It’s taken as a matter of gospel among San Francisco residents that this city is expensive. Each week seems to bring a cavalcade of news about absurd rental demands, beloved businesses searching for new homes, and overpriced dumps we all know will sell in an hour. But according to an article posted on The Atlantic’s CityLab, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development thinks San Francisco is a much better deal than we give it credit for. Under their new metric called “location affordability,” our city provides just as much — or more — value for an average family as such bastions of affordability as Kansas City, Portland, and St. Louis.  

How is this even vaguely possible? In a word: cars. The Location Affordability Index developed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development takes the median family income in a city and determines what percentage of that income would be spent on housing (30% for SF), and on transportation (13% for SF). It adds those two numbers together to determine location affordability. San Francisco gets a 43, which is better than Indianapolis’s 49. Indianapolis has cheaper housing, but the median family there also makes less money, and spends a whopping 22% of their income on transportation. This spending involves the purchase of two vehicles, and roughly 23,983 miles of drive time. They average a paltry 18 trips a year on public transit (a number I’m set to break this week, despite owning a car and renting an off-street parking space). 

But, as the CityLab article points out, there are problems with viewing affordability this way. Chief among them is that the “typical regional income” varies wildly by location. Cities like New York and San Francisco with efficient transit close to job centers might actually be a better deal overall, but only if you’re already living there, and making an average salary. The large cost to buy into the housing market is such a barrier that not just anyone can come to San Francisco hoping to trade in the minivan for a Fastpass. That median family from Indianapolis might find their income of $53,324 doesn’t cut it in a city where apartments and condos often sell or rent well over the original asking price. 

And the lower transportation costs don’t do a whole lot of good for folks at the bottom. Switch the chart over to “Very Low-Income Individual” and San Francisco’s affordability score changes to 165%, which demonstrates something most of us could have probably guessed — living in San Francisco is almost impossible for poor people. Although, to be fair, the chart shows a similar difficulty in most of the country. The score for this same low-income person is 155% in Oakland, 147% in New York, 167% in Vallejo, and 132% in Ferguson, Mo. So, ironically, or perhaps sadly, moving to the East Bay — or even the Midwest — won’t save you a ton of money. You’ll just end spending more of it on BART, or on gas to get to your new job, which will pay less. Proving once again that there is no better San Francisco lottery to win than the one that hands out rent control. 

[Via Atlantic City Lab]

Photo by Sierra Hartman

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