On Sunday we gathered at the home of our friends Sara and Andre for a summer barbecue. They live in a 600 square foot one bedroom apartment here in San Francisco. We talked about their housing situation and their long term trajectory.
Sara has lived in this building since she first arrived in the city fresh out of university. It’s in a downtown neighborhood halfway between the upscale and desirable Nob Hill and the decidedly sketchy Tenderloin. It’s the Tendernob. While there is no garden per se their ground floor apartment at the back of the building has access to a no-man’s-land of common space that no one else ever uses. Sara and Andre have colonized it and created a pretty good approximation of a back yard.
Over the last decade or so I’ve watched as Sara worked her way up the career ladder as a surgical nurse and later a hospital administrator, met and married Andre, had their first child Isabella, and now are expecting their second. Each change brought a reconfiguring of the apartment with creative adaptations.
A Murphy bed in the living room accommodates overnight guests. This comes in handy when grandma and grandpa come to visit. The same piece of furniture also folds out to a dining table or work space during the day.
A second Murphy bed was installed in the bedroom to allow that space to be a playroom from morning till bedtime. These are high quality units made of solid wood that will last a lifetime and can be brought with them to whatever future home they may inhabit.
When Isabella got too old for a crib and was ready for a big girl bed Andre’s office nook was converted to a child sized bedroom. This arrangement won’t last forever, but it buys them a few more years.
With child number two arriving soon Sara and Andre will be removing the sliding doors from the bedroom closet, relocating and purging many of their possessions, and converting the space to a nursery alcove. Again, this isn’t going to work forever, but it will get them through another few years in this apartment.
Four years ago I attended Sara and Andre’s wedding in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where Sara grew up. I love Pittsburgh. You can live in a big old charming house with a yard and still be within a couple of miles of the downtown core, close to good jobs, great universities, gorgeous public parks, and museums. Even “expensive” homes in Pittsburgh cost less than a studio apartment in San Francisco. Sara’s sister and brother-in-law left their one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn after they had their second child and bought a lovely home around the corner from mom and dad. So why are Sara and Andre still sticking it out in San Francisco?
Their current accommodations are rent controlled at $2,000 a month. Current market rate rents for similar units are closer to $5,000. Learning to live in a small space – at least for a while longer – gives them access to everything San Francisco has to offer at a greatly reduced price point. If Sara took exactly the same job in Pennsylvania she would take a 75% pay cut with significantly lower benefits with radically higher co-pays. Andre is a school teacher. Same same. And they hate the cold winters and brutal heat and humidity of Pittsburgh’s summers.
Andre grew up in the suburbs of Sacramento. Sacramento isn’t all that far away from San Francisco, but it may as well be a different planet in terms of the economy, culture, and climate. They can easily afford a new home on a cul-de-sac out there on the edge of the metroplex right now. But they don’t want one. Sara and Andre don’t reject the large comfortable homes of the suburbs. They don’t reject the front lawns or the back yards. They actually like those things. It’s the lack of a functioning public realm that bothers them. What exactly do you do when you step outside your front door? Driving to a strip mall doesn’t satisfy their basic needs. It isn’t what they want.
Their goal is to continue to work and save until they can afford to buy a home in the kind of location that appeals to them. In a perfect world that would be in San Francisco proper, but that isn’t a financial possibility. Their second choice would be one of the smaller towns up the northern coast of Sonoma County where medical professionals and school teachers are in demand with short commutes and a bit more breathing room. They don’t want suburbia. They want an actual town of the kind that hasn’t been built since World War II. Time will tell…