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ABOVE: If you’re under 40 or a renter, the California dream of owning a home is out of reach according to a new poll.
Samantha Sprau rents a 450-square-foot studio north of downtown Oakland with appliances and gold-speckled laminate that could be decades older than she is.
It costs $1,575 per month.
“It’s a ton for one person to pay,” said the 27-year-old battery engineer, who finds herself relying on the same grocery-skimping survival skills she learned as a broke undergraduate at San Jose State: snacks for lunch and “lentil soup for days.”
“I feel like it shouldn’t be so insane,” she said, “that a single professional should be able to afford a studio apartment.”
The Bay Area economy is booming, but if you’re under 40 or a renter, chances are high that you don’t travel or go out to eat much, and you might be cutting back on groceries. A five-county poll conducted for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and this news organization also found that more than one-third of Bay Area apartment renters and one-quarter of residents in their 20s and 30s say they are struggling to afford their housing.
Overall, 19 percent of those surveyed said they were having trouble making their monthly housing payments or rent. But those renting apartments were nearly three times as likely as those living in condominiums to have that problem — 34 percent compared to 13 percent, the survey found. Fifteen percent of people living in single-family homes, a figure likely to include some renters, were in the same position.
Over half of the registered voters who responded reported cutting back “a great deal” or “some” on other expenses because of the cost of housing, the survey found. And that was far more common among younger residents and people living in apartments: 79 percent of the renters and the same percentage of residents under 40 reported some level of belt-tightening.
Bay Area residents under 40 were more than three times as likely to report they slashed other expenses “a great deal” to cover their housing costs than those over 60, the survey found, and were twice as likely to say that they struggle to afford their current housing situation. They also held a less favorable view of where they lived, with just 32 percent being “very satisfied,” compared to 48 percent of everyone surveyed.
Among those who said they were dissatisfied, cost was the overwhelming reason for all age groups, followed by a lack of space.
That pattern is consistent with 30 years of survey and economic data that “tell the same story,” said Paul Taylor, a former Pew Research Center vice president who explored the generational wealth gap in his new book, “The Next America.”
“Today’s old are doing much better than yesterday’s old, and today’s young are doing less well than yesterday’s young, and the gap between old and young is greater than it’s ever been,” Taylor said. “This notion that the escalator always goes up for each successive generation has always been true, but today it’s less true.”
To be sure, the Bay Area’s sky-high housing costs have caused hardship for people of all ages. Older renters, especially those on fixed incomes, often have an even trickier time absorbing the sharp increases and instability caused by a hot rental market. But younger residents are more likely to rent. They are also more likely to be saddled with burdensome student loans, making it harder to save for home ownership.
A recent Apartment List survey found that 80 percent of millennials dream of home ownership, but few are saving enough to make it a reality. It would take the average millennial with college debt 27 years to save up for a down payment in the San Francisco metro area, said Apartment List’s chief economist Chris Salviati.
And it’s no wonder: Between 2015 and 2017, average rent rose by a staggering 40 percent in Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Those increases, as with the cost of college, are far outpacing wage growth and making budgets ever-tighter.
“I’ve never even conceived of owning a home here,” said Joe Rivano Barros, 25, who lives in San Francisco’s Mission District and works at a San Francisco-based nonprofit, YIMBY Action, that promotes more housing construction near jobs and public transit.
A former reporter for Mission Local, Rivano Barros covered evictions and clashes over development in a neighborhood that has become a symbol of gentrification and displacement amid the Bay Area’s tech boom. He stresses that he is one of the lucky ones because he can still afford to live in San Francisco and he knows he can always move back into his mother’s house in Oakland if that changes.
But his $1,350 rent doesn’t let him save much, let alone travel — even though he shares a sprawling house in the Mission District with nine other people. “I can afford it, but barely,” he said.
Some millennials have moved to cheaper areas, such as Sacramento, or taken creative measures to pull off home ownership in the Bay Area. Matt Furman and his wife Brooke bought a three-bedroom, 1,300-square foot home in San Jose’s Alum Rock neighborhood in 2016 for $700,000 without having to cut back on expenses — because they rented out the other two bedrooms.
“It was almost not a question of whether we could make it work without roommates,” said Furman, 34, a manager at a tutoring agency. “I just had to accept and embrace living in community.”
The couple is now ready to live on their own and start a family, he said, so they recently put their house on the market with their sights set on a new home in the Santa Cruz mountains, which is both more scenic and more affordable. They listed it for $725,000 and quickly received many offers — all of them over the list price, Furman said.
Compare that to decades ago, in the early 1970s, when John Kriege bought two acres of land in Hayward, took out a construction loan and had a spacious, 4-bedroom house built for his family — all for about $50,000, just over $300,000 in today’s dollars.
“Things were very different back then,” said Kriege, 82, who still lives in the house.
Sprau, a San Diego native who graduated from San Jose State in 2016, also aspires to home ownership. But, she said, the prospects look “bleak.”
She thinks of her younger sister, who pays far less for a stylish one-bedroom apartment in Dallas with nice amenities, and sometimes wonders if she should leave the state. But she is enjoying her job, and her professional contacts are in the Bay Area — ties that would be hard to break.
“In the end, California’s home,” she said, “and everywhere I want to live, with respect to anywhere else in the nation, the costs are going to be higher.”
Will she try to make it here? “I’m going to try my best.”
About the poll: The poll of 900 registered voters in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties was conducted by J. Moore Methods Inc. Public Opinion Research for Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the Bay Area News Group. Silicon Valley Leadership Group provided funding for the poll with significant financial support from Facebook. The poll, conducted from Dec. 27 to Jan. 9, has a margin of error of +/- 3.3 percent.