The San Francisco Scramble

Spring is here, which means hiring and moving season is heating up. If you’re considering a move, San Francisco might be high on your list: the tech scene,  the outdoors, the lifestyle-friendly pace, the food.

But a word of advice to any hopeful newcomers: Prepare to hustle. And hustle hard. The stories you’ve heard are true. Being put through excruciating roommate interviews, beehive-activity open houses, leaving your credit report at the door, running just to stand still. A friend of mine actually baked banana bread and brought it to her second-round roommate interview for extra points. And she still didn’t get the place.

I wasn’t prepared for how hard and fast you have to scramble to find housing in San Francisco. Coming from New York–surely one of the most demanding, fast-paced places to cut your teeth–I thought I knew a thing or two about the housing market. But there are challenges particular to this city that make housing so much harder to find.

1. Where to begin?? San Francisco has a lot of neighborhoods. And sub-neighborhoods. Neighborhoods the length of one block. This makes browsing Craigslist very confusing for newcomers — what’s the difference between Noe Valley vs. Cole Valley vs. Upper/Lower Haight vs. Inner/Outer Sunset? A matter of mere blocks. This fun series of neighborhood postcards will help you get your bearings, but only in stereotypes. You just have to spend time walking around the neighborhoods to get a real feel for their flavor.

2. Once you figure out the map, you’ll realize there are only so many neighborhoods where you actually want to live. The public transportation system doesn’t interconnect very well here, so for young professionals who want to have a life and some mobility, geographically you’re pretty much looking in about 20% of the 7×7 square that is San Francisco.

Via SocketSite, “San Francisco’s Housing Pipeline: 4,200 New Units On The Way”

Which 20%, you ask? Check out the above map of planned construction in the city–the larger dots are where the most units are being built, because those are the in-demand areas. There are some other areas that are great to live in too, but construction isn’t really possible in those areas because they’re already occupied by residential Victorians. And most likely regulated by building code restrictions.

3. Market prices are skewed: most rental units are rent-controlled, so there are rooms for as low as $600/person when an original leaseholder still lives there. You can try to sign a new lease, but prices for a comparable place will start at three times that amount. So you’re better off trying to find a room within an apartment on an existing lease. If you’re extremely lucky, you might be able get a place in the low $600-800 range. But you won’t be that lucky. Let’s be real. Anyone who’s been living in an apartment long enough to have a rent that low will already have a list of people they’d like to bring in should a current roommate move out.

When signing a new lease, landlords jack up the rent to market prices, which frankly I think are inflated right now. But it’s dictated by supply and demand, and you’re the one who wants to move here. So start scouring those Craigslist ads!!

4. People are crazy. You know this, but have no way of knowing whether the person you’re talking to will be a crazy roommate or not. This town is a mixed bag. You go on Craigslist interviews, but who knows what you’re going to get? You spend 20 minutes chatting with someone and based on that have to decide whether you like them and/or think they would make a good roommate. It’s no fun for either side, but at least current tenants have the luxury of choice. So if you’re the one in the hotseat, just try to keep it real. Don’t be too chill, too crazy, too nice, too eager, too reserved. Because no matter what you try to project, you ultimately have no control. The odds are stacked against you. So my advice here is be yourself, be charming, be prompt, be on Craigslist at all hours. But for all that, at the end of the day, just take whatever you can get. If you get stuck with a lemony housing situation, at least you’ll have a roof over your head while you contemplate your next move.

5. The best way is to go through people you know, but because you’re new here, you don’t know that many people. The moral of the story I’m trying to convey is simple. If you want to move out here, don’t just focus on the job search. Because once you finish your job interviews, the roommate interviews begin, and it’s a bummer to be analyzed and judged in every aspect of work, personality, life. Also, summer prices get hyperinflated because people try to sublet out their rooms for about $200/day just because they can. No, they don’t try. They succeed. Because they can. And you, dear job/apartment seeker, will get suckered into it because you’ll have no choice.


For some nerdier reading, here are some of the economics behind the housing crunch:

1. Demand outstrips supply by far. 

In sheer terms of availability, population growth in San Francisco is unmatched by housing construction. To give you an idea, a recent study projected that “by 2040 the Bay Area will need 1.1 million more jobs and 660,000 new housing units to accommodate the additional 2.1 million people who will move into the area.”

Contrast that to what’s actually happening now: the Bay area is growing in population size by an average of 30,000-35,000 people per year, yet in 2011, a mere 418 new housing units were constructed. (The 2011 figure is a bit of an outlier and brings down the average over the past five years to 1,710 per year.) That means it’s crunch time.

With a mere 3% vacancy rate, an influx of people, and a backlogged construction pipeline, trying to find housing here is like playing musical chairs–without any chairs. There’s just nowhere to go. So you show up at an open house with all your documentation in hand (bank statements, credit report, references, etc.), only to find ten other people already there, of which one uber-couple has a suitcase full of cash ready to put down a deposit.

2. The market is especially skewed against ‘the little guys.’

The good news is that lots of new housing units, including rental properties, are set to come on the market in the next few years:

Largely in response to the city’s growing technology sector, 22,000 residential units are in various stages of approval and construction. In a few years, residents could be signing leases for new addresses in South Beach, South of Market, Central Market and Mission Bay.

The bad news pertains to us little guys:

… Even if supply catches up with demand, some worry that working- and middle-class residents won’t be able to afford the rents.

The trend “favors the high-end housing market, not the entry-level stuff for the little guys,” said Tim Colen, head of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition. “It’s a question of, ‘Who gets to live here?’ “

– “SF apartment construction boom around the corner,” The San Francisco Chronicle, March 2012

See the map below, accuracy questionable. But it really is a pretty sad, sad situation.

Via SFist / Zumper
Average rental prices for a 1-BR by neighborhood, via SFist / Zumper

2 thoughts on “The San Francisco Scramble

  1. One of the best ways to find an apt is to walk around and call the number that says “RENT ME”. Why? This sounds so annoying when I can sit on my butt in a cafe and craigslist stalk….But the reason I’m sharing this is because there are alot of land lords in the city that have a landline, don’t know how to use craigslist and are doing it the old fashioned way via phone. Call these people. I know plenty of people that have found an apt within a month.

    Option B. Airbnb. No pun intended. Lots of people try out neighborhoods this way and meet more people that are more rooted in SF.

    1. Interesting – thanks for the advice, Sarah! I’ve never heard anyone recommend that, actually, so it’s good to know. When the people you know have found housing that way, how did the rental prices they got compare to market rates?

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