In LA, we talked about traffic. How bad it was today, the tricks we used to avoid it, that one time it took us 4 hours to get home. The highways weren’t I-405 and I-110; they were “the 405” and “the 110,” a phenomenon I haven’t heard anywhere else, so much were they a part of our daily lives. I never tired of “The Californians,” the recurring Saturday Night Live sketch, because it wasn’t as much a spoof as it was a documentary. (“At this time of day? It’s gonna be jammed!”)
In the Bay Area, we talk about housing. How much rent has gone up in the last year or five, how much so-and-so spent on a 2-bedroom house in San Mateo (the answer: 2 million dollars), how the combination of tech money, foreign investors, and limited supply are driving up prices at an astronomical rate. Last month, Forbes released its list of worst cities for renters, and the three top spots were all in the Bay Area. (Manhattan? Merely fourth place.) Even upwardly mobile, dual-income families that would be well-off in any other part of the country can’t afford rent in many places, let alone the cost of buying a house.
My husband and I fall into this category. Our combined income does not make us poor by any stretch of the imagination — but when we recently had to look for a new place north of Oakland, we found ourselves overwhelmed on multiple fronts. Overwhelmed by how expensive everything was, compared to even a year ago; places that rented for $2000 a month last year are now listing for $3000 and $3200. Overwhelmed at how stiff the competition was when we showed up at open houses and found ourselves surrounded by overzealous applicants with cover letters and headshots. Overwhelmed by the possibility, as the days on our current lease wound down, that we might not find a place at all, that we would keep losing out to the many other applicants who aren’t carrying the amount of student debt that we are.
This harrowing process raised two questions for me: Is it financially responsible for us to keep living here? And if this is what it’s like for us — two highly privileged, well-educated people — then what is it like for people without these privileges?
Make no mistake: The Bay Area is an excellent place to live. The weather is great (except, well, right now, when the rest of the country is warming up and we’re in the transition between May gray and June gloom — but 60 degrees and overcast is the worst that it gets). You’d have a hard time finding a place that’s more diverse — in terms of race, ethnicity, age, religion, sexual orientation, SES, you name it. Generally speaking, people care about justice and the environment and making sure that everyone has rights. The food scene is exceptional. The produce is second to none. The culture is curious and intellectual, and there’s a neverending stream of interesting lectures and concerts to attend on any night of the week. There are near-limitless opportunities to hike, and if you want to surf or sail or ski, you’re only a short drive away. And the list goes on. There are many benefits of living here that you simply can’t find in other places, or at least not in this abundance. “You get what you pay for” is the mantra that many Bay Area lifers utter when the less committed raise the issue of how expensive it is to live here.
“It has to stop at some point,” the faithful sometimes add, referring to the skyrocketing cost of housing. However, the data suggests otherwise; rent in the Bay Area is up 15% from a year ago, and many individual cities have increased even more than that. (That would include my current city of Berkeley, where rent is up a walloping 31% from last year.)
So even with all the perks, I have to wonder: Is it worth it? Is living here 10 to 20 times more awesome than living in other parts of the country? Because when it comes to the price of a house, that’s what we’re looking at. Am I 10 to 20 times happier living here than I would be in, say, Seattle or Austin or Minneapolis or Portland? I’m pretty sure the answer is no, especially when I consider the amount of time I spend angsting about money and the fact that my husband and I will pretty much always feel like we’re not making enough — even if we max out at the top of our respective fields, and even if it’s not objectively true.
And that begs a bigger question: Is it financially responsible for us to stay here? Many are tied to this area because of their industries or their families, which I totally respect. My husband and I have neither of these ties; we just like living here. But is it worth it to spend thousands of dollars every month to do so? Dollars we could be putting toward charitable causes, or our children’s college educations, or building equity through home ownership, or retirement, or simply being more generous in general? I don’t think there’s a universal answer here, but for us, I have to wonder: Is it responsible — financially and even morally — for us to stay? At what point do the costs outweigh the benefits?
Not to say that we would completely avoid these questions if we lived elsewhere. Many other desirable cities — New York, DC, Boston — are also obscenely expensive. And the word is out about cities like Seattle and Austin, where the cost of housing is rising accordingly. Data shows that nationwide, millennials are renting instead of buying for a whole slew of reasons: student debt, the financial crisis, flexibility, convenience, wanting to live in urban centers (in contrast to our parents, many of whom aspired to the suburbs). So the problem of not being able to afford to buy isn’t exclusive to the Bay Area. But even so, I’m hard-pressed to think of a place where the options are as limited, even when it comes to renting, as they are here.
And that brings me to the second question: If it’s this difficult for us, what’s it like for those who don’t have other options?
I thought about this at a prayer vigil I attended a few weeks ago on the issue of displacement in East Oakland. Developers are planning to turn the area around the Coliseum, home to the A’s and the Raiders, into “Coliseum City, a mega-project that would also include hotels, housing, retail, and restaurants and bars.” The initial plan did nothing to address housing for the hundreds of current residents who almost certainly wouldn’t be able to afford what was being proposed; only after collaboration with local activists and housing organizations was the proposal amended to include affordable housing and employment opportunities for these residents. These modifications are a win, but still: What does it say about the developers that none of this was included in the initial draft? What does it say about the value they place on the current residents, on the existing community — pretty much anything besides the bottom line?
And what’s happening around the Coliseum is happening all over the Bay Area: Developers are furiously attempting to make up for years of restricted supply (or to capitalize on this golden moment, depending on your vantage point). But they’re primarily building luxury housing that won’t benefit those who need it most.
I thought of this question again when a friend told me about a 90-year-old friend of hers who’s lived in her Oakland home for 35 years. She signed a 100-year lease with the owner of the building, who died, passing the contract along to his children. They decided to sell the house, which is in an up-and-coming neighborhood, and not honor the remainder of the contract. I don’t know the details of the story, but evicting a 90-year-old woman in the middle of a 100-year lease seems criminal. She could sue the family, but she doesn’t have the energy or the money to do so.
So where is she supposed to live now?
It would be easy to suggest that those who are being displaced should just take a cue and leave — but it isn’t that simple. It isn’t that simple when you’ve been living somewhere for decades and rent in your neighborhood has quadrupled or quintupled since you moved in, and the only places with comparable rents are over an hour away from your job, your family, your community. It isn’t that simple when you need to live close to relatives who watch your kids while you work — or who take care of you — so you can’t just pick up and move to Nashville or Buffalo or another part of the country that’s more affordable. It isn’t that simple when your entire professional network is here, and living anywhere else would require years of hustling and instability and underemployment.
My husband and I are lucky: If the cost of living ever gets unbearable, we can move and find jobs elsewhere. We have the luxury of opting out. But thousands of people aren’t so fortunate.
These are the questions that run through my mind these days as I pack boxes of books and clothes. To our great relief, we were able to find a place with a few weeks to spare — a place we like, no less, in an area we like, in our price range. I have no doubt that were it not for our many privileges, we would still be looking.
But this experience has made me seriously reflect on whether or not our next move should be out of the Bay Area. Can we really justify staying? Is this really how we should be spending our money?
It’s also made me reflect on what we can be doing, as long we’re here, to advocate for those who don’t have the option of leaving. I’m grateful for the work of groups like East Bay Housing Organizations that are committed to fighting for affordable housing in this area — which is to say, to fighting against a very strong current. I wonder what it looks like to try to stem a tide that shows no signs of slowing, that’s leaving people from all walks of life in its wake.
Image courtesy of Radpad