Column: Leavin’ on that midnight train to Georgia ... because a Bay Area house is simply out of reach
Call it the Bay Area blues.
The affliction starts when you get a job that you love in a place that you adore — say, San Francisco, or Berkeley, or Marin County or Silicon Valley. You fall in love with that Golden Gate, the way Mt. Diablo rises out of the mist, the city’s sparkling skyline — then realize there is no way in hell you’ll ever be able to afford to live there without making compromises that would be laughable in most other parts of the country.
Drive 90 minutes each way to work?
Rent the dining room of a flat as your bedroom when you are on the cusp of middle age?
Step over human waste and discarded needles as you walk to your $120,000-a-year job at a promising start-up?
All of these are all well-known causes of the Bay Area blues.
And they aren’t getting better any time soon.
For the first time in the four years a business group began taking the emotional temperature of residents here, more than half of registered voters surveyed said that things in the Bay Area are “pretty seriously off on the wrong track,” a huge increase in dissatisfaction since 2014, when only 27% felt that way.
More surprising, almost half said they are “likely” to move away within the next few years.
“The Bay Area is in a funky mood,” said Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a business-sponsored public policy group that conducts the annual survey. People are seriously put off by traffic, poverty and homelessness.
But the biggest obstacle to sticking around, they say, is the high cost of housing.
Since 2011, said Rufus Jeffris, spokesman for the Bay Area Council, the nine counties of the Bay Area have added 630,000 jobs, but issued building permits for only 146,000 homes. That’s 4.3 jobs per unit of house, far more than what experts say is a healthy balance of 1.5 jobs per house.
“And people aren’t just thinking about moving,” said Wunderman, whose council advocates for more housing construction and improvements in public transit. “They are actually doing it.”
Recently, when he and his wife returned to San Francisco from a car trip to Oregon, he was astonished by the number of U-Hauls that passed them on the road, heading north.
His own daughter, a travel writer and photographer, moved to Montana because she could no longer afford to live in San Francisco.
Ana Luisa Ahern gave up on the Bay Area last August.
After she earned a master’s degree at UC San Diego, Ahern landed her dream job: marine conservation scientist for an Oakland-based nonprofit that focuses on projects in El Salvador.
She assumed that on a salary of $62,000 she’d have no trouble finding a place with a yard that would also accommodate her rescued mutt, Chimi Chewy. Maybe a house to share. She thought she could handle a rent of $1,500.
For a year, she lived with her cousins in South Berkeley, renting a nook in their attic.
“I just thought, ‘I’ll be there til I find my own place,’” she said. “Never happened.”
Reluctantly, she left California.
Her partner, Demitri Lopez, was living in the South, where she had grown up. Despite a little trepidation about being a lesbian couple in a conservative state, Ahern decided to join her.
In February, the couple closed on a 2,500-square-foot house with a yard in the historic downtown of Columbus, a small city 100 miles southwest of Atlanta.
“Never in a million years did I think at this point in my life I would own a home,” she told me. “Now I have a home in the best neighborhood in the best part of town. Big backyard. It’s gorgeous.”
The best part? Her home cost $200,000. “I’m paying $850 a month, the same as I was paying for an attic in Berkeley.”
She has a big, diverse circle of friends that has dubbed itself “the United Nations.”
As for her fears about a hostile political climate, she said, “I have more gay friends here than I did in California. There, you are just another lesbian on the street. Here, it’s like ‘Hey, we gotta hang out!’”
Stuart Schuffman is a writer and political activist known around town by his nom de plume, Broke-Ass Stuart. Like many San Franciscans, he is living in a converted dining room — at the advancing age of 37.
In his 16 years in San Francisco, he said, almost all his friends have lost their housing. Many were evicted by landlords eager to raise rents. Some have fled to Oakland, which used to be cheap but isn’t anymore. Others have gone to Portland, Ore., San Diego, Los Angeles, even New Orleans.
On Tuesday, San Francisco voters, by a large margin, approved a measure to provide free legal representation for every tenant who is facing eviction.
“If this had passed five or 10 years ago,” Schuffman said, “so many of my friends and loved ones would still be here.”
Buying a home anywhere in the Bay Area, he said, “is not even a thought.”
Sitting in their downtown 10th-floor offices with postcard views of the Transamerica Pyramid on one side and the Bay Bridge and Ferry Building on the other, both Wunderman and Jeffris said it was painful to discover how many people in this part of the state feel they are being forced out.
“Do we really want to put those numbers out there?” Jeffris wondered. “You really worry that you become branded as a place that no one wants to be.”
This fear is nothing short of radical. After all, the population is highly educated, the economy is booming and few urban areas can boast of the extraordinary natural beauty found here.
Yet something has gone terribly wrong. “This is a failure of our own making,” Wunderman said.
Given the glacial pace of home construction, no one knows how long it will take to turn things around.
But there has to be a cure for the Bay Area blues that does not involve moving to Georgia.
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