum Salary Level Avg. Median Rent Share of Minimum Salary Teams Cost-Burdened Teams Severely Cost-Burdened Triple-A $1,221 21.80% 0 0 Double-A $1,138 23.71% 6 0 High-A $1,160 29.01% 9 2 Low-A $1,397 34.92% 21 1 SOURCE: US Department of Housing & Urban Development Once again, Low-A players face the heaviest burdens, as prospects with 21 Low-A teams would remain cost-burdened. Overall though, adding a roommate does substantially lower costs. The average share of a player’s income dedicated to rent declines to 27%, below HUD’s definition of housing burden. A roommate also helps avoid the worst-case scenario of severe housing burden in all but a couple of the most expensive markets. This being said, there is an easier way to ensure minor leaguers can get decent housing and not have to live in the clubhouse or their cars. Pay them more! It is what the NBA’s G-League does, as players have a union, a minimum monthly salary of $7,000 ($35,000 annually), and housing is paid for. It is also what the AHL does, as players in the NHL’s Triple-A equivalent have a union and a minimum salary of $51,000. In fact, it is also what the minor leagues used to do. A 1956 study in the Journal of Political Economy used information from Congressional hearings to calculate the median monthly salaries of baseball prospects in 1950. Updating these numbers for inflation reveals monthly salaries of $3,000 to $8,000 in 2020 dollars. While this alone would not eliminate the problem of players being left burdened by the local rental costs of today, particularly at the Single-A levels, it does significantly ameliorate the issue. Minor League Salaries – Historical Data Level 1950 Monthly Median 1950 Monthly Median (2020 Dollars) Average Share of Income Teams Cost-Burdened Teams Severely Cost-Burdened Triple-A $850 $8,208 11.04% 0 0 Double-A $600 $5,794 14.48% 0 0 High-A $350 $3,380 25.43% 8 1 Low-A $350 $3,380 30.57% 14 1 SOURCE: The Baseball Player’s Labor Market (1956), U.S. Housing & Urban Development These 1950 salaries could use some further context because the business of baseball has grown quite dramatically over the past seven decades. The minimum MLB salary in 1950 was $6,000 ($64,432 in 2020 dollars) and the median salary was $11,000 ($118,214 in 2020 dollars). This is compared to the actual minimum salary of $570,500 and a median salary that is $1.5 million. Despite various issues that will dominate the upcoming CBA discussions, such as declining payrolls or the length of player control teams have, the salaries individual players receive in the big leagues has significantly outpaced the rate of inflation since 1950. Meanwhile, minor leaguers have seen their relative wages decline over time. One final point worth noting is the recent increases in median rents across MiLB markets. Because of slight changes in the titles of the HUD areas, the most easily comparable data was FY17. Once again, players in Low-A markets are shouldering the heaviest burdens. The average median rent in High-A markets has increased by nearly 29% over the past five years, or over $250 a month. This eats up a good chunk of the roughly $800 increase in monthly pay that players in High-A received from the increase in 2021 minimum salaries. Median Rents FY22 v FY17 Level FY22 Average Median Rent (1BR) FY17 Average Median Rent (1BR) Difference FY17-FY22 Growth Rate FY17-FY22 Triple-A $1,007 $798 $209 26.17% Double-A $933 $815 $118 14.54% High-A $956 $803 $152 18.97% Low-A $1,149 $893 $256 28.60% SOURCE: US Department of Housing & Urban Development None of this analysis changes what should already be very obvious to everyone: minor league players deserve to be paid more, or at the very least teams should provide players with housing during the season. But it is striking to see just how strapped players are when it comes to housing costs, particularly the lower levels where one might assume teams are located in smaller towns with lower costs. This issue not only has immediate consequences for players, but it has the potential to do long-lasting damage to the sport. Per Ghiroli’s piece: “The game is in a spot where it’s catering only to the wealthy, the people who have enough money in their family or in their draft pick (bonus),” said one Mets Double-A player. “That’s extremely disappointing for a game that’s America’s pastime. It shouldn’t be (a) rich, white person’s pastime. Most of the guys I know have parental support and the guys who don’t either have a big signing bonus or have left the game.” Players are already being forced out of the game early by the skyrocketing costs of youth baseball. The sport cannot afford to lose even more athletes because the pros cannot afford rent while working for a $10 billion industry.