Rarely cheap or easy, the rental game went from an ordeal to a war zone this past decade
As the decade draws to a close, it remains a trying time for renters trying to make ends meet in San Francisco.
The last ten years brought prosperity and the world’s attention to our tech-laden region. But along with that largesse came price inflation, rent hikes, pod people, and the ever-present specter of eviction. Almost any potential solution, no matter how dreadful, seemed game. Take, for example, renting a bunk bed for $1,200 per month, living in a van for $28 per day, or coughing up $2,000 each month for a kitchen-bathroom combo.
Looking back through the mists of time to the 2010 census, the median rent for San Francisco—encompassing apartments and houses—was a mere $1,058 per month. By 2018, the most recent year with published census data, that figure shot up to $1,880.
If we factor inflation into the 2010 price, using the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s U.S. inflation formula, it rises to about $1,234. But that still makes SF’s price appreciation a dramatic 52.35 percent over eight years, with a greater margin almost inevitable when 2019’s numbers come.
For comparison’s sake, in the U.S. at large, the median actually went down a bit over that same period, from an adjusted $1,081 to $1,058. And in California the increase was 3.4 percent after inflation.
Median market rents—representing mostly newer homes that can charge double or nearly treble the census average these days—are where the real fireworks began: In 2010, a two-bedroom SF apartment on Craigslist averaged $2,893 (per historic data compiled in 2016 by Eric Fischer), or $3,396 after inflation. At the end of 2019, similar units on the same site sit at a median of $4,300, up 26.6 percent.
Nearly every corner of the internet has an equally dizzying rent metric: The rental site Trulia estimated that SF rents on their platform increased 37.9 percent between 2012 and 2018.
Property management company Real Page estimates a 48.6 percent increase from 2010 to early 2019.
And just this week, SF-based rental site Apartment List dubbed San Francisco the fourth-most-changed rental market during the past decade, in no small part due to the swelling of rent prices 42.5 percent since 2010.
“When we look back at the last ten years, the statement that the market lost its mind is a not totally unwarranted response,” Apartment List economist Chris Salviati tells Curbed SF.
“We have seen a definite, notable uptick in new construction, and then rent growth tapered over the past few years,” Salviati adds. “But we’re not seeing rent prices coming down in any meaningful way” as the 2010s make their exit.
In fact, Salviati anticipates that “it’s going to be a long time before SF isn’t dealing with some affordability crisis,” as the city cannot produce enough new homes fast enough to fill the breach.
In the past eight years, SF added a net gain of 25,101 homes, and the number of renter-occupied homes in the city increased by 13,701.
But at the same time, the general population increased by (wait for it) 77,842—compared to the 28,500 net gain for the entire previous decade. In 2012 alone the the city’s population exploded by 13,461 people, but the housing stock crept up by only 1,279. Any more homes would have had to start winding their way through the long process years earlier—right in the midst of the recession.
In January 2010, the unemployment rate in San Francisco was over ten percent, and some people feared we might never meaningfully recover from the recession. By early 2013, however, it was down to 5.4 percent, and in late 2019 the state estimates the rate was at a scant 1.9 percent.
Over the same period, SF’s rental vacancy rate went from 5.31 percent—already low compared to 8.17 nationally, but about the same as the 5.86 rate in California—to a minuscule 3.2 percent.
Meanwhile, the SF Rent Board reported that eviction attempts rose every year from 2010 to 2017 and have only barely tapered off ever since.
“Migration to the area has proved incredibly consistent, and it’s not like SF’s housing can suddenly grow to twice its size,” Crystal Chen, a manager at SF-based rental site Zumper, tells Curbed SF.
Chen speculates that while the recent raft of initial public offerings in tech has not produced the out-of-control effect that many feared earlier in the year, all of that money could end up juicing the rental market in years to come.
“Millennials are less about owning things, so even if you’re a new millionaire you might not want to be tied down to owning a house yet, you might start looking at luxury apartments instead,” says Chen.
Interestingly, when Zumper started compiling monthly rent reports in mid-2014, a one-bedroom apartment in SF averaged $3,100. With inflation that’s $3,410, just barely less than the $3,490 average on the site this month.
However, sites like these only began advertising rent data like this after prices shot upward dramatically during short periods.
On Zumper the median rent rose from $3,100 in August 2014 to $3,530 just a year later, and hit an all-time high of more than $3,700 earlier this year.
And for those who couldn’t afford such extremes, Home Share, an execrable San Francisco-based startup, tried to cash in on the housing crisis by turning one-bedroom units into several with a series of upholstered partitions. Mercifully, the company went under in 2019. But it’s too soon to tell if that’s a sign of things to come in the next decade, or if there are simply new kinds of rental nightmares ahead.