It now takes a full-time income of more than $61 an hour to comfortably afford the rent for an average two-bedroom apartment in the San Francisco metro area.
That’s far more than other expensive US cities like New York, where it takes $45 an hour on a standard 40-hour-per-week schedule, and more than triple San Francisco’s $16.99 minimum wage, according to a new report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
The San Francisco metro area, which also includes affluent Marin and San Mateo counties, tops the national list for the highest “housing wage,” or hourly earnings needed to spend no more than the federally recommended 30% of income on rent. 2 is Santa Cruz, where residents must earn more than $60 to rent an average two-bedroom. In the No. 3 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara metro area, the figure is around $55 an hour.
“These numbers are just a really clear mirror being held up,” said Alina Harway, communications director for the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California. “We’re seeing how the economy has created this big gap between those who have and those who don’t.”
Nationwide, minimum-wage earners in 91% of counties are unable to afford a one-bedroom rental, the report found. There is no state, county or metro area where a person who works a minimum-wage job can comfortably rent an average two-bedroom apartment.
It’s not the first time that Bay Area cities have dominated the coalition’s annual report on the stark mismatch between everyday incomes and housing costs. While the new report shows an ever-so-slight closing of the gap between what people are making and what they need to make to afford quality housing, the report cautions against comparing figures from different years because of changes in how average rents are calculated.
Now, however, all eyes are on shifts set in motion by the pandemic. After more than two years of remote work, migration anxiety and eviction battles, the Bay Area numbers reflect a widening divide between renters in different income brackets, a lack of home-buying options to relieve pressure and an uncertain road for households still struggling to catch up on COVID rent debt.
The report attributes the imbalance to a range of factors, including wage stagnation for low earners, inflation, an uptick in investor landlords and a shortfall of some 960,000 affordable rentals in California. There’s also the matter of surging demand for rentals; from the start of the pandemic to mid-2021, around 870,000 renters entered the market, the report noted — some not by choice.
“Many households entering the market were higher-income renters,” the National Low Income Housing Coalition report explains, “who may have been priced out of the increasingly competitive home-buying market.”
The abundance of high-earning renters is most obvious in the tech and professional services-driven San Francisco and San Jose metro areas, where the average renter now makes around $65 an hour and $68 an hour, respectively, according to adjusted Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed in the report. Compare that to an average renter income of $31 an hour in Oakland, which has a stronger base of industrial and administrative jobs, or less than $20 an hour in tourism and agriculture-centric Santa Cruz.
Landlord advocacy groups contend that in cities with rent control, including San Francisco, the math is more complicated. A July survey by the San Francisco Apartment Association found that average rents are still high citywide — $3,605 for a two-bedroom, or $2,678 for a one-bedroom — but that lower-priced studios in areas such as Nob Hill or the Tenderloin still rent for less than $1,500.
“Even though we’re not quite post-COVID, the rental market has improved,” Charley Goss, government and community affairs manager for the San Francisco Apartment Association, told The Chronicle by email. “We do have many members, particularly in the downtown corridor, who are really struggling and who cannot get their vacancies filled.”
Nationwide, the report found that persistent unaffordability “disproportionately harms Black and Latino households” because of enduring income disparities and the fact that these households are less likely to own homes. About 30% of white US households are renters, compared with 58% of Black households and 46% of Latino households, according to census data.
At first, Oakland seemed like a place of opportunity to Maria Montes de Oca. She moved here more than two decades ago after leaving the coastal Mexico state of Jalisco. The rent was a reasonable $750 when her growing family moved 14 years ago into a “supposedly clean” Fruitvale one-bedroom that turned out to have a dirty stove and old carpet, she said.
The carpet stayed the same while the rent climbed to $850, then $950, eventually all the way up to the current rent just over $1,500. Her husband switched jobs to try to keep up, Montes de Oca said, but even a new job cleaning a high-end hotel left little income for food or other necessities for a family of five.
“We were still limited,” she said in Spanish, “because every year the rent went up.”
The pandemic has also highlighted renters and now-former renters in extreme situations. In Alameda County, homelessness has spiked 22% in three years, to more than 9,700 people on any given night. From San Francisco to the shores of the Delta, tenants have been evicted from garages or boat marinas that they resorted to living illegally.
Politicians and housing advocates have countered with a range of potential solutions: $2 billion in state funding for affordable housing, new proposed vacancy taxes, federal proposals for more housing vouchers, temporary renter assistance funds and legal representation in eviction cases.
For Harway of the Non-Profit Housing Association, the scale of the proposed solutions still doesn’t match the scale of the problem. One clear local way to start to change that, she said, is for residents to get more involved in the state-mandated housing planning process — known as the “Regional Housing Needs Allocation” — which calls on the nine Bay Area counties to plan for more than 440,000 new homes by 2031.
It’s a process that is already sparking controversy, political maneuvering and legal threats, and one that she said will take both renters and homeowners like herself to prevent more people from being forced to move away.
“If I don’t go fight and support my neighbors to have stability, then what’s the point?” Harway said. “I’m not going to have teachers for my son. I’m not going to have anything that makes a community worth living in.”
For Montes de Oca, meanwhile, things took an unusual turn. She and her neighbors started to push back six years ago against yearly rent hikes with little offered in return. When the pandemic hit, they went on a rent strike.
As a mother of three, it was a daunting prospect. But lawyers and tenant activists got involved, and in June, an agreement was reached to sell the 14-unit building to the Oakland Community Land Trust for $3.3 million — a move that Montes de Oca said will freeze her family’s rent and, she hopes, deliver long-lasting stability.
“It was really six years of fighting, of stress,” she said in Spanish. “It wasn’t easy.”
There were nine families there when the fight started, Montes de Oca remembers. Now just two are left.
San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Roland Li contributed to this report.
Lauren Hepler (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @LAHepler