The Bay Area’s wages are getting higher, far outpacing most of the country, but more residents are finding their paychecks can’t keep up with the region’s skyrocketing cost of living.
The typical Silicon Valley income — well over $100,000 annually — is now double the national average, according to a Bay Area News Group analysis of ten years of federal data. But while pay here is soaring, the cost of housing is rising even faster.
Even workers in technology — the sector driving the region’s economic boom — are finding out that the “haves” don’t always have enough. And for those making far less, the prospects are grim.
“We have a two-income family — we both make good money — but it seems like every month, the expenses keep rising,” said Nicole Tembrevilla, a recruiter for an East Bay tech company. Together, Tembrevilla and her husband, who own a home in San Ramon, make in the low $200,000 range.
“It’s hard to save money,” said Tembrevilla, who lives in San Ramon with her husband and two children, one in high school and the other in middle school. “It’s home improvements, the car, car insurance, tuition — it’s overwhelming. And we’re trying to save up for college.”
Residents say the biggest obstacle to making ends meet is simple: The Bay Area’s mammoth home prices and soaring rents.
“I’m getting good pay raises, but you really have to make around $150,000 a year to be able to afford a house around here,” said Joseph Martin, of Mountain View, a systems administrator with a San Jose tech company. Martin says he makes in the high five-figure range. “The real question is, ‘How do you afford to find a place to live here?’”
For those making below the average wage, owning a home is out of reach. They’re just trying to survive.
Christine Zeyen and her boyfriend moved to San Jose from Arizona a few months ago, hoping to improve their financial and work situation.
“We are just barely making ends meet,” said Zeyen, as she shopped at a San Jose thrift store. “The expenses here are a real eye-opener.”
Zeyen works about 30 hours a week in behavioral therapy and receives financial help from her father to boost her income to roughly $25,000 annually. Her boyfriend makes about $60,000 a year working for Frito Lay. But in San Jose, that’s far from enough.
“It takes everything we have to pay the bills,” Zeyen said. “We moved here to make a better future for ourselves. It’s hard to say if it’s worth it.”
Over the last five years, average wages in the Bay Area’s five most populous counties have risen by roughly 30 percent. In those same five years, the period of recovery and economic expansion after the Great Recession, home prices in those counties have soared more than 87 percent. In the more affordable East Bay, the median home price has doubled.
The gap between wages and home prices isn’t the only disparity underscored by this news organization’s analysis of wage trends in the Bay Area.
Wages in the three counties with higher concentrations of technology companies far outpace those in counties with relatively few tech jobs. At the end of June, Santa Clara County had 344,700 tech jobs, and the East Bay had 137,400. At the end of March, annual pay averaged $114,920 in Santa Clara County, $114,140 in San Mateo County and $106,808 in San Francisco, according to the federal government’s closely watched Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.
But in the East Bay, wages averaged $70,356 in Alameda County and $66,820 in Contra Costa County,
“The Bay Area is a tale of three different economies,” said Jon Haveman, principal economist with San Rafael-based Marin Economic Consulting. “You have Santa Clara County, the Peninsula and San Francisco with extremely high-wage jobs. You have the East Bay, which has good wages and is more middle-income, along with Marin.”
And Sonoma and Solano have even lower average wages.
The Quarterly Census figures show the pay gap between the Bay Area region and the rest of the country is accelerating.
In large part, that’s because tech companies fuel the Bay Area’s economic engine — and its surge in wages. Firms often dangle big paychecks, bonuses and stock options as part of the scramble to lure talent and retain prized workers.
“The war for talent is driving all of this,” said Russell Hancock, president of Joint Venture Silicon Valley. “… The tech boom and wage growth have created a class of the uber-rich in the Bay Area.”
Still, strong paydays in the technology industry aren’t always enough, as tech worker Martin has discovered.
Martin said he and his girlfriend, a preschool teacher, hope to buy a house in Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara or San Francisco. They want to avoid the grind of commuting from the Central Valley or other outlying areas, but the harsh reality of home prices in the $800,000, $900,000 or even $1 million range has jolted them.
“It’s crazy how expensive homes are,” said Martin, 26. “I don’t know too many people my age who can afford the homes here.”
Case in point: Over the five years that ended in July, the median home price has rocketed up 94 percent in San Mateo County, 74 percent in Santa Clara County and 67 percent in San Francisco, according to figures from the CoreLogic real estate information service. While the median in the East Bay is lower, home prices there have increased even more: up 105 percent in Contra Costa County and up 99 percent in Alameda County.
Bay Area poverty rates dipped for the first time in 10 years, according to recent census data, but in the metropolitan region of San Francisco, Hayward and Oakland alone, there were still 485,000 people living in poverty in 2015. That’s just a slight dip from the 491,000 in poverty in 2014.
“The rising cost of living is creating poverty,” said Micah Weinberg, president of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, singling out the region’s increasing home prices.
Silicon Valley’s concentration of tech workers, with their top-flight paychecks, increases the chances that people will bid up housing values.
“The high earners who are doing really well, they are paying cash for houses, and the rest of us can’t do that,” Hancock said. “Most people can’t compete in the housing market. That’s created a brutal environment in Silicon Valley.”
Ben Mohr, a San Ramon-based retirement planner who works with a cross-section of people, hears plenty of stories about the challenges of living in this region.
“You have to make a lot of money just to keep up with how much things cost here,” Mohr said. “What’s happening in the Bay Area reminds you of what you see in places like Manhattan.”
Vanessa Cueva, who lives in Tracy and works for a staffing services firm in Pleasanton, would like a shorter commute. But the reality, she says, is you have to go where the jobs are.
“I would try to find a job in the Central Valley, but there really isn’t as much work there,” said Cueva. “So I have to commute back and forth. That is a hard hour, hour-and-a-half of driving.”
The pattern of sharply rising wages in Silicon Valley is likely to persist, experts say.
“Demand for hiring is going to continue,” said Stephen Levy, director of the Palo Alto-based Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy. “And that will keep the upward pressure on wages in Silicon Valley.”