Vicious Cycle: How Long Can SF’s Renters Continue To Live Beyond Their Means?

Nearly half of San Francisco’s renter population is living beyond their means, trying to stay afloat in an increasingly hostile rental market that shows only moderate signs of waning, according to industry experts and U.S. Census data.

38.7 percent of San Francisco’s rented units — or about 82,103 units, are occupied by renters forking over more than 35 percent of their income for housing, according to recently released Census data. An additional nine percent — 19,072 — of rented units are paying between 30 and 34.9 percent of their income toward rent.

Industry experts and city officials agree that paying more than 30 percent of gross income for rent is not an economically viable way to live, in the long run.

“San Francisco suffers from an affordability crisis,” District Nine supervisor David Campos said.

“We need to talk about this problem, which is not being discussed, right now.”

Rental vacancy rates too have reached “emergency” levels according to Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union. Any number below four percent — the city’s rate is about 2.8 percent, according to Census data — make available renting options very expensive, and hard to find, he said.

What the vacancy numbers don’t account for is price of available units. The small number of units available could, theoretically, cost $3,000 or more — well out of many middle-income household’s price range, Gullicksen said. The realistic vacancy rate for a minimum wage earner is closer to zero, he said.

San Francisco’s Never Been Cheap

San Francisco has historically been an expensive place to own and rent property. Right around the turn of the century, about 28 percent of San Franciscans were paying more than 35 percent of their gross income for rent, according to Census data. Only seven years later, before the global recession began, that number increased by about four percent or 8,000 rented units.

Unlike the first dot-com boom, which was characterized by evictions in the rental market, this time, record rent increases are suffocating the market for low and middle income earners, Gullicksen said.

City officials recognize the complexity and urgency of the problem — and that the lack of affordable housing for low and middle income residents leads to other problems.

“The quality of housing is an important element to maintaining good health in the city,” Cyndy Comerford of the Department of Public Health said.

“Most of the things that keep us healthy aren’t health care.” Quality housing — meaning housing that doesn’t present immediate health risks from such factors as lead paint, or broken heating — is an important part of keeping city residents healthy.

“As people are becoming displaced because of high rents, it disturbs the social cohesion of communities,” Comerford said, “Stability of the home has a lot of positive effects on childhood health, community, and personal well being.”

The regional economy also is affected by the approximately $1.4 billion in cash that’s paid to property owners who live outside county lines. That’s money that would otherwise be spent on local businesses, Gullicksen said. Annually, the city’s rental property generates about $4.2 billion.

The market didn’t reach a fever pitch until 2012, said Laura Gray of Paragon Real Estate Group, when “all of a sudden on January first, rents skyrocketed.”

Throughout the first nine months of 2012, those seeking to rent experienced incredible competition for units, as well as competitive bidding on the few available, she said.

But, a few weeks after Labor Day, the market slowed down — noticeably, though nowhere near 2008 levels, Gray said.

“After that — and still — it’s very much an owners market,” Gray said, “And they’re still able to insist on favorable lease agreements including no pet policies and others considered favorable for landlords.”

Gray added that in 2012 she rented two identical units 20 feet apart — one in August, the second in September — with vastly different results. Renters in September would not pay the August prices, and Gray said she struggled to come within several hundred dollars of the August price, which she called “huge.”

At the height of the 2012 rental craze Gray noted that she was renting 400 square foot studio apartments — without parking — for $2,400 a month.

Officials Unsure — Or Silent — Regarding Solution

There isn’t a clear solution to the challenging housing question. Economic changes are one possibility, but industry experts and city officials weren’t sure what such changes would look like.

Judson True, spokesman for District Three supervisor David Chiu, said that creating affordable housing through the housing trust fund is one option, as well as increasing the viability of secondary rental inventory like in-law units — often plagued by legal and safety considerations. True also said that temporarily halting condo conversion would help.

Campos explained that — as a city — it’s a problem that needs to be discussed and acted on “right now.” Campos’ district includes the Mission, an area where five and a half minimum wage jobs are necessary to rent a two bedroom apartment, according to a recent DPH study.

Truly affordable projects need to be the city’s priority, Campos said, and it’s important that such developments are incentivized — and that the city works with the developers to do so.

Although many have criticized the recent spate of development projects as catering only to the very richest, the hope is that the projects will shift demand away from built out neighborhoods, said True.

Supervisors Chiu and Campos are currently rivals in the state assembly’s 17th district election in 2014.

Local legislation is the most viable route, according to Gullicksen. The state government is dominated by special interest groups, he said, and the real estate industry is one of the very largest contributors to elected official’s campaigns.

The SFTU and other tenant groups say they are developing a ballot measure for 2014 to protect the community — and there are several options on the table at the moment.

However, , there isn’t a single solution to providing affordable housing, a concern obfuscating the city’s long term vision of itself. Affordable housing is an issue that continues to divide city residents along battle lines of power, money, and property — buttressed by an American dream couched in private buses, silicon, and software.

Mayor Edwin Lee did not return calls and emails requesting comment.

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