Umm okay, so describe your housing situation. How many people, uhh the type of housing, you know, like apartment or house..
Okay, Uhh so my uhh — my mom actually got a condo. Umm, we live in Daly City. It’s uhh — right now it’s one, two, three… five of us I think. Five of us. So, it’s umm, myself, my mom, my brother, umm my stepdad, and his sister. Umm, we — it’s pretty small but umm, but it is — it is ours. So, we don’t have to like really worry about you know, most people in the — in the complex are renting it cause a lot of people bought it before and now they rent it. So, you know, they — they have landlords technically.
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Welcome to 1500 Stories, a podcast about something Americans don’t like to talk about–economic class. 1500 Stories is an art and digital storytelling project about economic inequality in the United States. My name is Jen Myhre and I founded 1500 Stories back in 2015. Since then, over 700 Americans, people living in very different economic situations, have opened up to the project about their lives. These people share openly about things Americans avoid talking about–things like money, and debt, their economic struggles, their worries and their hopes for the future. No matter where we fall on the economic ladder, everyone has a story.
And before we get too far in, just a quick heads-up about the audio quality. 1500 Stories is a labor of love. Volunteers and students, rather than radio professionals, gather all of the stories in the 1500 Stories project archive. They conduct interviews in all types of odd places and often on their phones. So our audio quality can’t always live up to public radio standards, but the stories are SO worth it. 🙂
In this episode of the 1500 Stories podcast we explore a theme that comes up over and over again in interviews with people living in Silicon Valley–how expensive it is to live here. At the top of the episode, you heard a college student–Roberto, a college student living with his parents in a suburb of San Francisco. That count Roberto makes,
“it’s one, two, three… five of us I think.”
That count really struck me. Another student, Meilin, who works as a beauty advisor while she pursues her degree, described living with *fifteen* roommates to be able to afford rent while in college. Over my years of teaching community college students in the Silicon Valley, they have given me glimpses into their home lives and it is not uncommon for them to be sharing small spaces with many other family members or boarders. For one of my students, her whole nuclear family lived in the garage of an uncle’s house, and the uncle had multiple family members living inside the main house. One of my students did a documentary photograph project in his neighborhood that illustrated how many homes had converted garages into full on living areas. Another student shared that her block was in an all out war over street parking, which had become an extremely scarce resource given how many driving adults were living in each of the houses. She and her mom had a daily ritual where her mom would come home from a night shift, pull up to where her daughter was parked and text. My student would run to pull out of the parking space to head to school and her mom would pull in. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the cost of housing in the Bay area is a common gripe that comes up regularly in casual conversation. In this episode, we dig into some of these stories and share some of the realities of what it means to live in a place with such a high cost of living. Dakota (pseudonym), a 31 year old paraeducator, calls it “The Bay Area Factor.”
Oh a year i make I think like between 50 and 60.
And do you Feel like you get paid enough for the work that you do?
Uhh no. This year I have… we’ve all had this conversation at the end of the month. I don’t do this job because of the pay, it’s too challenging to do even for just the pay on but yeah.
I’ve always liked working with kids and I was always really interested in special education since I was younger and I had a cousin that worked in special education some of the stories that she would tell me just sounded like fascinating. Like “oh my God I love that kid I wanna work with that kid” or I don’t know they were just really interesting stories and I wanted to experience them. And then when I started special education I was like this is where I want to stay I love it.
This year like I said this year has been… has been really challenging in our class and I think when we see our paycheck at the end of the month it’s just like “oh man”
And then I live in the bay area so do I think I could be making more yeah, but I think most of us think we should or want to be making more just so we can have a… I don’t know comfortable living, you know. I think somewhere else my wage would be great here in the bay area my wage is not too great.
The bay area prices are ridiculous….we do have the The Bay Area factor that not only you can’t pay for school but if you live wherever you live you’re paying ridiculous prices And everything is more expensive here. food, gas, housing, child care. …it is very challenging because you can afford to live and eat and childcare and everything I just mentioned somewhere else for cheaper where its a quarter or half of the price even though you’re making less money but still it balances out. I don’t think it balances out here
What is the Bay Area factor? Well, it’s complicated. 🙂 In the 1980s and 1990s, laws severely limited rent control and gave landlords more power to evict tenants (Bloomberg). The cost of rent has almost doubled in real dollars since the 1970s (Plan Bay Area) while at the same time real income has actually decreased (CalMatter). In the San Jose metropolitan area in 2020, the median monthly rent for a 1 bedroom apartment was $2596, and that’s more than $200 less than the cost of a 1 bedroom in San Francisco. (https://www.rentdata.org/san-jose-sunnyvale-santa-clara-ca-hud-metro-fmr-area/2020). Just to put the high cost of rent in the Bay area into perspective, I will never forget when a friend of mine who lives in the center of Manhattan disclosed his monthly rent to me and I realized I was paying substantially more than him to rent a one bedroom in my Silicon Valley suburb. And indeed, median rent for 1 one bedroom in the New York metropolitan area is about $600 cheaper than one in the San Jose metro area. The high cost of housing the Bay area is why, for a family of four, an annual income of just over $117,000 per year is the threshold to be considered low income for eligibility for housing assistance (https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-biz-bay-area-low-income-20180627-story.html). In San Jose, the current median income is $100,000–below that poverty line. So given the crazy high cost of housing in the Silicon Valley, we shouldn’t be too surprised that on average 40% of that goes to rent (Cal Matters). And nearly 1 in 5 Silicon Valley renters spend more than HALF of their income on rent (https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/son-2019-cost-burdens-map). According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in 2020, a minimum wage worker in the Bay area would need the equivalent of four, full-time jobs to be able to pay rent and still have enough money left to be able to eat and pay bills (https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/07/15/high-rents-make-bay-area-tenants-most-stressed-in-the-country/).
That huge chunk of monthly income going to rent has consequences for the health of the overall economy, because if households are spending most of their income on rent or mortgage they aren’t buying consumer goods (Cal Matters). And the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University has found that families spending more than half their income on rent have very little left to spend on things like health care or saving for retirement (https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/state-nations-housing-2019) Related to the high cost of housing is a shortage of available housing units. This is why families like Roberto’s, whom you heard at the top, are often sharing too small a space for too many people. Jesús, is a 26 year old who had to move back in with his parents in San Jose after finishing college because of the high cost of living. That is also a common phenomenon in California. 38% of the 18-34 year olds here still live with their parents (Cal Matters). Even as a legal assistant in a law firm, it still doesn’t make financial sense for Jesús to live on his own.
I just moved back in December but before that I was living in San Fransisco where I had — I was paying twelve hundred for a room and uh.. cause it was really near school and really near everything so I was having to do a lot of different jobs just to pay for the rent uhm so being here rent is a lot less but uhm — and you know this is where I grew up so its nice being back ..
As a child I mean everybody in our family we understood the value of a dollar and how hard it were — how hard it was to — to make a living.. and uhm.. you know you didn’t — you didn’t throw tantrums or do anything disrespectful you wanted — you wanted to you know do everything on the contrary to help
We we didn’t always have this house and uhm you know theres twelve of us so… you know plus their children and you knowthey’ve been in and out of this house also.. uhm I remember going back to where — when we first got here to the united states we lived in that apartment complex there’s two rooms the other two rooms were filled with men from El Salvador , Centro America and other place and we had one room and uhh I think we fit like ten or twelve people in that room so uh we slept like so close too each other on top of each other uh but you know you work hard and it gets better and better and thanks to my sisters.. they’re the ones who bought this house
Like Jesús, Dakota, the 31 year old paraeducator you heard from earlier, who described that Bay Area factor where everything is so expensive, also had to move back in with their mom in order to go to graduate school. But Dakota has more mixed feelings about it than Jesús.
Do you personally think you’ve made it?
NO. definitely not. I mean I’m happy… I’m happy with every step that I’m using to take but have I made it? no I haven’t made it yet. Am I happy? Yeah. Am I wealthy? yes. have a made it? No.
So what steps do you plan on taking to “make it?”or to feel like you have made it.
I just want my own place again. Well as you know I will move back into my mother’s house so I can afford my graduate program.
So what did you feel when you had your own place but you had to move back with your mom because you were… you weren’t going to be able to afford your education?
How did i feel? Umm I was a little nervous to live with my mother again. Umm I don’t know it was… I was a little uncomfortable like I moved out when I was really young. I left home when I was like 15, 16 and the fact that I was going to move back in with my mom at ,I think I was 29 I’m now in my 30s and but 29. It was just unfortunate, it was unfortunate that I had to do that in order for me to be able to go to school. But I think I made the smart choice. I know It was gonna have to be a sacrifice I had to make but I wanted to graduate debt-free and save up whatever money or use whatever money or borrow whatever money I needed to for my grad program and not for my undergrad program.
So I think once I have my own place I’m OK. I don’t know, I don’t think the… I don’t even know what that means, like what does it mean you’ve made it, like what have you made? there’s people that have goals in life right, like you know once I get married, once I have kids, once I have this, once I have that, like I’ve made it I’m set. I dont really have big goals. Like it comes to me like in the moment. I never considered getting ahead or higher education, it’s something that with my experiences and meeting special education and falling in love with it I was like, “oh I want to get a degree on this” but I’ve never had. I guess my only goal in my life has ever been to own my own home like, to have a home so I guess if I look at it… if I look at it that way then when I have my own home then I will have made it but I don’t want to limit myself to that.
Dakota is not alone in seeing home ownership as a measure for success. Raúl is in his mid twenties. He makes $40,000 a year working for AAA doing roadside assistance. His dad is in construction and his mom works in fast food. It is extremely difficult to keep a roof over one’s head in the Bay area even with solid working class jobs. And he describes what he learned from his parents watching them struggle.
They definitely motivated me to — you know be a better person and uh you know — it wasn’t really their words that helped me out as much.. it was the situation that I would see ’em in .. it was the struggle that they — every — you know — every time like a the end of the month all the talks that they’ve had about “okay we need to spend — we need to — we need to have this much bl bla bla to afford this month” It was a constant talk of struggle that motivated me to uh help my family out and achieve better things in life where I could ease the stress of whether it was money stress or life stress on my parents and my siblings .. you know?
For Raúl, it is homeownership that marks entrance into the middle class. But the cost of housing puts middleclassness out of reach for many people in the Bay area. Like rent, Silicon Valley housing prices are also at levels that can seem unimaginable. Land prices per acre in the Silicon Valley have more than DOUBLED since 2012 (https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/son-2019-cost-burdens-map). In 2020, the median sale price for a single family dwelling was $1.34 million in the Silicon Valley and $1.55 million in San Francisco (https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/10/07/bay-area-home-prices-soar-with-suburban-boom/). Remember that in San Jose, the current median income is $100,000, an amount that qualifies as under the poverty line in the Bay area for a family of four. So needless to say, home ownership is out of reach for many in the Silicon Valley. I’m a single full-time faculty member with a Ph.D. and without both a second income and an inheritance, there is absolutely no way I could afford to buy a home here. Let’s think about this. Early in the pandemic as job loss was skyrocketing, the NY Times used national data to calculate how long it would take Americans at various income levels to save just ONE MONTH worth of expenses (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/23/opinion/emergency-savings-coronavirus.html). Given cost of living, it would take American families making between 50 and 70,000 dollars per year–that’s roughly the median in the U.S.–more than TWO YEARS to save up for ONE MONTH worth of expenses. How are the majority of Americans, let alone those living in the Bay area, supposed to save up enough money for the down payment on a house? A 20% down payment on that median priced house in the Silicon Valley would be $268,000. If it takes two years to save up just a one month income cushion, how would anyone possibly save up enough for THAT down payment? Earlier episodes of 1500 Stories explored American notions of middleclassness. Home ownership is viewed by many, including Raúl, as a marker of middle-class position yet home ownership is no longer available to many in the middle class:
For me a middle-class person is someone that owns a home, okay? Somebody that owns a home and is living comfortably in their life and i doubt that many people in the U.S live comfortably in their life. The middle class is decreasing and the lower class is increasing, that should say something about it.. so its not that people aren’t educated about it.. they just think because the middle class is going lower and lower they still think they’re in the middle class when they’re dropping to the lower class.
They have engineers uhm you know computer techs.. all sorts of people that are just working with technology coming from all sorts of the country and all places of the world and they’re all coming to San Jose and I know some of these people and all of them are renting.. even if they’re engineers even if they’re making six uh — six figures — they’re still renting
And Raúl’s family doesn’t work in those white collar jobs in tech, where even the engineers are still renting. In working class service jobs, they are the engine that keeps the Silicon Valley running. But if even the engineers are renting, how do families like Raúl’s get by?
What does a college education mean to you?
Uhhmmm to be honest in this day in age nothing. It takes a whole lot of money and it takes a whole lot for you to uhh actually make a job or take a job that’ll give you enough cash to live conformably in this uh geo area.. i mean i know plenty of people that have graduated with uh masters and bachelors degrees that barely make enough and they’re still paying rent.. i know a certain number of people that even with those degrees they other jobs not uh uh not for that specific diploma but they make a lot more money doing a different kind of job.. whether its retail or in the restaurant business or whatever it is. Now a days a diploma you need to have a masters or.. you know..a field where its highly populated or its in demand and you’re getting paid a pretty good amount of money.
Raúl is noting that the traditional routes to “the American dream” don’t really hold true in the Bay area. The Bay area has a considerably higher proportion of people with bachelor’s degrees–over 50% in both Santa Clara and San Francisco Counties–compared to the national average, which is just under a third of Americans (https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/EDU635219). Yet much like trying to save for a down payment is impossible given how much people are spending on rent, higher education also is no guarantee of a chance to move from renting to owning. Raúl goes on to describe what it’s like to live in the Bay area on the wages from working class service jobs.
Can you describe to me your housing situation? Like how many people uhhm live in you house and what type of housing it is?
Uh the housing is uh lower income housing?
What do you mean by lower income?
It means where people don’t make enough to uh live in certain uh geo-areas where the rent is you know over two grand and I’m talking about when its jus ta one bedroom apartment and its super expensive a good location most of the low income housing are in uh not good location. I have six people living in my home me included..where its located it would be considered a bad area and a lot people are scared to come to that area
What type of things make this uh neighborhood a bad area?
Uhhm i guess you can say the amount of the amount of bad things that happened in that area like in the past.. a lot of stabbing a lot of shootings..uhm a lot of battery assault a lot of regular assaults.. it has.. you know lowered down a little bit but that doesn’t change the fact that it has a history of happening in this specific area.
So what is life like in your neighborhood?
They have to constantly worry about their well being..constantly having to look behind their back..and its way too over populated. It feels too packed for to many people to be living in this area. It feels frustrating..you just feel like theres no enough space for the people there..and you know you get …stressed …and then you can’t really do anything about it. I’m talking about… yea well parking like you know.. uuuh.. when theres a low income housing typically people tend to have a lot of peel living there. That causes an overflow in the population in that certain area.. so that means that people.. if you have more people that means that you’re gonna have more cars less space out in the street for people and just the amount of people that are there just causes more problems.
The kind of overcrowding that Raúl described has become a matter of life and death during the COVID-19 pandemic. Study after study has found that crowded housing is a major predictor of the spread of COVID. Crowding refers not just to population density in a neighborhood but literally how many people are sharing the same home. Think about the college student, Meilin, who shares a place with 15 roomates–what does sheltering in place mean in that kind of living arrangement? As Kimberly Sue, a physician-anthropologist and the medical director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, puts it “The idea of being able to isolate is really a privilege” (https://hms.harvard.edu/news/covid-19-most-vulnerable). And crowded housing goes hand in hand with occupational segregation–the fact that different types of people do different types of jobs in the U.S. Latinx-Americans in California have been the hardest hit by COVID of all racial-ethnic groups–they account for nearly 47% of the deaths in CA, even though they make up on 39% of the population (https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/Pages/COVID-19/Race-Ethnicity.aspx). The fact that Latinx folks are disproportionately represented in “essential jobs” is one of the reasons (https://www.npr.org/2020/07/01/885878571/why-covid-19-disproportionately-impacts-latino-communities). Think of Raúl’s mom who works in fast food. And when you pair that risk of exposure on the job to crowding at home, you’ve got the conditions for community spread of COVID. The deprivations of economic inequality and racism mean that when the disease hits, it’s more deadly. So it is not an overstatement to say that racial and economic inequality is literally a matter of life and death.
And how did you come to live in your neighborhood?
It was the cheapest place.. whatever — whatever we could afford.. so.. were not gonna go off to some place where we can’t afford it just because we want it to be nicer [and we needed more room.. so more room and] it was cheaper.
So let’s review that Bay area factor again: we’ve got population density and overcrowded housing. We’ve got a high cost of living and over-the-top rent burdens. And turning up the volume on all of this is rising economic inequality. The middle class has been shrinking in the Bay area. The gap between high and low income households in the nine-county Bay Area increased 20% from 1990-2015 (Plan Bay Area). The proportion of households making between 35 and 150,000 has shrunk (Plan Bay Area). Nearly a quarter of Bay Area’s population lives below 200% of the federal poverty level, most earning less than $50,000 annually per household (Plan Bay Area).
More than half of the low-income households in the Bay Area are at risk or already experiencing gentrification (Cal Matters). From 2000-2015, the state lost nearly 800,000 residents with incomes near or below the poverty line (Cal Matters). 75% of those residents made less than $50,000 annually (Cal Matters). Where did most of them go? Texas.
And the housing crisis isn’t just about economic inequality–it’s about racial inequality too. Black and Latinx people were particularly vulnerable to foreclosure during the Great Recession, thanks to racialized predatory lending. Overall, the proportion of renters is on the rise in the Bay area and in its surrounding suburbs, especially among people of color. In some Bay area cities, the renters make up 50% of the population. When we look just at the Bay area, we also find a movement of people out–and the people leaving tend to be poor and disproportionately Black or Latinx. Urban Habitat, a community organization that works for sustainable development in the Bay area, has documented the movement of renters from the central cities of the Bay area to the outer rings of suburbs. They call it a racial resegregation. This movement out has led to longer commutes and traffic congestion as folks chase cheaper rents outside the Bay area. James, who works in sales at a cellphone carrier, talked about the need to leave the Bay area in order to have a better life.
My housing situation right now is I’m renting a one-bedroom apartment for twenty-three hundred dollars which is fucking ridiculous but um that — currently um that’s my- that’s my situation but my goal is for the next five years is to move out of the Bay Area like to Sacramento, Tracy um area and buy a ho use because it’s a lot cheaper and you get a lot more out there for your money than you do here. And again, I don’t need to have a flashy house here in the Bay Area. I can buy the three, four, five-bedroom house for less than five-hundred-thousand. Where here, you’ll get a two-bedroom condo for seven fifty, if you’re lucky.
Those listeners who live in the Bay area will have found the stories in this episode familiar. Those who live elsewhere are likely wondering why *anybody* would live here given how expensive it is. I could make a crack about how great the weather is–and seriously, the weather is GREAT. But for those who live here the Bay area is home, and many of us find it hard to leave our homes no matter how difficult our living conditions might be. Nobody wants to be displaced from their home. And the forces of displacement reflect our larger social inequalities. That resegregation that Urban Habitat drescribed, with Black and Latinx people leaving the core for cities and towns further and further out, isn’t just happening in the Bay area. There are 600,000 people living in Los Angeles County who spend more than 90% of their income on rent (https://economicrt.org/publication/escape-routes/). Wrap your mind around that level of rent burden and what it means for their ability to save or get ahead. And James’ dreams of an affordable home in Sacramento and Tracy are starting to look more like pipe dreams than reality. The housing market in places like Sacramento or Fresno puts home prices increasingly out of reach for the middle class. The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University (https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/son-2019-cost-burdens-map) found that California is the least affordable place for home ownership in the nation, and affordability isn’t looking so great either in the entire western United States and the eastern seaboard. A recent New York Times article specifically called out the trend of Californians moving to places like Idaho and Nevada looking for more affordable places to live. But that article points out that the problem of housing affordability isn’t just a California problem–cities like Nashville, Denver and Austin are also confronting housing crises (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/12/business/economy/california-housing-crisis.html). Across the country, this has meant a great proportion of higher income renters competing for rental units, which when combined with sharp decreases in the stock of low rent units, has really put working poor and working class renters in a bind. Like that old saying, as California goes, so goes the nation.
In this episode, we focused on the kind of overcrowding that many residents in the Bay area experience, the high cost of rent and the difficulty of staying here. In the next episode, we will learn about the experiences of those who are lucky enough to own homes in the Silicon Valley as well as the terrible challenges faced by those who are unhoused. Homelessness is a humanitarian crisis in the Bay area. Finally, we will explore more of the reasons behind the housing crisis and what to do about it. If we really want to live out the value of loving our neighbors then safe, decent and affordable housing shouldn’t be out of reach for so many of them.
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This episode was written by Jennifer Myhre, Melinda Poley and Tori Truscheit. It was produced and edited by Jennifer Myhre, with editing assistance from Lea Li and Deven Sutaria. The music that opens and closes each 1500 Stories episode was composed and produced by Benjamin Henderson. Additional music was composed by Ben Henderson, Tyops, and Michelle Ordoñez. Sound effects came from Freesounds and Melinda Poley. You’ll find references for the data discussed in this episode in the show notes. The 1500 Stories podcast was launched thanks to generous financial assistance from the Mellon Foundation and American Council of Learned Societies community college faculty fellowship program. However, any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed here are our own and do not necessarily represent those of Mellon or ACLS. Special thanks to all of the storygatherers who conducted interviews for the project and all of the people who shared their stories so openly. You can hear and watch more of these stories at 1500stories.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at 1500 Stories. Thank you for listening. Listening deeply to another person’s story is one of the most valuable gifts you can give them. Imagine how the world might change if we really listened to each other.