Capitalism laid bare in San Francisco

23:20, Jan 15 2013

Here's the easiest way to get a San Francisco area twenty-something to launch into a bitter rant: cock your head sympathetically in their direction and say, "How about them rent prices?"

If I have one grudge with this place following our move, it is that for all San Francisco positions itself as the liberal bastion of the West, open-minded and accepting and done up with flowers in its hair, this is as nakedly capitalistic a city as I have ever encountered.

LP and I are blessed right now to live rent-free in the basement level of her aunt's house. But as we've started to tentatively look around for our own place we have come to one clear conclusion about this city...

We can't afford to live here. 

At $72,000 a year, San Francisco has the second highest median income in the country behind Washington D.C. It matches this with the highest median house price in the nation, at $552,000, by almost $200,000.

This is the highest disparity in America between median income and cost of housing. A median income earner can't afford to live here.


This has a somewhat geographic cause. Like New York and San Diego, two other cities with similarly high deficits, San Francisco is a very developed coastal area with limited space for development. But it's also in the midst of the social media boom. Companies like Twitter have moved into the middle of town and are dragging in high-income earners in droves. Facebook, Google and Yahoo, all in themselves massive, are offering free transport from San Francisco south to Silicon Valley each day. The production of new homes and the rate at which new rental vacancies have hit the market has not kept up with population growth.

Our research for an apartment (currently in the preliminary stages) began San Francisco city focused. We knew we were in for a rent increase from Boston. But our expected price bracket slowly started creeping up and up. We'd see the odd semi-affordable but very scratchy-looking place out in the Sunset, by the beach, but nothing to warm our hearts.

We had a brief moment of hope when a new suburb "Lower Nob Hill" started showing up in searches. Nob Hill itself is fancy. But Lower Nob Hill turned out to be part of the Tenderloin (San Francisco's glorious ghetto) that realtors had decided to dress up into something that it wasn't.

From what we hear, house hunting has become a blood sport: open homes packed with people turning up with envelopes of cash, two months of rent up front and two months of rent for a security deposit required on the spot.   

There are some disturbing byproducts of this warp in the market. Of the 800,000 people that live within San Francisco's 11 by 11 kilometre boundary, only 13.4 per cent of those are under 18. Families have been leaving this city for some time now and the result is that San Francisco proportionally has fewer children than any other city in America by some way.

San Francisco City Council has set guidelines that developers have to price 60 per cent of newly built units below market rate. But increasingly, I have read, these developers have opted to pay a fine instead of following this rule. And for all the low-income housing incentives on offer in the city like this one, it's doing little to keep the middle class itself from leaving.

Because if you were to be paying, say, $1900 a month in rent, you need to be earning at least $68,000 to ensure you're not shelling out more of a third of your income each month toward a place to live. But then someone earning $68,000 a year doesn't qualify for housing assistance, you follow?

The news of late has been soaked with depressing factoids about the housing market.

Someone working at minimum wage would have to work a 220-hour week to be able to live in San Francisco. The average middle-school teacher would need a second job just to get by.

At the start of 2013, the average apartment rental in San Francisco has risen to around $2700 a month with most two-bedroom apartments retailing for north of $3000. 

Once LP and I had looked around we realised that to make do in San Francisco we'd have to reconcile ourselves to living in an apartment twice as expensive as we were in Boston (in itself not a cheap place to live) but with probably less than half the space.

And we're both just not prepared to do that.

The result of this for us is that we'll end up living in Oakland or Berkeley. Which isn't a big deal. I'll still enjoy being within a subway ride of San Francisco. It's a great city.

But it was an alarming, and new, feeling to find myself in a place where I couldn't actually afford to be. And I can't help but wonder about what the future holds for San Francisco. With the tech crowd flooding into town and businesses scrambling to relocate near it, the city is dividing neatly into renting and owning classes, with a stark divide and little chance of mobility between the two.

Which to me seems like a final corruption of everything I'd sort of marked San Francisco up to be in my head.

But there's a chance, I guess, that I'm just being naïve. No?

Become a fan of Voyages in America on Facebook: you'll get blog posts to your news feed, some great photography, and some good chatter. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter, or send an email and share your thoughts.