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The big squeeze

Jaimal Yogis | Photos: Cody Pickens | October 21, 2011 | Story Real Estate

J.D. Fielding, a clean-cut 25-year-old painter and photographer, recalls his first house in San Francisco, in 2006, with equal parts nostalgia and relief. Like many who move to the city and don’t work at, say, Twitter or Zynga, he and some friends packed seven people into a four-bedroom. “There was a sheet across the living room to make it into two rooms,” Fielding says. “The bedrooms went for about $500 a month, and whoever slept on the couch—which was sometimes me—just paid the utilities.” Often, there was someone crashing on the living room floor, too.

But when the house parties started driving him crazy, Fielding opted for a tiny, windowless art studio on the Great Highway that he got for $300. Then, in 2009, rents began to rise in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, and his landlord decided she no longer wanted to let the space on a long-term basis. Faced with the prospect of moving back onto the “utilities-only” couch, Fielding tried an art collective right outside Oakland. “I liked it,” he says, “until I got robbed at gunpoint.”

So, back to San Francisco. It was 2011, and another tech boom had hit, so Fielding was now competing with 25-year-old software engineers who were hauling in nearly six-figure salaries but weren’t ready to buy. He ended up in a 10-by-10-foot laundry room in a house he describes as a “SoMa scumlord property.” It was only $400 per month, but “it wasn’t really, you know, livable,” he recalls.

Around this time, Fielding heard that an artist friend of his was living in a homeless shelter while between apartments. “It hit me,” Fielding says. “Hardworking, skilled, educated people discussing shelters as an option. I realized: This is extreme.”

San Francisco has always been an expensive place to live, recession or no. In 2006, the California Budget Project calculated that to afford the average $1,272 rent for a one-bedroom apartment, a person would have to work 40 hours a week at $24.46 an hour—or 100 hours at minimum wage. But in five short years, the last three of which saw the demand for rentals skyrocket, the average rent for a one-bedroom has risen to $2,212; average studio rents are now $1,801, and a two-bedroom, two-bath will cost you $3,163.

Unfortunately, as the Bay Citizen recently reported, some San Francisco landlords are making things worse by using their apartments as quasi-hotels, getting more than $1,000 a week from tourists instead of $2,000 a month from renters. Amazingly, there are now more units in the city dedicated to “seasonal, recreational, or occasional use” than there are real rentals.

One can’t help wondering how the intrepid non-techie youth—the teachers, carpenters, journalists, and artists—are doing it. (And no offense to the techie youth here. Obviously, this city would be a slum without you.) Any waltz through the Mission, Dogpatch, SoMa, or Ocean Beach suggests that they’re still out there, projecting at least a facade of hipness and contentment in their tattered hoodies and jeans. But when you ask how they’re actually negotiating this insane rental market, you see that they’re definitely straining the limits of ingenuity.

For those who don’t want to deal with the windowless studio or the scummy laundry room, there’s the Craigslist house-sit or free rent for dog-sitting. (Craigslist has seen a continual increase in roommate requests over the past few years.) Many recent grads move back in with their folks, and one interviewee for this story told me about friends with jobs who live out of their cars around Golden Gate Park, where the police don’t seem interested in bothering them.
But for the semblance of a normal life, creative collectivizing seems to be the key. When Ashley Meyer, 28, was laid off from her Facebook job 18 months ago and wanted to save money while she freelanced, hope came in the form of a—well, it’s hard to know what to call it—in SoMa. “Basically,” Meyer tells me, “the place was two separate commercial/residential units where the builders just gave up or something before it was finished.”

Some recent MIT grads had stumbled onto this hybrid space, and Meyer says the landlord was willing to turn a blind eye to whatever they did to the inside in exchange for not having to do any repairs. So they built an extra bedroom made of plywood, plus some lofts, and soon a place that had started with three bedrooms had, according to Meyer, “about seven.” Some of the lofts, which go for $300 a month (bedrooms are $600 to $800), are truly separate rooms; others are separated by a piece of fabric. But Meyer says they have no problem filling the spaces when people move out.
The Mission district’s Million Fishes Art Collective, another group grope, which started in 2003, has record numbers of people showing up at its open houses to view available rooms.

By entering into a lease together on a building of studio “apartments” that share two kitchens, a gallery space, and even a yoga studio, the 16 resident artists and writers each manage to get a private living space and a private work space, sometimes for less than $1,000. (Members say that the rent varies widely depending on the living space, and they prefer not to divulge the exact numbers.)

With its chipping paint, scuffed windowsills, and weathered kitchen appliances, Million Fishes is hardly luxurious. But it’s a clean, safe foothold in the city for people who don’t make a lot of money. Roland Blandy, a 29-year-old sculptor who hails from London, is about to move out, but has lived at the collective since July of 2010. He’s the epitome of the artist hustler. In addition to making giant, technical sculptures, Blandy bartends and has his own catering company. “Maybe it’s the British accent,” he says, “but I find it really easy to get extra work in this city. You see what’s needed, look up how to do it on Google, and go for it.” Indeed, Blandy almost makes you think that high rents and a tough economy are an evolutionary boon, honing San Franciscans’ survival skills.

Another artist in the group, long-haired potter Robert Yegge, lives at Million Fishes with his girlfriend. I ask him if he intends to stay in the city after he graduates from the University of San Francisco. “Of course,” he says. “It’s San Francisco!”

That’s a pretty common sentiment among creatives these days, though some note that they’ve had to lower many of their expectations to stay here, not just their apartment standards. Brittany M. Powell, a 29-year-old freelance photographer who teaches surfing to supplement her income, considers herself incredibly lucky to be sharing a $2,800 three-bedroom apartment with two friends. She still loves San Francisco, but says that her non-techie friends have begun to realize that what was once just a phase is now an ongoing reality. “My friends used to talk about a guy’s potential for dating,” she explains, “and if he was still in the stage of living with 10 people, it was a bit of a turnoff. That was right after college. Now it’s like, get real: Most people are in that situation.”

Max (who prefers to use only his first name), a 34-year-old writer and hip-hop lyricist who works as a production assistant and carpenter for money, has also noticed a change. He and his girlfriend recently moved back to the Bay Area after six years in Brooklyn, hoping to find a slower, healthier lifestyle. But after months of San Francisco open houses, at which they couldn’t compete with hordes of young professionals, they opted for a $1,500-a-month condo in Berkeley that Max says would have gone for twice that in SoMa. “In New York,” he says, “there’s always been this sense that if you’re a writer or an actor or whatever, you just put up with anything. You live in a shoebox. It’s fine. But in San Francisco, you expected that you’d have a bay window, maybe a tree. That concept seems to be on its way out.”

For some people, it’s already gone, so they simply end up leaving, as many others did during the previous boom. Powell’s art school friends are all in Oakland, and the Million Fishes folks agree that that’s where the young, artsy scene is now based.

But J.D. Fielding had already been there, done that. So last May, he left the city and moved back in with his parents, in Austin, Texas, where friends were renting nice two-bedrooms for around $500 each. Now, he’s back in college in Santa Barbara, living in a cottage for $650 a month.

Jaimal Yogis is a contributing writer.
Caption profiles by Jenna Scatena

Other Extreme Real Estate stories:
Foreclosure, a love story
Downtown, the new suburbia
Best laid-aside plans
The last housing boom standing
$150,000 for a $1.5 million home?
Shameless movers & shakers


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