Making It In San Francisco

This first appeared in the June, 2014 edition of San Francisco's GGMG magazine 

By Sarah Lai Stirland

Photo:  Dave Wilson


San Francisco has long been home to culture-changing movements and rugged individualists, but decades of no-growth politics and bad regional planning have meant that the financial success of some residents has come at the expense of the less wealthy change-makers and culture-shapers.

It is hard to imagine, for example, someone like poet and countercultural spokesman Allen Ginsberg living in San Francisco today and gaining the stature that he once did. His Howl and Other Poems, published in 1957 by local bookstore City Lights, launched the Beat Movement and continues to reverberate through American culture to this day. San Francisco’s brand now, however, is synonymous with the revolutionaries and libertarians who are more likely to dream up a life-altering tech gizmo rather than shake up the way we think with their words.

As a result, people like Sarah Ann Cox are practically an endangered species in the city. A poet and bohemian, she windsurfs almost every day of the week and homeschools her son Paris, 16, and daughter Phaedra, 11. Cox, 49, husband John Farr, 61, and their children live in an 850 square foot apartment at the junction of Valencia and McCoppin Streets. She teaches creative writing at Ex’pression College in
Emeryville, and Farr is a retired ship fitter.

By almost any definition, the Coxes would fall into the economic category of middle class—a category of families who are quickly disappearing from San Francisco. Most have migrated to the North and East Bay due to the rising cost of housing and uncertain school assignment prospects. Real estate listings service Trulia found in October 2013 that only 14 percent of the homes for sale in San Francisco were affordable for the middle class (defined by the U.S. Census as a household making $78,840 per year). This was a significant drop from the 24 percent of homes they reported were within reach for middle class families only the year before, with the median size of an “affordable” home at 1,000 square feet.

Brother, Can You Spare a Loan?

The Coxes are unusual in that they are not only making it work in San Francisco, but they are thriving. Though many of their friends have moved to Oakland, Cox and her husband have managed to stay
in the city with help from the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, which offers financial assistance to first-time homebuyers through its City Second Loan Program ( Recipients of the program can be offered loans of up to $200,000 with no interest and deferred payment. With a City Second Loan of $30,000, Cox and her husband bought their current apartment in 1997 for $165,000 and have since paid off their mortgage. They are also fortunate to have purchased their property in what is now known as “The Quad,” an area that commands high rents and purchasing prices because of its popularity with the programming crowd, skyrocketing its future and potential resale value. However, one of the conditions of the program states that borrowers must pay back a share of their property’s appreciation in addition to the principal of the loan, and the Coxes ended up owing the city $145,000. They were able to pay this off when the family “came into some money,” Cox said.

Despite its size, Cox and her family are thankful to own their home. Like many other parents of young children in the city who live in smaller spaces, they try to get out of their house as much as possible.

Buying in the Lesser- Known Neighborhoods
In this market, families with young children who want to stay in San Francisco should ground their expectations if they don’t have unlimited budgets, advises Naomi Lempert Lopez, a San Franciscan who grew up in the Mission and is a realtor with Coldwell Banker.

“You need to try and find a way to own something in this town, because if you’re a tenant, you’re at the mercy of other people,” Lopez says. “Just don’t expect a house in Noe Valley [or] a palace in Pacific Heights.” Instead, look to own property in esser-known neighborhoods such as Crocker Amazon, the Excelsior, Ingleside, Merced Heights, Oceanview, Outer Mission, the Portola district, Silver Terrace, and Visitacion Valley.

It was this kind of advice that GGMG member Tricia Purcell had been hearing from one of her realtor friends for the past couple of years, but it wasn’t until her landlord in the Inner Richmond raised the rent 20 percent to $4,600 a month for their two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom condominium that she and her husband decided to buy a home. They were scheduled to close in late April on a 2,225 square foot house with a back yard and in-law unit for $960,000 in Portola, after being outbid several times in Parkside and the Outer Sunset.

“Nobody knows what the heck we’re talking about when we say ‘Portola,’” Purcell says with a laugh. “It’s not to be confused with the very ritzy Portola Valley [in the Peninsula]. Most people think that we’re talking about Portola Street, and West Portal.”

Purcell, 43, is a full-time mother and her husband Adam, 40, works for software company MarkMonitor. They are parents to Nina, 3, and Alexandra, 1. She admits she is slightly apprehensive about the accessibility of their new neighborhood as it relates to getting to other parts of the city, but is excited about its proximity to John McLaren Park.

Because a large portion of Adam’s salary is based on sales commissions, the Purcell family’s finances were stretched thin with the purchase of their new home. Tricia practiced law for a decade as a family attorney before becoming a parent, but she is reluctant to jump back in again because its all-consuming nature is not compatible with raising two young children. To ease the financial strain of homeownership, they plan to cut back on discretionary expenses as much as possible and send their children to public school. Though they contemplated leaving the city, the affordable suburbs with good school districts in the North Bay would have moved them too far away from her in-laws in Oakland. As for Oakland itself, she believes housing costs are not much cheaper, and the public schools do not appear to be as good as those in San Francisco.

Nevertheless, “A month hasn’t gone by in the recent couple of years where we haven’t asked ourselves: ‘Should we stay here, or should we not?’” Purcell admits. “Because you constantly feel that you’re living in a little bit of insanity to pay what we pay for housing.”

Relying on Rent Control

San Francisco is not only an expensive place to buy a home, but is estimated by some to be the most expensive rental market in the nation. As of March 2014, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $3,350 per month—up 16.7 percent from the same time last year. The only way that some families are surviving this kind of market is by living in rent controlled apartments. One such family is the Baurs.

Amber Baur, 33, and husband Roem, 36, live in the heart of Hayes Valley in a beautiful Art Deco building. They share their second floor, 900 square foot, rent-controlled apartment with their two-year-old son, Arlo, their six-month-old daughter, Adeline, and their smooth fox terrier, Sadie. Arlo has the master bedroom, and Roem and Baur have converted the dining room into their bedroom. For now, Adeline sleeps with them. The Baur’s monthly rent is $1,950.

The key to the Baur family’s ability to stay in the city is the age of their building. Under the San Francisco rent control law of 1979, landlords of apartments built prior to that year face certain restrictions in their ability to evict tenants, and the rates at which they can increase rents is strictly controlled by the San Francisco Rent Board. Condos and single-family homes are not subject to rent control, however, and neither are apartments built after June 1979.

Though many housing experts say that the city needs to preserve its rent control laws to help keep young families as well as the elderly in town, it is a controversial subject. San Francisco’s urban planning non-profit SPUR recommends that city policymakers should preserve rent control rules, but also build more affordable housing in order to increase ownership opportunities for those who are currently renting.

An unintended consequence of the rent-control laws is that some landlords are evoking the state law known as the Ellis Act to “go out of business” in order to evict tenants. If evicted, Baur and her family would not be able to afford to pay a higher monthly rent. Amber says they would probably move and join many of their friends in Santa Rosa. Roem, a professional guitarist and singer, already plays the majority of his gigs at wineries and casinos up north, where venues pay musicians much better than they do here in San Francisco.

The irony of so many wanting to stay, combined with the lack of affordable housing in San Francisco, is that the very attributes for which people remain—cultural and intellectual diversity—are evaporating. And the people disappearing are not just the starving artists in the Mission, but many families. A special hearing convened by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last June unveiled the finding that the city has the lowest percentage of school-aged children living here compared to other major U.S. cities.

On a sunny but windy Saturday morning in early April, Baur walked across Civic Plaza and passed a couple of homeless people lying atop a mountain of their belongings. She and her family were on their way to a free toddler program taking place in the main building of the San Francisco Public Library.

“We provide the fabric of this community,” Baur told me as we walked. “I mean, this is San Francisco—the city is all about social justice, art, and culture, but we’re being squeezed out—there are hardly any of us left.”

Sarah Lai Stirland is a freelance writer in San Francisco.