What We Give Up to Live in the San Francisco Bay Area

by Maya Mirsky

Let’s start with this: San Francisco was just named the second-most expensive place to rent by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, beating out New York City. Just pause and reread that sentence one more time — here, I’ll help: beating out New York City. (Honolulu was No. 1.)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean wage in the U.S. is $45,790, while in the Bay Area (or rather the part they measure in one unit, which includes San Francisco and Oakland) $62,680. Closer to Silicon Alley it’s even higher. I live in Oakland, where the median sale price for a house went up 56% percent in a year to $450,000, according to a report by DataQuick in the San Francisco Chronicle. And when people can’t afford to buy, they rent — and then rents go up.

Living in the Bay Area on a low-income salary is extremely hard. What sometimes surprises people is that living there on what would be a higher income according to the national averages can also be fairly difficult. When I interviewed Amy, the personal assistant, some readers felt that a person making around $100,000 was already herself quite rich, while others pointed out that in the Bay Area, that doesn’t get you as much as you’d think.

Around here, conversations involving housing often start like this: “Can you believe so-and-so spends ‘$X-amount’ on their apartment/bungalow/two-story Craftsman? And it’s only on such a crappy street in the Mission/Outer Richmond/Temescal? And only two years ago, it was half the price! In Ashland/Portland/Iowa you could buy a farm for that price!” This script is always going. It’s a constant murmur. And if you get a lift in the tech economy, like now, and a flood of well-off workers squabbling over limited housing stock, you get to have the conversation even more often, and with more exclamation marks.

A San Francisco public radio station, KQED, just launched a series of stories under the name “Priced Out,” looking at what’s driving the housing shortage and asking people what they give up to afford living in the Bay Area. The first tweet in a Storifyed collection pretty much sums up the comments.

The KQED program spoke to me, because it’s true: to live here, you have to make tradeoffs. Maybe it’s (lots of) money, maybe it’s time, maybe it’s comfort, but we all do it. To live in this beautiful, vibrant place you have to compromise, and sometimes you wonder why.

San Francisco, with its small area (just seven by seven miles), is the epicenter of this, but there’s a ripple effect that spreads housing crises around the Bay Area like aftershocks. I live in the not-uncomplicated city of Oakland, with my two kids and one husband, in a one-bedroom apartment. My husband has 2.5 hours of commute each day, by public transportation. My personal trade-off is size (small) for location (beautiful and walkable), and I’m happy to make it. But I know I’m lucky, and if we ever had to move we’d be paying at least $1,300 more per month for something at all comparable. (Hi, landlords! We love you!)

Everyone I know has a story like this, involving luck, so I was inspired by the KQED series to ask around and get some stories about people starting out, who are maybe hoping for a break like mine.

Sophie is 26 and in graduate school to become a speech pathologist. She’s currently looking for a room to rent in San Francisco, and has been since July 1. A Bay Area native, she counts herself lucky to be able to occasionally crash at her parents’ house in between days sharing a twin bed with her boyfriend in his tiny room over a bar. She also gets much-needed financial help from her parents. For her, it’s worth the discomfort and high prices to live here, so I wanted to ask her why. Here is our conversation:

Okay, so let’s start w. some background. How long have you been living in San Francisco?
I first moved to San Francisco in November 2011. It took me about three months to find a place. I moved out of that place in June 2011 because I needed to be near a BART station for school [her commute by BART and bus is almost two hours].

I didn’t move into another place until January 1st, 2013. I moved out of that place July 1st because the master tenant was moving out, and my rent was probably going to be doubled.

I’ve had a lot of luck with my rent, mostly because I’ve had the luxury of having parents in Oakland so I’ve been able to live with them until I find something affordable.

How much were you paying in your last place?
My rent for a very nice sized room in the Mission was $750. I think the other roommate upstairs was also paying $750, and the master tenant who lived downstairs with her boyfriend paid $650 — when the landlord wanted to raise the rent, the master tenant kept her rent the same and raised it for us.

And then the master tenant left.
Yes, she decided to go back to school. The landlord was going to renovate the place (it was pretty run-down). My guess is that he could charge $1,300 easy for my room.

That’s quite a lot!
It is and it isn’t. I’m now looking for a room in the same neighborhood, and trying to keep it $1,100 or under. I’m finding this to be really, really difficult. $1,300 is a lot of money for a room, but the Mission has become a very desirable neighborhood. It’s difficult to compete with the new techies moving into the city.

And what have you been doing in the meantime? Since July?
I’ve been living mostly with my boyfriend in the Inner Richmond. He has a small room in an apartment he shares with friends over a bar. I sleep there 6 out of 7 days of the week, and one night a week with my parents in Oakland. I would stay there every night, but I feel bad being there all the time because my boyfriend has three roommates.

How much does he pay?
He pays $550 for a tiny room (it fits a twin bed, a desk, and a bookshelf). Because the place is over a bar, it gets very noisy at night, and shakes occasionally when the music is loud. However, he considers himself to be extremely lucky to pay such a low rent, and people are generally shocked when he tells them. His experience of $550 in the Inner Richmond and my experience of $750 in the Mission aren’t typical. He knows that he can’t move out of his place and find nearly as good a deal.

That’s crazy. So how do you manage to go to school in Hayward and live in S.F.?
I spend about two and a half hours a day commuting. I am able to study with the woman I carpool with (I have flashcards). It’s a sacrifice, but I am really happy in S.F. so it’s worth it. I work about 15 hours a week for a family in Noe Valley [nannying], and am very lucky that my parents are able to help me out with expenses. Again, this isn’t typical for my peer group. I have financial aid for school as well.

What would you say is typical for your age group in the city?
Hmm, it depends. All of my friends in school have an immense amount of loans. My friends who are doing well are working in tech. I have friends who are in their mid-twenties paying $1,500 a month for a room easy, or $2,000 for a studio. Other friends are really, really struggling to pay rent, and generally live in the Sunset or Outer Richmond.

Everyone is afraid to move, because they know that their rent at their next place will be much more.

So why live in S.F.? Why not move somewhere cheaper?
I love living in a city. I enjoy not having a car, being close to so many great restaurants, and I’ve made a lot of friends out here. It’s still a fun place to live, with a lot of great things to do.

Why not move in with your parents to save money? Is it a question of autonomy?
Pretty much. At 26, I’m much happier being on my own. I enjoy my freedom, being able to go out as much as I want without having to explain where I’m going, etc. However, when I graduated the economy was really bad, so I lived at home about half of the time between undergrad and graduate school to save money. I do have some friends who live at home while in school, and this helps keep the debt lower.

Do you think about your financial future?
I chose not to go to Columbia and instead go to Cal State East Bay so that I don’t have to go into debt. I decided to be a speech-language pathologist because I knew that I would get a job after I graduate (the market is fantastic). I’m very lucky that I don’t have debt from undergrad, which I don’t think is typical.

I’ve thought about whether or not I’ll be able to afford to live in San Francisco when I graduate. I think I’d be able to, but only as long as I’m willing to have roommates. I can’t imagine getting my own place here, I don’t even think of that as a possibility.

And that will be worth it?
To me, yes. I enjoy being in the city. I love Oakland, and am there all the time, but it’s too close to my parents. I am pretty flexible about the kinds of places I’m willing to live in. Right now, for example, I live in half of what used to be a dining room. I’ve lived in half a living room, too.

Among my peers at least, it’s rare for an apartment to not have a living room or dining room converted into a bedroom. More often than not, the kitchen is the only communal space.

If I do find a place at around $1,100 a month, that will obviously be a big part of my budget, and will really limit me in what I can do for fun and what kinds of things I can buy. However, it is still worth it to me.

Maya Mirsky is a reporter covering local news in Oakland, Calif. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This will be part of a short series looking at what we give up to live in expensive cities. Maya is looking to interview someone from a low-income family next.

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