How the hell do people live in San Francisco?
April 6, 2016 10:32 AM   Subscribe

I've been looking at cost of living in different areas around the country and I just cannot fathom how or why anyone lives within a hundred miles of San Francisco. How does this actually work?

I hear a lot of panicky stories in the media about how unsustainable the housing situation is in the Bay Area and after looking into some details I just can't wrap my mind around how or why anyone continues to live there. I know some past and current coworkers who recently moved to or from the area. These are all engineers so they're probably not quite as affected by the CoL, but some have told me they made less after expenses in California compared to other places. Can someone please give me a breakdown of how normal people who aren't executive class can afford to live in this area, or maybe more to the point, why?
posted by deathpanels to Society & Culture (48 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
"why" = if you have a skill set that the tech industry wants, you do not need to worry about job security. There will always be a job for you here.

Also, weather. Sounds persnickety, but it is never really cold or humid-muggy here. Some people are really inflexible about this.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:39 AM on April 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

Well I don't. I got out in 1991, basically because I couldn't afford it with two jobs.

Some folks live in the hinterlands and commute in. It's a miserable existence. Some folks live in small spaces with multiple roommates. Also miserable.

There is rent control. My friend in the city has a gorgeous flat at the corner of Hayes and Pierce that he pays $2,000 for. He's lived there for 30 years. I suspect that's going to be permanent for him.

Most folks who live in the city proper make high salaries. The less you make, the further out you live. I just heard that there's a commuter train from Stockton to the bay area. It's an hour and 40 minute trip one-way.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:39 AM on April 6, 2016 [7 favorites]

I think the "why" is pretty simple. It's a great place to live. And for many people who choose to move there, that's where they've landed a job. Usually if they land a job in the Bay Area, their salary will support the cost of living (in theory).

Also, you have to remember that not everyone pays outrageous prices for housing (with housing being the biggest factor in cost of living). People who bought homes in the past pay mortgages based on those past prices -- not current prices. Rent control helps for long-term renters.

Plus, there's transportation. From my experience (and I don't live there), it's easy to get around the Bay Area via mass transit. Parts are walkable or bike-able. Because transportation is the second biggest expense in most budgets, if you can get by without a car in the city, you're in great shape.

I'm not saying it's easy or cheap to live in S.F., but that it's not impossible especially for long-time residents. For new residents? Yeah, it's tougher.
posted by jdroth at 10:44 AM on April 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

Why? Because I'm the fourth generation of my family born here, I grew up here, and it's home.

How? Fatalistic acceptance (I realized a long time ago that the only home I'll ever own will be my father's when he dies), luck (we're in a rent-controlled building), no desire for kids, willingness to do without things often considered necessary (we have no car, we don't get cable TV, we haven't gone on vacation in more than ten years), stubbornness…
posted by Lexica at 10:45 AM on April 6, 2016 [17 favorites]

Two years ago I moved out of SF after 7 years there because I saw the writing on the wall, even though my situation wasn't dire. The thing to remember is that those insane average rents you see, are for new rentals. If you've been in the same apartment for ages, rents are not allowed to increase by more than a few percent per year- and if you are lucky like I was, and live with a former hippie art teacher surfer lady, not only does your rent not get raised, you also don't even pay market rate. But everything else keeps getting more and more expensive. I worked three jobs to get by.

Lots of people have that kind of living situation which is fine as long as *nothing changes*. As soon as you have a falling out with your roommate, or you want to move in with a romantic partner, or your landlord decides to convert to condos or move their kid back in... what happens then? You move back to where you came from. In my last two years in the city more than half of my friends and coworkers moved away, to further reaches of the bay or else just... home.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:46 AM on April 6, 2016 [13 favorites]

There are always cheaper places to live, so you can ask the same about most major cities-- why do people live anywhere:
  • It's Home
  • They have a job they enjoy or need
  • They enjoy the lifestyle and community

posted by Static Vagabond at 10:46 AM on April 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

I live in Berkeley because I grew up in the bay area and I love living here. I am a teacher, so I am pretty screwed on the making money aspect. How I make it work: I live in a 500 square foot apartment with my fiance and we split the rent. We have lived here for over 2 years so when we moved in the rent prices weren't as insane as they are now, so we got kind of lucky. Rent is still crazy expensive for us, but because we love it here, we make it work. Also we have rent control, which helps a lot!
posted by ruhroh at 10:47 AM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes. There is rent control, and also many people have owned their houses for years and years. You have to remember that these stories about outrageous rents are happening at the margin - new people moving in have these problems but even in a boom town like SF, that is a relatively small proportion of the people. As an example, when my wife and I bought a house a few years back (during a relative lull in the property market, on 2 professional salaries, ugh), she did a bit of diligence into what folks in our neighborhood were paying in property tax. A lot of the rates revealed that folks had bought their houses for ~250-300K, or even a lot less, many years ago. I know that's still expensive for much of the country, but nowhere near what it is now.

I'm not trying to say the situation is good, though - it's not only the new techies moving in who get gouged on the rent. It's anyone who has to move for whatever reason. I know a lot of people who have had whatever problem with their living situation so they have to get out of it, and poof! They disappear from the city. It is sad and frustrating. As I mentioned, my wife and I bought during a lull, and we need two salaries to pay our mortgage - the property market has been going crazy since we bought and, while this would now work to our benefit if we were to sell, I don't think we could afford to buy now if we had waited. For the moment we're stable but if we have any issues with our house (like, oh, a desire to have more than 1 child), we'll probably end up leaving too.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 11:03 AM on April 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Great weather year-round
Amazing food and drink scene
Endless job opportunities if you are in tech
Gorgeous beaches and forests within a short drive
The dream of one day hitting the stock-option startup lottery

That said, I left for Seattle after a year and a half because the hustle and short-term financial pain was just too much. Unfortunately a lot of SF people are starting to do the same, making Seattle the next place for this to happen.
posted by joan_holloway at 11:03 AM on April 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Can someone please give me a breakdown of how normal people who aren't executive class can afford to live in this area, or maybe more to the point, why?

Because peoples' families are here and this is where they grew up. Because they moved here in less nutty times and have managed to luck out with housing (like, good rent-controlled apartment, or they bought and have hung on). Because they love it here and make it work with housemates and an ordinary job or two. Because moving is a gigantic pain in the ass that may not solve the problem, depending on one's field, and it is not cheap to move. A lot of people who aren't paid a lot of money cannot afford to move, especially if they have a family and social network that helps offset financial obstacles. This is true of expensive (and not-so-expensive) places everywhere.

"Why?" seems like a kind of weird question, and reads to me as kind of hostile. This is not a garbage place to live. There are many difficulties to living here, and a great many joys. That is why people stay, even when it's hard.
posted by rtha at 11:04 AM on April 6, 2016 [20 favorites]

I don't rent, that's how. I bought a house in San Francisco (one of two on a single lot, a tenancy in common) right before this last insane upswing in housing prices and when interest rates were at their lowest. If I ever sell my house, I'll be able to sell it quickly and easily and at a profit (in contrast with my sister, who's been trying to sell her beautiful but rural house for SIX YEARS).

I love it here, that's why. I'm a leftist vegan gay guy with three kids and a husband. Until very recently, that combination of things wasn't very feasible elsewhere. It's changing, but, uh, at a pace that's going to take longer than I'll live. I'd love to have cheap land in rural Arkansas where I grew up, but I'd also like to avoid putting my kids through what remains an awful social environment for gay folks.

I'm not in tech, and the city is not exclusively made up of tech elites--not by a longshot.

I've lived in a lot of places, cities, states, and a couple countries in my life, and along the way it's felt like climbing a ladder where each rung was a little better, a little more comfortable, a little more aligned with my needs and attitudes. I bought a house here because I felt like I reached the top of that ladder.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:07 AM on April 6, 2016 [12 favorites]

Oh, and as to why - it is beautiful. The ocean, the forests, the mountains, the Mediterranean weather. I grew up in the midwest and I hate to be a wuss about the weather, but think I have at least moderate seasonal affective disorder and the long winter nights of my homeland feel positively oppressive. I'm not sure I can move much further north again.

And the food is great, there is a good arts scene, it is a major enough city that bands and festivals stop here or nearby. While the public transit is not perfect by any means it is one of the better cities for walkable urban density - I drive about 4000 miles a year, nearly all of it for vacations and weekend getaways.

I know none of the positive aspects are exclusive to this place, but it had a decent confluence of many of them that would make it a great place to live if it weren't so damn expensive.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 11:09 AM on April 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

A lot of things perceived as "necessary" for a decent life by suburbia-dwellers just aren't, at least not generally. There is a certain size of dwelling beneath which living does get complicated and irritating, but it is much smaller than your average suburban house. A nearby park is a more than adequate substitute for the average sad little lawn. And so on. You figure out what you can and can't live without, and whether the tradeoff for city life is fair. For a significant number of people, it will be. As a long-time big-city dweller, I've never owned a car. This would be unimaginable for many, but the truth is: I rarely miss it. And in fact I am often glad I'm not compelled to be out there regularly on the road; my subway rage is enough to keep my blood pressure up.
posted by praemunire at 11:12 AM on April 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

When we say that techies make a lot of money, I often think that folks outside of tech don't understand just how much more. In my experience, it's not unusual to make $75-90k out of college, and then $100-175k with more experience. You can reach $175k if you're a superstar without being an "executive." Even the out-of-college salary that I cited ($75k) is enough to afford San Francisco comfortably with roommates without dependents. Companies often give you benefits (transportation, insurance, food) that reduce or eliminate your expenses.

San Francisco is also famous for being queer friendly (LGBTQIA + general leftist politics). I belong to a couple online queer housing groups, and there are posts (at least) every month from queers looking to move here to escape discrimination.
posted by yaymukund at 11:13 AM on April 6, 2016 [6 favorites]

A clarification: The salaries I'm citing are for software developers. I can't speak for other professions.
posted by yaymukund at 11:21 AM on April 6, 2016

I moved here a couple years ago to be with my now-fiancee in an East Bay suburb. She grew up here - our next-door neighbor is her high school English teacher.

The question of how, though, is a good one. She makes way more money as a private tutor here than she would in a less-wealthy area, but we couldn't afford the house we're in in a million years, and probably wouldn't want to - but the house came (more or less) as a part of her dad's inheritance when his parents died, and they're basically subsidizing it for us, because they want Alex to continue living down the street. (!!) If we ever move, we're going to have to move much farther out or somewhere else entirely.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:24 AM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

You can reach $175k if you're a superstar without being an "executive."

These days you don't even need to be a superstar. $175K is well within reach for a senior software engineer at a VC-funded (non-public) company. Senior developers at Google or Facebook are probably pulling down close to $300K in total compensation.
posted by asterix at 11:28 AM on April 6, 2016 [7 favorites]

From my experience (and I don't live there), it's easy to get around the Bay Area via mass transit.

LOL. It's relatively easy to get around parts of San Francisco via mass transit. For the rest of the Bay Area you need a car, which is fine as it is a nice place to drive.

I really like the South Bay. It's low-stress, traffic isn't bad, weather is good, ample parking day or night (people shouting "howdy neighbor"). House pricing is not all Palo Alto/Los Gatos insanity : San Jose, Sunnyvale, San Mateo etc are reasonably affordable, for a prosperous area in California. There are a lot of vacant jobs in the South Bay, in whatever field you want, not just tech. Obviously tech pays well, but lots of other professionals are making good money down here.
posted by w0mbat at 11:30 AM on April 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

I live here and I don't even know how people live here! I feel like cost of living is outpacing even the high tech salaries. There just aren't *that* many companies paying the average engineer *that* much to account for the high costs. Yes, tech pays more and jobs here in general pay more but I do not know how people moving here are doing so on an average 'higher bay area salary' when housing is far beyond even that. Even with 2 incomes.

Frankly all the reasons that it is "great" to live here are ruined by the MASSES of people and traffic. It wouldn't even be so bad if these masses of people weren't incredibly rude, loud, demanding, etc... everything but polite and trying to live (as) quietly (as possible) among the masses so everyone can have a pleasant experience. My experience has been that most of this comes from people who are from other parts of the world where it is even *more* populated, loud, etc and they are "privileged" in their culture (and thus affluent enough to come live here) and look down on anyone "less privileged" which includes all of us schlubs that live here already.

Weather is great, SO much to do outdoors, but it is literally ruined by people screaming at/with each other... and I don't mean strangers... the families just holler and yell *at each other* and don't care one bit that everyone around them doesn't want to hear them.

What is also happening is you are getting a lot of foreign investors coming here and buying property (that many times they do not even live in!). That is also a major factor in why costs are and stay so high.... there is intense competition from people that aren't even here.

Yes.... I am actively planning to move away as soon as can be arranged.
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 11:41 AM on April 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

Response by poster:
"Why?" seems like a kind of weird question, and reads to me as kind of hostile. This is not a garbage place to live. There are many difficulties to living here, and a great many joys. That is why people stay, even when it's hard.
Sorry if I give that impression, that's not my intention at all. Maybe I missed the mark a bit. I am looking at this as an outsider considering relocating who would not have family connections in the area. My perspective is not "why don't you long-term residents move away" but rather "why should new residents move there." I guess if i'm questioning anyone it's people who are moving there now, not long-time residents. I get that if you have family in the area or you have lived there for years you don't want to leave.
posted by deathpanels at 11:45 AM on April 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

My twenty-year-old daughter lives in San Leandro, moved there from Fargo, North Dakota, three years ago to attend Job Corps Treasure Island, and finished there last summer; she liked the area, had made friends, so chose to stay. She works in San Francisco, so they start at a higher minimum wage than the rest of the country, but she's making higher than min.

She currently works in a cafe not-quite-full-time and goes to cosmetology school -- hardly the high-wage tech sector, but she has a $2,000-a-month apartment with three roommates, so with her higher-than-minimum income she can swing $500 a month for rent, her share of utilities (about $100), and public transportation runs her about $200 a month to get to and from work, and lives comfortably. Not that she has time for fun, but she can definitely cover her bills and eat real food, despite the high cost of living.
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:45 AM on April 6, 2016

I moved here because a very large tech company paid me to, and then paid me a lot to offset the cost of living. That said, I don't have that job anymore, and with a more 'typical' tech salary it's still somewhat affordable, however my living conditions are a bit lower than I'd like. Also, the high population of this entire area is definitely a down side, but the beauty and variety of nature makes up for it. I DO wish I could have brought every single one of my friends, though...
posted by destructive cactus at 12:01 PM on April 6, 2016

I'm not a SF fan myself, and I did live there, both in housing near the Bay Bridge across the bay from SF, and in the city itself on Russian Hill. I've spent lots of time hanging out with my friends, longtime residents in an upscale neighborhood there, over the years as well. But my brother, who has a house in Oakland, and my sister, who lived for quite awhile in Berkeley and is now settled in San Rafael, love the area very much. For one thing, SF is not monolithic -- it has a lot of different vibes depending on where you are.

Here are things I know my siblings and my friends would say they why love about living in the SF area: 1) it is super progressive; 2) the weather is temperate and pleasant pretty much year round, with lots of sunshine; 3) public transportation is excellent; 4) restaurants are world class; 5) it is truly diverse; 6) it is beautiful; 7) it is stylish; 8) it has some wonderful sports teams; 9) it is a technology and transportation hub; 10) it is right on top of some of the most wonderful places to be in the world, including the Napa, Sonoma, and Pacific coast northward and southward.
posted by bearwife at 12:04 PM on April 6, 2016

I guess if i'm questioning anyone it's people who are moving there now, not long-time residents.

If you spend any time on Hacker News, you are probably aware that YC requires people to move there for two or three months in order to go through their incubator program. They give you money to help cover expenses for that time and they help you build the company and they take a cut.

Part of what they do is introduce you to people. There are people who go just for the two or three months and then return home. I can think of at least two stories that involved that. But most people who get accepted to YC are young, unmarried and childless and their company is their new baby. Now, they have all their most important (business) connections in the Bay Area. Leaving would be like trying to repot a delicate plant and ripping the roots off in the process. Most businesses will not survive the move.

So, once they are there, they kind of need to stay (in most cases). And now that they are growing the company like it is being fed ent draught, they need to hire new people. And they get free advertising on HN. So this attracts new people being paid salaries adequate to cope.

This may be one of the root causes of the insane inflation there. And it has given us a lot of successful companies, like Air BnB, so it isn't going away any time soon.

(Maybe you should bitch to Sam Altman about social responsibility and housing costs?)
posted by Michele in California at 12:06 PM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Because we went to grad school here, got jobs here, and getting out is hard. We like the weather in the parts we can't afford to live in, we like the politics, we like the things we can travel to, and we love the things to do and restaurants etc., but we can't stay here. The difference in our salaries nowhere NEAR makes up for the cost of rent, but finding jobs elsewhere is extremely difficult (and having tasted the Bay Area, the prospects of moving "back home" etc. are not appealing anymore).

As to how people do it, see my unpopular comment here. I stand by it, though I'd add these two things to the list:

- some people are living in rent-controlled places but constantly stressing about landlord shenanigans (one friend who lives in the Mission has twenty friends currently in some stage of being evicted).

- a whole lot of people in situations similar to mine are deluding themselves about their future prospects.
posted by wintersweet at 12:20 PM on April 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

There are other programs similar to YC that require people to live, work, train, and socialize here during their funding period. IndieBio does this for people developing scientific products/advances (medical devices, food production, etc.), for instance.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 12:35 PM on April 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Put this is a larger perspective. What you witness in S.F. can also be found in Boston, NY, London, etc. For some time now, many new jobs located close to or in cities. That brings in people with skills and sufficient incomes to afford such places, whereas those with not so much commute to these jobs. World-wide people have been moving from rural and now suburban areas to urban places.
posted by Postroad at 12:42 PM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


I have read some analyses about how you get Silicon Valley type situations. IIRC, it boils down to: you need a confluence of capital, education, and readily available workers and buyers. You basically find this in big cities.

My impression is that San Francisco is crazy expensive for a city it's size, possibly because it is leading the charge in tech development. And that fact is rooted in a confluence of various factors, including changes on the global scale. So, they are well positioned to serve a need the whole world has now, and their role in that will likely march on for some time, never mind how many people feel they are being ground beneath the wheels of progress.
posted by Michele in California at 12:51 PM on April 6, 2016

My husband and I live in close-in East Bay (Emeryville, small town right between Oakland and Berkeley), and both work in SF.

Why do we live here? Like JDRoth said, it's a great place to live for a certain type of person. We can walk four blocks to a grocery store (BERKELEY BOWL, I love you) that's filled with amazing produce, a large bulk goods section, great butcher, etc. Five blocks gets us to the rock climbing gym/yoga place, where we meet up with friends to socialize and exercise several times a week. Four blocks in the other direction along a greenway/bike path gets us to a community garden and an awesome playground and green space (and, fingers crossed, the Montessori daycare that our soon-to-be-born kid will attend in six months). Within walking distance is an excellent Korean place, good Thai, Japanese, new American, decent Mexican, decent pizza, a couple of excellent bars, and we're spoiled for great coffee shops. Our rental house is smaller (1100 sq ft, two bedroom), but we have a bit of a backyard for growing stuff and grilling food, and the layout is nice and airy. We don't need more space as two adults, two dogs, and one soon-to-be-here baby, and I think we could comfortably fit up to three kids here as long as we keep "stuff" to a minimum - which is easy to do when the weather is gorgeous 9 months of the year, so why would you stay inside with stuff?

We're close enough to nature that we can easily go biking or hiking in the Oakland hills in 30 minutes or kiteboarding in Alameda if the wind is right. Travel an hour and the biking/hiking/water sports options open up tremendously, as there's SO MANY green spaces close to the metro area. A couple more hours out, and you're in Tahoe or Yosemite, or another world-class outdoor area. We went on 10 or 12 weekend backpacking or rock climbing trips last summer, and would have done a bunch more this fall/winter/spring if I weren't having a physically rough pregnancy (as it is, we did a couple of car camping trips in the fall and spring, and my husband took advantage of the snow this year to do 8 weekends of ski touring/cross-country skiing).

Pretty much all of the folks I socialize with, and about 2/3 of my work colleagues have similar values when it comes to living an active life and enjoying the outdoors. Bosses are flexible with balancing work & life - things like going off the grid on the weekend is cool and encouraged. This is a social bubble that I've deliberately cultivated - I realize it's not like that across the Bay Area, but it's possible to create it, which is awesome. We don't have a tv, and I can't recall the last time someone wanted to chat about a tv show. I can take it as a given that nearly everyone I run into will at least pay lip service to progressive issues - LGBT rights, feminist issues, #blacklivesmatter, and the like, even if the majority probably don't care about them that much. A strong minority do care, which is awesome. If my kid ends up being gay or transgender or whatever, I don't have to worry as much about finding them resources or a supportive community, because it's largely built into the ethos here. I'm not afraid to talk about going to Burning Man at the office - my company's founders have gone in the past, and several colleagues go regularly as well. Blah, I realize I sound like a character sketch from Portlandia or whatever, but I fee like the lifestyle and values that I want to achieve are more easily achieved here than most other places in the US. About the only thing I actively dislike in my life is my commute into SF, because commutes suck.

Now, how do we afford to live here? My husband and I both make about $110k each - he works in data analytics, I work in solar energy policy. That, obviously, helps a ton. Our companies offer good benefits, too. We spend $3k on rent each month, maybe $350 on water/garbage/energy/internet/cell phones, and childcare is probably going to be at least $2,400 a month (either daycare or nanny share). But otherwise, we spend very little, we have zero student loans/consumer debt, and we save a healthy amount to have a cushion to fall back on if needed. We eat well, but mostly it's spending on high-quality ingredients to cook with, with maybe one to two dinners out a week with friends (we have people over pretty often - why spend $40 per person for brunch when we can make something that tastes better for $5 - 10 per person?). Entertainment with friends is board game nights, volunteering in the community, dining in at people's houses, rock climbing at the gym, free city festivals, and outdoor weekend adventures - all things that cost very little, other than maybe transportation (and gas is cheap right now). Our two cars are older Honda Civics - reliable, but not fancy, and completely paid off. We have a lot of gear for outdoor adventures (bike gear, backpacking gear, rock climbing gear, skiing gear, gear makes the world go round...), but those are capital costs, not ongoing expenses and we save up carefully to buy good gear that will last a very long time. We use the public library for books, go to the movies maybe twice a year, and almost never go to concerts that aren't free. We buy imperfect produce. I haven't bought jewelry in years (other than our $10 awesome NZ jade wedding rings), rarely buy make-up or nail polish or other "beauty essentials", keep a minimalist wardrobe, and don't feel like that makes me stand out in the Bay Area. Almost all of the new baby's stuff will be hand-me-downs or Cragislist finds.

We almost never go shopping for shopping's sake - we do a quarterly run to Costco for household consumables, get groceries a couple of times a week, and use Amazon for random household needs (like a new inner shower curtain), but we go to stores like Target maybe once every six months? I get the sense that this is way less than most Americans. I deliberately avoid putting myself into places/situations where I'm going to see a lot of advertising or see all the things I could buy, and then want more stuff (e.g. don't go shopping as entertainment, avoid tv ads, read very few fashion/lifestyle blogs, don't read magazines like Real Simple, etc.).

This lifestyle is totally in line with our values, and I don't see it as a hardship at all, but I think it's out of step with how a lot of Americans live. But it is in step with how a significant percentage of the Bay Area community lives, and that's something I appreciate very, very much. Note that I recognize that both my husband and I have been very lucky in many regards to have this sort of life (e.g. our extended families don't need support from us, no medical issue that cost >$10k out of pocket, etc.). Before we met, we both independently made a lot of deliberate choices and sacrifices in the 10 years post-college, as well, which have paid off in the long run.
posted by Jaclyn at 1:00 PM on April 6, 2016 [14 favorites]

I'm not a native, but I just moved back to the Bay after several years away. I love it here -- I have a lot of friends, there are always fun (often free!) things to do. I love the art and music culture, the weather, the varieties of neighborhoods to hang out in. All the amazing restaurants, the beaches, the nearby mountains, epic redwood forests. . . I love everything about this place. Yeah the rents are high, but I think it's easy for people to forget that you don't have to have a techbro / hipster / artisinal-everything lifestyle to enjoy living here.

I work for a non-profit (not in tech!), and my income is around $3000 a month which is plenty for me. I know people who make it work here on less. Obviously, I'm not living in a 2 bedroom condo in the heart of SF, but that not actually a requirement to be here :) I live in a large house near the Oakland hills with a couple of really great roommates, so the rent is low enough for me to afford shopping at nice grocery stores and going out whenever I feel like it. I'm not into designer clothes or buying a lot of stuff, so I don't really need a ton of income to feel happy and satisfied with life.

Caveat: I don't have credit card debt, student loans (paid em off!), or kids, which helps. I do have a fair amount of savings which pays for emergency car repairs and so on.
posted by ananci at 1:09 PM on April 6, 2016

I live a 1-1.5 hour commute from San Francisco, and it's wonderful, but only because two professional incomes allow us to live biking distance from work and we bought our house some time ago. If we were just starting, even at our current salaries, it would be a lot tougher. Unless you're in the 10%, I think it comes down to how far you're willing to commute. "Drive 'til you qualify" is the mantra. Beyond housing, the cost of living is reasonable. Gas is somewhat more expensive, taxes are somewhat higher, but that's not typically make-or-break level. Even things like health care that you'd think would be much more expensive aren't.

That said, it's a wonderful place to be. The natural beauty is abundant, the excellence of the culinary scene transfers even to the suburbs, etc.
posted by wnissen at 1:30 PM on April 6, 2016

Sometimes people don't really have a choice. At my husband's company (in Tucson) they are moving part of the engineering department to the Silicon Valley area because they're expanding and don't feel they can get the level of talent they need locally, and they can't convince enough talented people to relocate to Tucson. The people in that part of the company were basically given the choice to leave the company within 6 months (and there aren't too many jobs like it in Tucson) or move to SV. The ones that moved basically admitted to my husband that their quality of life will go down drastically with the increased cost of living, but they didn't know if they could get another job in Tucson. Companies move to the SV area because there's so much talent, and talent moves to the SV area because there are so many good jobs/companies, and then rents go up and up and up. It's a clustering problem.

For us personally, if the COL in SF/SV was even just twice that of Tucson, we'd love to live there. We could both get really cool tech jobs, meet lots of amazing people, and eat much more fabulous restaurant food than we have now. But we could not survive there with the quality of life we have here, we'd have no safety net whatsoever financially, and we'd basically not get to have children due to needing 2 incomes or crazy expensive daycare, so we continue to not move there.
posted by permiechickie at 1:35 PM on April 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Something I don't think anyone has mentioned: I think the cost of food is astonishingly low for what you get. Like what it costs me to buy amazing produce and fancy cheese, nuts, chocolate etc at my neighborhood small groceries, is a fraction of what I have seen food cost elsewhere in the US.

But that's not a reason to move here if you're just starting out. To my mind, that depends on your skill set and career aspirations, and your tolerance for congestion. I personally find the bay terribly congested now; significantly more than it was 5 years ago. And I find SF itself horribly dirty, crowded, and gross, and don't go there unless I absolutely have to. But for city-lovers it's invigorating and exciting and glamorous. And if you're in tech, I mean, you can launch a career here that you probably can't duplicate elsewhere. Sure, the companies have branch offices elsewhere, but the nerve centers are here. On the other hand if you are at the point in your life where you want to buy a house in the next three years, no, moving here probably isn't the right strategy.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:40 PM on April 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Well, I moved here in 1997 during the first boom. I wasn't in tech but my friends were and they were all moving here so I did too. 19 years later and after establishing a career (still not in tech), setting down roots, getting married to a native son, starting a family, and buying a house during the last downturn in the economy, I'm sort of stuck here. I don't love it and there are plenty of other places I could see myself living but after all this time, the process of pulling up stakes and starting all over again doesn't really appeal. In my field, I believe the salaries are higher here than I would make elsewhere but I don't think it's totally parallel with the greater CoL. But whatever, I"m here and we just make it work.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 1:52 PM on April 6, 2016

My brother and sister-in-law (ages 31 and 25) live there, and have for several years. They moved there from Phoenix where they owned their own 3-bedroom house. They have occasionally considered moving back during financial difficulties (when only one of them was working steadily) but ultimately resisted.

My brother got a full ride to Stanford for his masters in civil engineering.
Stayed afterwards because of developed friends network, culture, weather, large biking community for brother (brother is very into bicycle racing), large yoga community for sister in law (very into yoga).

How: They live in a insanely expensive, teeny (and I mean teeny) but adorable studio apartment in a very nice neighborhood, where my brother can bike to work. They share one car. Currently, brother is an engineer and SIL works for a financial startup (formerly worked at a bank). They have gone through periods of over a year each where the other one was either not working at all or working very minimal part time (i.e. tutoring) and that was quite difficult, but doable. With dual full-time incomes at decent (though not nearly executive) jobs, they are solidly comfortable, can afford to buy a reasonable amount of nice things (bike gear, concert tickets, good food, a couple pieces of fancy artwork).

My brother still complains that he's "poor" by Bay Area standards, but in my opinion he's a bit of a privileged douche about that, so, ya know.
posted by celtalitha at 2:05 PM on April 6, 2016

I moved to the Bay Area 8 years ago when housing was a little cheaper. But basically you only move if you're going to get paid enough to make it work. And "executive class" around here means like $500K salaries. You can definitely get by on less than that in the less expensive areas (Santa Clara, much of the east bay, etc).

The way most people make it work is that they moved here when prices were lower. The lovely 80-ish year old lady who lives across the street from me has likely paid off her house and her property taxes (thanks to Prop 13) are on the order of $500 a year. Even 5 or 10 years ago houses and rents were less and if you got into a rent control situation or you have a long-term mortgage it's fine.

And as much as I rag on San Jose being duller than a hammer there are lots of very affordable neighbourhoods that are also not crapholes.

Moving to SF proper, yeah, it's pretty hard if you haven't got a $125K+ salary guaranteed.
posted by GuyZero at 2:11 PM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Lowered expectations (about things like living space and disposable income) plus different life goals (kids, work-life balance, etc). I make less than a teacher's starting salary and work in SF, which is pretty bad, but manageable because I live in the spacious living room of a rent-controlled apartment a short BART ride into the city. And my roommate is awesome and introverted. So important when you're sharing a tiny space. Nthing all the "moving there at the right time" stuff, which sans time machine is impractical, but explains some things. I don't love the Bay Area even though I grew up here, but its tolerance of weirdos is possibly unparalleled, and a big reason to stay.
posted by knuspermanatee at 2:38 PM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Since you say you are looking at this as an outsider considering relocating...

I left the Bay Area 5 years ago and don't ever want to go back. It's a nice place, sure, but there are lots of nice places in the country/world. The cost of living is insane. And I am a pretty well-paid software engineer, but its so crazy expensive there that you don't get any benefit from that. I never lived in the City, always on the peninsula / south bay, but even my old not very nice 2 bedroom apartment near San Jose is almost $3k/month now (twice what I paid in 2008).

If you have no family ties or anything, the only reason I would consider moving there is if you were getting a dramatic increase in salary. Otherwise you're probably better off almost anywhere else, IMO. In my case, I can make exactly as much money in LA but with significantly reduced cost, better weather/geography, and more stuff to do...

(Obviously highly biased, but any answer to this would be :) )
posted by thefoxgod at 3:22 PM on April 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am from the East Bay and can't say I want to move back. I live close enough to visit and that's fine by me.

It boils down to: don't move there if you are not a techie making oodles of money. Heck, it's hard for some people just to stay. But at the same time, the area offers a lot of jobs, and living in places that are super cheap usually means there's not a lot of people who want to be there and thus there aren't a whole lot of job options.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:35 PM on April 6, 2016

We live in the North Bay area in a tiny, rural coastal town. Our rent, even though it has gone up $1200 since we moved here, is still affordable, barely, thanks to my husband's S.S. payment, our occasional photo shoots and my three jobs. But it's tough, and summer, when I make $0 from my best paying job, is coming.
posted by Lynsey at 5:51 PM on April 6, 2016

This isn't much more than a hunch, but I get the sense that young, non-tech people who live here don't accrue much savings. Yes, they can cover their expenses, but there's not much left over.

I have managed to save, but I also have found below market rate housing and been lucky in that regard. And I don't live in the city or pay the frankly exorbitant costs of public transit around here.

I worked in retail for a few months and lived with two other people in a sad one-bedroom to make that work. So there's that. I also lived in a dining room for $800 a month. Yup.
posted by delight at 6:09 PM on April 6, 2016

Best answer: My perspective is not "why don't you long-term residents move away" but rather "why should new residents move there."

Oh, that's easy. You shouldn't. In the absence of emotional ties to the area or a mindblowingly good salary, you'd be a fool to move here.
posted by Lexica at 6:41 PM on April 6, 2016 [11 favorites]

From a comment in a thread about SF evictions:
"The idea that bay area housing is a bubble is absurd, you are living in a region which kilometre for kilometre is producing more interesting and valuable new companies than anywhere else in the world at an incredible rate. It is not a bubble that people are desperate to live there."

It's basically an incomparable place to be if you make your living in that certain way. If you don't (or even if you do and just like having other kinds of people around), well it can be pretty horrible.
posted by danny the boy at 7:57 PM on April 6, 2016

As for how, at one of the previous companies I was involved with we made a $110k + equity offer to someone right out of school. He was very good and worth it, and we were not his highest offer. I think he lived with like 5 roommates on the outskirts of the city.
posted by danny the boy at 8:03 PM on April 6, 2016

To put a finer point on WHY, you can if you're a sufficiently talented individual, with very little experience have the opportunity to skip ahead of the line--be on the founding team of the next big thing. You can spend the first few years of your career doing things you wouldn't get to do for decades climbing up the corporate ladder. And if company A doesn't work out, no big deal, move on next year to company B. It's amazing and horrifying. I look at venture capital as a tuition fund for people who want to learn how to make companies. It's not really about making money, and maybe not even really about hitting the IPO/buyout lottery. The city itself is almost incidental.

People used to come to SF because it was a deeply strange and interesting place to be. Now they come to do the startup thing, and write open letters lamenting the strangeness.
posted by danny the boy at 8:18 PM on April 6, 2016

Can someone please give me a breakdown of how normal people who aren't executive class can afford to live in this area, or maybe more to the point, why?

Okay, well, I live within SF's borders and make just over $50K before taxes. I'll tackle the "why" first. I chose SF for a mixture of personal and career development reasons: 1. after seven years in the suburbs I wanted to live somewhere with a strong sense of LGBTQ community and history, as well as somewhere where the demographics would be favorable for dating (single gay dude here and this was honestly a big consideration), 2. SF and my institution in particular is strong in the specific subfield I work on (I'm a postdoc), 3. if I wanted to leave academia for industry, the lion's share is either here or in Boston, 4. I have a few very close friends in the area, and also (because SF is a biomedical hub as well as a software hub) it's one of the few places where I have a broader network of friends and acquaintances from grad school/college.

As far as "how" goes: I lived with roommates for a couple of years in a then-not-so-desirable area, paying around $1K/mo. I then moved to my current apartment, a studio in-law conversion in a quieter neighborhood that is also pretty far (45m-1h) from work and a lot of other more "happening" SF neighborhoods (though I actually love it!). It took me a while to find something I could afford and I got pretty lucky, but while my rent is lower than average, it also isn't a complete unicorn for this area and type of unit. I do the usual smaller things to save money: no car, biking when possible, little vacation travel, bringing food to work, limiting my eating out and going to bars etc., shopping at cheaper grocery stores, eating a mostly vegetarian diet, telecommuting when possible, etc. (When I lived with roommates in SF, my monthly budget actually felt pretty luxurious because I was used to life on a graduate stipend. It feels much tighter now, though for me it's worth it to live alone.) And tbh I do have some credit card debt, though most of it is left over from graduate school.

I am definitely stressed about my financial situation and find myself worrying about it a lot. I'm not saving much and if my rent goes up or I have some other financial emergency I might be pretty screwed, and I really don't like how much I'm carrying on credit right now. But I also don't expect to stay here indefinitely -- at least not with the job that I currently have, which is time-limited anyway. Knowing that doesn't make the mechanics of my day-to-day life a lot easier, but I guess it helps me tolerate the anxiety of knowing that I don't have much in the bank.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:45 AM on April 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

People talk about the tech industry driving high wages and high prices, but much of San Francisco's business environment is legal and financial sectors. Tech is about 8% of the total job market.

Law, and finance, pay top salaries as well, once you're established in that field.
posted by blob at 8:41 AM on April 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh, don't move here. I don't think people should move here. That's the easiest answer. There are more than enough people here and more people = more problems.

I can live here because I've been here for nearly 30 years, with a lot of family in the area. I've owned my place with others for nearly 20 years. I work for a non-profit, with non-profit wages, but I've been here long enough that some costs are low and I can keep others low enough.

I came here because I was queer and young. Still queer, not so young. It's a hard place to move to now, and I don't at all recommend it. I have a hard time not going into the AskMe's about SF rents and just saying "Don't! Stay away!"
posted by gingerbeer at 10:04 PM on April 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

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