An Expensive City

In recent years, San Francisco has experienced a slow rise in the cost of living. San Francisco Supervisor David Campos claims that in the city, we have “a tale of two cities”; a divide between the rich and the non-rich. Although conditions in our town may not be as extreme as those in the famous Dickens novel, the statement has truth to it. Wealth gaps in the city, increasingly within single districts and neighborhoods, have been growing. Currently, the Consumer Price Index, which measures prices of essential goods and services (including food, basic housing, and medical care), states that prices are up an average 2% from 2012. Prices in 2012 were 3% higher than those in 2011, which was more than the year before, and so on. The vast majority of this change can be linked to the gentrification of various neighborhoods, like the Mission, Dog Patch, and the Mid-Market area.

Lick Students walk through Clarion Alley in the Mission photo by Robin von Brenton

Lick Students walk through Clarion Alley in the Mission
photo by Robin von Brenton

Gentrification is the influx of middle and more affluent classes into poorer urban areas, raising the price of housing and displacing low-income residents as a result. Sometimes considered a “dirty word,” gentrification is often known by euphemisms like “urban renewal,” but the process remains the same. As wealthier residents move in, housing prices and cost of living rises, forcing old residents to move to other neighborhoods and towns where costs are lower. Recently, many clients at the UCSF Mission clinic have had to move from the neighborhood due to rising cost of living. Now, they commute from cities like Richmond, nearly 40 minutes away by BART, in order to visit the clinic.

Coined “the bacon-wrapped economy,” the seemingly recession-proof tech bubble has resulted in many young, wealthy people working in Silicon Valley moving to neighborhoods that were never designated as “rich”, and often thought to be “dangerous.” The Mission District, particularly along Valencia street, has seen the opening of more expensive stores and restaurants to serve this new crowd. A new “underground” restaurant on Mission, called “Lazy Bear,” serves dinner 3 times a month for $95 a person, and offers private dining for $125-250 per guest, not including beverages or gratuity. The growing social scene in the Mission has attracted ever bigger names to the area. Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook co-founder and CEO with a net worth of 19 billion dollars, recently purchased a house on Guerrero Street, near Dolores Park, for a reported 10 million dollars. The house is situated only a few blocks away from areas where the average income is below $40,000 a year; the Department of Housing considers below $60,200 to be low-income for single-person households, $86,000 when the household is a four-person family.

The evolving wealth gaps in various neighborhoods has resulted in changing racial demographics. When US Secretary of Housing and Development Shaun Donovan visited Everett Middle School, he was somewhat surprised when told by a student that “The Mission District, around here, has changed a lot because there’s a lot of white people taking over the Mission… I used to always see Latinos in the Mission — and, yeah. People are moving out of the Mission because it’s getting more expensive, since so many more white people are moving to San Francisco” (SFweekly). Changing ethnic demographics (and the “whitewashing” of diverse neighborhoods) also results in a loss of culture and cultural icons once considered to be the core of the area. Artist René Yañez, dubbed “Royalty of the Mission Art Scene,” has recently been evicted from his home. Credited as the man who “seeded and grew the annual Dia de los Muertos celebration into a citywide event” (, he founded the Galleria de la Raza, and was the first to invite Frida Kahlo to show her work in the city (after the SFMoMA rejected her). Despite being such a crucial figure, he and his family must now find new housing by July 2014.

The Wholefoods/Housing development on Ocean Avenue photo by Cole Crawford

The Wholefoods/Housing development on Ocean Avenue
photo by Cole Crawford

There are services in place to try and help residents combat evictions and rising prices. According to their website, the San Francisco Rent Board works to “safeguard tenants from excessive rent increases and, at the same time, to assure landlords fair and adequate rents consistent with Federal Anti-Inflation Guidelines.” In order to help keep tenants in their homes, the Board places a cap on rent increases each year. Every March, the group evaluates various economic factors and decides on a percent increase limit. The current rent increase limit is 1.9% a year. The Rent Board also provides services, such as Tenant Petitions, to help renters remain in their homes.  Despite these rules, however, there are loopholes commonly used to evict low-income tenants. The Ellis Act is a state law that allows landlords to evict all tenants when “going out of business”; this can allow landlords to turn out all their residents, do construction work (usually condominium construction), and put the housing back on the market at a much higher price. The Ellis Act is the reason Rene Yanez’s landlord could evict him, and it’s the justification behind many other tenant removals.

Hopefully, the creation of thousands of new housing units in various areas of the city will be able to house the newly displaced. There are over 4,000 new developments in the Downtown/Mid-Market area alone. Other areas of increased development include Potrero Hill, Octavia/Market, Rincon Hill, and Mission Bay. However, new housing does not necessarily guarantee housing for all. The reduced prices of the housing market crash at the end of 2008 seems to have vanished without a trace; the average rental price of a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $2,700 this year; Three years ago, it was $1,782. San Francisco currently ranks 5th highest in the state for average housing price, behind Los Gatos, Saratoga, Newport Beach, and Malibu. High costs like these affect both the new and old residents of the city; increasing prices drive families and youth to fit into smaller and smaller housing spaces. Most of the housing built is not  intended for families, either; only 2% of new development is detached family housing units, mostly in the Bayview/Hunters point area. Furthermore, the average cost of a house in the city only three years ago was $668,000; it was reported by SFGate that “Last year, a family of three earning $111,000 a year could afford just 23 percent of homes for sale in San Francisco.” Between high prices for both housing and rentals, and a lack of space, many families are choosing to leave San Francisco and move to surrounding cities and towns.

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