Updated: 1:38 p.m.

Earlier today the rental website Zumper came out with something that would qualify to most as shocking news: University City has the highest median rent in Philadelphia, at $1900 for a one bedroom.

Philly.com aggregated the information and posted an article on its front page. We saw a Tweet expressing disbelief that students could be getting gouged so thoroughly on rent. (In all fairness, we tweeted that out with nary a thought to the contrary.)

But here’s the thing: It’s probably not true. It’s probably not close to being true. Websites like Zumper that compile rental data in markets throughout the United States are notorious for flubbing median rents because there’s no reliable way for them to get a read on the actual amount and price for rentals in a given area.   

University City provides a particularly flawed area for Zumper’s estimates. There are so many properties for rent in this neighborhood. According to Census data, the tracts that loosely make up Center City feature about 10,000 housing units, and about 90 percent of them are occupied by renters. 

When Philadelphians tend to think of University City, they think of large, old homes suitable for holding something like between five and 20 poor college kids. There are a few listings like those on Zumper, but not nearly as many as you would expect. In fact, on Zumper, there aren’t many listings at all.

According to a spokesperson from the website, Zumper usually has about 50 active listings in U City per month. But a search for University City returns 14 places for rent (many more come up as “near” University City but they range from being possibly in the neighborhood to being on the other side of the Schuylkill). Let’s check out some of the 14:


Credit: Domus

Chestnut Hall Apartments

3131 Walnut Street aka “The Left Bank”

Credit: The Left Bank

First off, what kind of name is Domus? And please don’t tell me it’s Latin. It sounds like a generic version of a sleep drug.   

These units are not representative of what you’d typically find in University City. But they are representative of what you’ll find for rentals in University City in MLS real estate listings. That’s where sites like Zumper and Zillow and Trulia tend to get their data. While MLS contains nearly every house or apartment for sale in Philadelphia, few property owners bother to list units available for rent. As developer Ori Feibush explained for a Billy Penn story about the insane prices of new construction in Philly, property owners tend to advertise rentals on Craigslist, through signs or by word of mouth. He estimated no more than 20 percent of rentals get listed and therefore picked up by Zumper and similar sites.   

“And those one in 5,” Feibush said, “are exclusively the Dranoffs and the Blatsteins and the Ron Caplans of the world.”

A Zumper spokesperson said it has a professional tool on which landlords and brokers can post listings and also a “network” of other listings. Zumper previously responded to a critique in City Observatory by saying “We have some of the strongest inventory from which to analyze…. We are reporting on true, asking rents seen in the market, and do not create an algorithm to estimate value.”

In other words, they go by what you’re seeing on their website. And for University City that isn’t much.

Anyway, don’t worry about Philly’s college kids getting screwed on rent. Penn and Drexel students with Tiffany Trump money are the ones living in the places Zumper uses to calculate its median rent. The rest are still piling seven people into five-bedroom houses and maybe paying something closer to $1,900 between them.    

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...