Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
What happens when a city becomes unaffordable to the people who keep it running?
Fair-market rent for the average two-bedroom apartment in the San Francisco metropolitan area will run you about $1,795 a month (that's for the metro area, not the city proper; the latter number is even more absurd). That makes San Francisco the second most expensive rental metro in the country, behind Honolulu. And the number has two major implications: Increasingly, only certain occupations can afford to live in the region. Meanwhile, all kinds of workers any city needs – bank tellers, parking lot attendants, fire fighters – cannot.
So what happens when a city becomes unaffordable to the people who keep it running?
Full-time fast-food workers famously have a hard time getting by wherever they live. But the same is true in many metropolitan areas for decidedly less-maligned jobs like child-care worker, home health aid... and urban planner. Details from the depressing intersection of high housing costs and low wage growth come from an updated database by the Center for Housing Policy that runs the numbers on 76 occupations in 207 metro areas.
A full-time income for a housekeeper or a waitress with intermediate-level experience won't cover fair-market rent for a two-bedroom in any one of these metro areas (should said housekeeper or waitress be, say, a single mom). Drill in to a metro like San Francisco, and all kinds of occupations won't even cover a one-bedroom (based on the standard that you shouldn't devote more than a third of your income to housing):
This ultimately means that people needed to work in downtown restaurants and hospitals, or well-to-do neighborhoods, often must live at the far reaches of a metro area. Or it means they're spending way more on their housing than a family budget can really afford.
"It’s all part of this tradeoff that lower-income, even moderate-income workers are having to make," says Maya Brennan, a senior research associate with the Center for Housing Policy. "What am I going to sacrifice here? Am I going to sacrifice space and try to squeeze people into a smaller home, or sacrifice the length of my commute, or is it going to be money for food, retirement savings, money for my kids? What’s going to give in order for this housing and wage mismatch to realign?"
You can pull numbers on every one of these jobs and cities, for both rental properties and owning a home, through the Paycheck to Paycheck database. Homeownership is understandably even farther out of reach in most of these places (although renting is now cheaper in a few locations where people can at least afford to make a down payment). But for a more realistic picture, we also pulled some discouraging occupations from two other metro areas among the nation's most expensive, Washington and Boston.
Here we found at least one livable job: auto mechanic.