Inside San Francisco's housing crisis

'We are not just numbers. We're persons.'

by Tracey Lien

On a typical day, St. Anthony's, a soup kitchen in San Francisco, serves up to 2,400 meals. Though the city is in the midst of an economic boom, the line for the dining room is often so long that guests have to wait in a nearby auditorium.

The people coming through St. Anthony's are increasingly diverse. When the soup kitchen first started serving free meals in the 1950s, most of the clientele consisted of middle-aged white men, many of whom were recovering from experiences sustained during the Great Depression and World War II. Today, people young and old of all ethnicities stand in the dining room line. Some carry iPods and smartphones, others come in suits. There are moments throughout the day where the dining room resembles a shopping mall food court — the only giveaway is that everyone has the same tray of food.

"We had a friar who said the dining room line is a social barometer," says Karl Robillard, St. Anthony's senior manager of communications. "You will know what part of the social and economic safety net is missing by standing outside that line."

They're people with jobs. They're people who work full-time and still can't afford to live in the city.

Many of the people who come through St. Anthony's for a meal have jobs, but the minimum wage doesn't allow them to pay for rent in San Francisco and still be able to afford food. Some work full-time but are homeless because they can't find affordable housing in the city.

The official count for San Francisco's homeless population as of 2013 was 6,436. This number doesn't include people who are out of sight, like those who sleep in their cars, stay with friends and family, or drift between transitional housing arrangements. Where the city once counted the unemployed, addicts, and the mentally ill as its primary homeless population, an increasing number of working San Franciscans and their families are joining the homeless shelter waiting lists and dining room lines. They're people with jobs. They're people who work full-time and still can't afford to live in the city.

San Francisco is moving fast. Entire neighborhoods are changing. And thousands of people are being left behind.


Being homeless is a full-time job

Todd was a video producer working in financial news before he became homeless. He lived in a modest two-bedroom house in Twin Peaks, near the center of San Francisco, with his daughter. He wore a suit to work every day.

"I was going along, being a good citizen," Todd, now 52 years old, says. "I was a volunteer firefighter, I coached football and baseball, I was saving my money, doing everything you're supposed to do, being a single father, raising my daughter by myself. Then the economy just went to hell and the company threw me to the wolves."

Todd lost his job in 2009, shortly after the global financial crisis began. Finding work was difficult. No one was hiring — and those who were thought he was over-qualified. Being in his late 40s didn't help. He applied for unemployment, which paid $12 an hour. After taxes, he had $325 each week. Most of the money went to paying the rent. In the 18 months that Todd was on unemployment, he estimates he sent out more than 800 résumés and received interviews for none. He actively sought work, but could only land minimum-wage temp jobs, which he accepted. In 2009, the minimum wage in California was $8 an hour.

He dug into his savings and his investments. He dug into his daughter's college fund. He hoped this was just a brief rough patch; perhaps it would last six months at most. As his savings dwindled, he realized this was not the case.

Each week, he handed entire unemployment checks and, when that ran out, paychecks from his temp jobs, to his landlord, leaving him with less than $30 to feed himself and his daughter. In an attempt to keep life as normal as possible for her, he would put $5 of gas in his car so he could drive her to and from school.

"I basically had a jar of pennies there, and I'd pull out a few to pay for gas," he says. "It was unbelievable. I thought the world was going to end."

After 18 months, the temp jobs started to fall through, and Todd fell behind on rent payments. Unable to afford his home, he put his daughter up with friends and family while he couch-surfed. He worked up to three temp jobs at a time and still wasn't able to afford housing in San Francisco.

"I slept in my car a lot," he says. "I was living in my car. I went around to every gym in town and got those one-week trial memberships, so in the morning, I'd go get my daughter from wherever she was, take her to school, go to the gym, work out, take a shower, and that was the only way I could shave and keep clean. Then I'd go to the county and job search."

"I basically had a jar of pennies there, and I'd pull out a few to pay for gas. It was unbelievable. I thought the world was going to end."

Being homeless was a full-time job in itself. Mornings started early. If police caught him sleeping in his car, they ordered him to move. He learned which streets in San Francisco were the quietest. He came to know San Francisco's South of Market district (SoMA) well. He spent most of his days at government agencies applying for work, applying for rental subsidies, and gathering tax returns and pay stubs to prove he qualified for government assistance. After school he picked up his daughter, took her to the park where they played baseball together, and helped her with her homework. By late evening, with his daughter safe with family or friends, he returned to his car and put his personal belongings in the trunk. Dinner was often some bread with lunch meat from the grocery store. Then he reclined his seat, and tried to sleep.

Most nights, he'd look out the window of his car and watch as SoMA transformed bit by bit. A few years earlier, the area was home to warehouses and working class homes. Now, new buildings were popping up every week. Things were looking cleaner, sharper, more expensive. Tired as he was, he couldn't help but keep an eye on the change. San Francisco was his city, after all. He saw the progress made on the new Salesforce building, a tower that will exceed 1,200 feet on completion. He saw the land cleared for the new Trans-Bay Terminal. In the distance, he saw a newly-built skyscraper — a "particularly sweet one," as he describes it — with shiny windows that, during the day, reflected the sun.

"Some days, I didn't sleep at all," he says.


Rising Cost

San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the United States to live in. A Brookings Institute study released this year found that it has the second-highest level of household income inequality in the country, behind Atlanta, Georgia. As of 2012, the 95th percentile of the population earned upwards of $350,000 a year. The bottom 20th percentile barely made $20,000. And while wealth inequality has always existed, especially in major cities, San Francisco experienced the greatest increase in wealth disparity of any U.S. city between 2007 and 2012. During this time, income for the 20th percentile household dropped by $4,000, while income for the richest five percent of the city soared by $28,000. No other city saw a jump this great in the income of the richest in its population.

So while the rich get richer and the poor actually get poorer, the dynamics of the city are rapidly changing. The wealth disparity is determining how people live, and it's also deciding who gets to live where — or, in the case of San Francisco's poor, who doesn't get to live anywhere at all. It used to be the poorest of the poor who were vulnerable. As prices in San Francisco continue to rise, even those who were once comfortable are now at risk of falling through the cracks.

The San Francisco Tenants Union, which tracks the cost of vacant rental properties in the city, gathered data showing that in 2011, a typical two-bedroom apartment in the Mission district went for $1,900 a month. By 2012, the average cost of a similar apartment in the Mission jumped to $3,500. Today, that figure is closer to $5,000. The average income per capita in San Francisco has not risen accordingly.

San Francisco's tech industry is often blamed for the city's soaring prices. The argument is that when tech workers earning six figures move into the city to work for start-ups and more established companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple, they drive up the cost of living. They increase demand for accommodations. And, with their pockets lined with tech money, they can afford to outbid everyone else.

"The problem with high rents is not Google buses or tech jobs. The problem with high rent is the very, very constrained supply of housing."

Ted Gullicksen, who was the executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union before his death earlier this month, said he saw a correlation between the increase in rental prices and the continued growth of the tech sector. Recent protests around the city involving the blocking of Google buses and demonstrations in front of AirBnB rentals are also a sign of communities within San Francisco connecting the dots and pointing the finger at the tech.

But while it's true that rents in technology hubs have risen faster than in the rest of the country, it doesn't quite mean that the technology sector is to blame for San Francisco's problem.

Jed Kolko, chief economist of residential real estate site Trulia, says tech is an important part of housing demand in San Francisco both on the rental market and the for sale market. The key difference between a tech hub like San Francisco compared to Seattle, Austin, and Raleigh — the first of which has a greater share of its economy rooted in tech — is housing supply. Other tech hubs around the country build more, which alleviates demand. San Francisco is one of the most regulated cities in America when it comes to urban development, which heavily restricts how much can be built.

"It would take an enormous increase in construction sustained over many years to make the city more affordable," Kolko says. "It's hard to say how much more would be needed, though. Does the city need to build twice as much? Five times as much? Ten times as much?"

A professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, Enrico Moretti, also points to the shortage of supply as the main cause of rising prices, saying that tech booms don't necessarily mean sky-high rents.

"The problem with high rents is not Google buses or tech jobs. The problem with high rent is the very, very constrained supply of housing, and the housing supply is so constrained because we made it so constrained. The city did it."

Moretti's research into housing affordability found that tech growth in cities like Seattle has been the same to San Francisco relative to its size, but the rise in the cost of living is less than a third of that experienced in San Francisco. This is largely attributed to the city building more housing to meet demand. In a city like San Francisco, the restricted supply means that more people with more money are trying to move into existing housing units, giving landlords and real estate speculators the incentive to increase the cost of existing stock, even evicting tenants.

The solution, it would seem, is to simply build more. The city's stringent regulations make it an enormous challenge, though. So in lieu of adequate housing supply, costs are rising faster than most San Franciscans can keep up with, and the staff at St. Anthony's and other homeless shelters are seeing this in their dining room lines.

Homelessness existed in San Francisco well before the first tech boom of the 1990s. The first homeless shelter in the city opened in 1983, at a time when federal funding for housing and urban development reached its lowest point. According to the director of the San Francisco branch of the Coalition for the Homeless, Jennifer Friedenbach, the lack of investment in affordable housing has been one of the key contributors to homelessness. If people can't afford to pay rent, some have no option but to go without a home.

"Homeless people are just poor people," Friedenbach says. "There's fundamentally no difference between poor people who are housed and poor people who are homeless; it's whether or not they have a housing subsidy or, for many San Franciscans, whether they're in a long-term rent-controlled apartment. That's really the only difference."



The descent into homelessness varies from person to person. For Todd, he was able to tread water for 18 months before becoming homeless. For others, it happens much faster. One of the fastest ways San Franciscans lose their homes is through eviction.

San Francisco is going through an "eviction epidemic," Gullicksen said. The Tenants Union operates a drop-in clinic for people who have problems with their landlords. Most cases that come through the Union are related to evictions. Before 2011, it saw 300 to 350 people a month. It now sees more than 600 people a month.

No-fault evictions — evictions where the tenant did nothing in violation of their lease — are up 115 percent since 2013. Seeing the demand on the rental market, landlords are trying to evict existing tenants so they can lease their units to people who are willing and able to pay more. And that's just one of the elements fueling the eviction epidemic.

Gullicksen said that the dominant reason tenants are getting evicted is because real estate speculators want to convert the rent-controlled buildings into condos that can be sold off separately. The Ellis Act — a provision in California law that allows landlords to evict tenants and sell off a building or its individual apartments — is a key way to perform such evictions. The speculators, who are interested not in rental income but in the profit they can make from selling the individual apartments, are mostly catering to affluent tech workers looking to buy property. It comes back to the lack of housing stock: if there isn't enough new housing stock on the market, buyers will look to existing stock. Seeing an opportunity for profit, real estate speculators buy up rent-controlled buildings, invoke the Ellis Act to evict the tenants, and sell off individual condos. Ellis Act evictions are up 175 percent over the last year alone.

Benito Santiago, who recently turned 64, is facing an Ellis Act eviction. The soft-spoken musician, ballroom dance instructor and, by day, special education teacher, received an eviction notice in late 2013.

As a senior and disabled person (a bike accident in 1980 left him with spinal problems), Santiago was able to get an extension on the eviction, allowing him to stay until December of this year. After that, he doesn't know what will happen.

"I was born and raised here, and I know San Francisco. I have a rhythm established. I have history."

He's already started giving away his things and boxing up what he wants to keep, just in case. In one room he keeps his drums, which are propped up against shelves of ballroom dancing DVDs and VHS tapes. There's an old karaoke machine sitting on the floor and VCRs stacked on top of each other. There are ballroom dancing books and pamphlets, notices for upcoming dance nights and competitions. There's a thick, hardcover book with photographs of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing the waltz and the foxtrot. On his coat racks there are hats — more than a dozen wide-brimmed hats in different colors.

Santiago has seen his neighborhood change. The buildings are taller, shinier. "The buildings look nice," he says. "What I question is how many people can afford to pay $4,000 for those apartments? With all due respect to people making six-figure salaries and can afford that, what happens to the people who are being displaced?

"I was born and raised here, and I know San Francisco," he says. "I have a rhythm established. I have history. I have a network here, and to think of myself out of here ..."

Santiago pauses. His eyes are sad. The special education teacher makes $1,500 a month. He pays $575 in rent. Similar apartments in his neighborhood cost almost three times what he makes.

"I keep thinking of what I can do. What can I do? How am I gonna cope [when they say] OK, this is it, you gotta get out, the sheriff's coming in to put locks on. I might be homeless. To visualize myself in that situation ... what am I going to do? It's a big question mark."

Ellis Act evictions are only the tip of the iceberg, though. The Eviction Defense Collaborative sees thousands of clients each year slapped with eviction lawsuits. The group's executive director Tyler Macmillan believes there are even more tenants being unlawfully evicted through unscrupulous practices.

"We do thousands of cases a year, but I think it pales in comparison to the darker underbelly of eviction and displacements, where landlords aren't following the rules of the formal court system and use other tools to harass tenants," he says. "And, of course, there's no great way to track that."

Then there are those who simply don't know how to respond to eviction lawsuits. According to Macmillan, of the 3,500 Unlawful Detainer Lawsuits served in San Francisco each year, only 2,000 respond. A third of the people who get sued never respond, so the sheriff is often clearing out the property within a month of the case being filed. What happens to those tenants also goes untracked.


Falling through

Statistically, homelessness is on the decline in the United States. A study by the University of Pennsylvania found that the current aging population of homeless people, many who have battled decades-long addictions to life-shortening drugs, is expected to die in the next decade. The official count in San Francisco has remained steady over the past few years. Yet, despite the homeless counts dropping, the decline isn't reflected in demand for services in San Francisco.

Down the street from St. Anthony's is Hamilton Family Center, a shelter that offers both long- and short-term accommodation for the homeless. Executive director Jeff Kositsky says there is no typical person or family that seeks Hamilton's help, and the commonalities between them are similar to those of housed San Franciscans.

"Some commonalities are they're from San Francisco, they became homeless, they have kids, and many of the people work," Kositsky said. "It's completely not what you'd expect. There's a two-parent Caucasian family in their mid-30s, both are employed, they have two kids, they lost their housing and had nowhere to go and ended up here. They're still working and trying to figure out the right housing solution for them."

Todd sought Hamilton's help when he became homeless, and it was through Hamilton that he was able to secure an apartment through the Mayor's Office housing lottery. He now lives in a heavily subsidised one-bedroom apartment deep in SoMA with his daughter. She gets the bedroom, he sleeps in the living room.

Kositsky says the four most common causes of homelessness in San Francisco are domestic violence, health-related events, loss of a job, and eviction. In any of those cases, homelessness can come quickly and unexpectedly.

Makalia "Kayla" Maye is a family case manager at Glide, a shelter several blocks from St. Anthony's that also offers meals and welfare services. The 27-year-old single mother of two, who holds a degree in criminology with a minor on forensics, became homeless last year while still working full-time at a housing clinic. She was living with her grandmother, who had raised her from birth. When her grandmother died in early 2013, a family dispute led to her and her two daughters — seven and two — being kicked out of the house. Overnight, she went from being comfortably housed in San Francisco's Western Addition to being homeless.

Finding affordable housing in San Francisco proved almost impossible. Apartments in her price range either had waiting lists of up to two years, or were so poorly maintained that they were unlivable. Everything else was well beyond what she could afford. She used some of her savings to stay in cheap hotels while she continued to look for affordable housing. When she couldn't afford the hotels any more, she stayed with friends.

"It was extremely complicated because not everyone wants to deal with a baby," she says. "[My younger daughter] was still crying at night and needing to be changed... there were times where certain people we stayed with did not want the younger daughter there because she was still little and crying and doing stuff that little kids do. So there were times I'd have to leave my older daughter with other people and take my little daughter with me."

Maye recalls sleeping in a car with her daughters on three occasions. She was often separated from one of them. The times they were able to stay together, they slept in cramped spaces, either in the corner of someone's room, or sharing someone's couch.

"How do we eat? Where are we going to stay? How do I clean our clothes? How do I make it look like we're not homeless so I don't get my kids taken away?"

Like Todd, Maye learned that being homeless isn't just about not having a home — it becomes a full-time job to survive. In the mornings, if one of her daughters was staying elsewhere, she'd have to go pick her up. If they were staying at someone's house, the two daughters would shower together. When they slept in the car, Maye used baby wipes on her younger daughter. After getting her older daughter to school and finding someone to mind her younger daughter, she'd often arrive at work late. Unable to afford childcare, she'd have to leave work early to pick up her kids. Every day she had to figure out where they would sleep, where they would eat, how they could stay clean, and what would happen to her daughters outside of school hours.

"You hear all the time about people leaving their kids in the car on accident. I did that to my younger daughter," Maye says. "Without knowing it, I could have killed her. It was only because my purse was in the back seat, and I never leave my purse in the backseat. It was only because of that I went back to my car. When I went back to my car, I found my daughter there. That's when I completely broke down.

"It was everything. Everything was so focused on how do we eat, where are we going to stay, how do we eat, where are we going to stay? How do I clean our clothes? How do I make it look like we're not homeless so I don't get my kids taken away?"

Maye was homeless in total for six months. In the sixth month, her constant lateness to work cost her her job at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. In the same month, Hamilton Family Center's First Avenues program accepted her, providing her with a rental subsidy and support through a case worker.

Maye and her daughters now live in a three-bedroom house in Vallejo, 45 minutes north of San Francisco. She commutes into the city for work each day. Finding affordable housing didn't undo the six months of homelessness her family went through, though.

"My older daughter completely understood what was happening," she says. "Even when we did get housing, it was really hard for her because she was scared it was going to be taken away. In our first month in our house, she locked herself in the bathroom and sat in the bathtub crying, crying, crying, saying she wanted to go to heaven, that she didn't want to do it any more. She was like, how do we know we won't get kicked out of here? How do we know someone won't take it from us?"

Until First Avenues, Maye described her life as being like a roller coaster that only went in one direction: down. It had all happened so suddenly and unexpectedly, too. Who would have thought a case manager would herself become homeless?

The coupling of unforeseen circumstances — loss of a job, eviction, a health crisis —with the exorbitant cost of rent in San Francisco is making it all too easy for people to fall through the cracks, and non-profits like St. Anthony's, Hamilton, and shelter programs like Compass Family Services are struggling to keep up. When Kositsky started working with non-profits providing shelters for families in the ‘90s, there were never more than 30 or 40 people on various shelter waiting lists. Today, the wait list for Hamilton alone sits above 250. Even if a person gets into a shelter, it's only a Band-aid fix. With the exception of programs like Compass Family Services' Clara House, which provides an intensive, supportive environment for families for two years, most shelters offer only temporary relief. People staying in shelters have to leave during the day. They have little to no privacy. They don't have a fixed address to use while looking for work.

Studies about family homelessness show that kids who are homeless for more than six months growing up are five times more likely to be homeless as adults and 40 percent more likely to drop out of school. One small longitudinal study showed it will take a kid who's been homeless for a long period of time 2.6 generations for his family to exit poverty.

"So by not dealing with family homelessness, we're essentially ensuring ourselves that there will be a whole new population of homeless people to take the place of the existing homeless population," Kositsky says.



The last time San Francisco went through a tech boom, the bubble burst in the late 1990s, leading to an exodus of tech workers from the city. Rent prices dropped and, while they were still high by national standards, the poor had a place to live. The current tech boom shows few signs of slowing down. The rising cost of living is now spreading to the East Bay, where tenants in Oakland and Berkeley are also feeling the effects of a more expensive San Francisco.

The narrative about the role of the tech industry isn't as simple as techies kicking out Mickey Mouse so they can live in Disneyland, though. As much as the influx of affluent tech workers has served as a catalyst for many of San Francisco's affordability issues, they have also tried, with varying degrees of success, to find the solution. The Hamilton Family Center rental subsidy that supports Todd and his daughter is the result of philanthropic efforts by Salesforce's Marc Benioff. St. Anthony's technology training center, which aims to equip the homeless with basic computing skills, is often staffed with volunteers from Zendesk and Twitter. Zendesk has even developed software to help St. Anthony's volunteers train clients more effectively.

For non-profits like St. Anthony's, sometimes it feels like the city is making progress in finding a solution to the complex problem. Then sometimes it feels like they're taking several steps back.

"I feel like we have very smart people in San Francisco, and if you have economists, developers, and low-income housing providers sit at a table and don't let them out until they come up with a solution, there has to be one," he says. "There has to be a balance between development being profitable, using vertical space and taking the right approach to affordable housing."

Instead of this dream team of economists, developers, and low income housing providers, the city's non-profits continue to fight for the poor and vulnerable. The Tenants Union is currently working on legislative and policy work to strengthen eviction protections and mitigate evictions via increased relocation benefits. It's also pushing through an anti-speculation tax to discourage real estate speculators from buying up rent-controlled properties, then evicting the tenants and selling off the units as condos. Programs like Hamilton and Compass are working with families to secure affordable, subsidized accommodation, while St. Anthony's is partnering with Mercy Housing to build 90 affordable units in the heart of the city for low-income senior citizens. But non-profits can, at best, chip away at a much bigger problem — a problem of inequality, a problem of severe wealth disparity, a problem of a system that has winners and losers.

The Mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee, set a goal for the city to build 30,000 new housing units by 2020, a third of which is for low-income residents. But the plan may not be enough, with a Civil Grand Jury report published in June 2014 saying that its outlook "tends to be gloomy," with skepticism as to whether the supply will correlate with population growth and whether it will alleviate the current affordability crisis. There is also skepticism about whether the goal will be met in time.

For many San Franciscans who have been displaced or are on the verge of losing their homes, there's pain and a sense of powerlessness.

While the obvious solution is to build more affordable housing, this idea butts against a range of San Francisco-specific problems. One is an issue of space: San Francisco is only seven miles by seven miles, and space is limited. Another is the city's development regulations, with density restrictions artificially limiting the number of units allowed in a project. Add to that the financial incentive to build luxury housing outweighing the incentive to build affordable housing, and a solution suddenly seems a lot further away.

Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless says there is no one city doing everything right for the homeless. While there are certain programs that have worked for certain groups in certain cities, like Salt Lake City and Phoenix's solutions to ending chronic homelessness, he says there are caveats. For example, Salt Lake City was able to end chronic homelessness among military veterans which, while a huge achievement, is not the same as ending homelessness.

"There will always be new people who become homeless," Stoops says. "And people are not homeless forever. So we can help people who are currently on the streets and in shelters, but then we have to make sure people don't become homeless in the first place."

For many San Franciscans who have been displaced or are on the verge of losing their homes, there's pain and a sense of powerlessness.

Santiago slumps in his seat. He often smiles because he doesn't know what else to do. He continues to attend rallies — sometimes several per week — because he knows he has to fight the spate of evictions sweeping through San Francisco. He doesn't know how he can win.

"I don't blame the tech workers," he says. "These people are going to work, and kudos to them. They're working. Everyone's working. For me, I put the spotlight on those who are pulling the strings, the puppeteers, the ones crunching out numbers to get the fast buck.

"Those numbers are actually people. We are not just numbers. We're persons. We have a history. We have roots."

For Santiago, it hurts. And even for those who have found affordable housing, the memory of being homeless doesn't go away. Maye remembers the cramped spaces she and her daughters slept in. She remembers how she often skipped meals so her daughters had enough to eat. She remembers doing everything right and still having doors slammed in her face. She remembers her daughter, crying, crying, crying.

Todd remembers the places he'd parked his car and how difficult it was to fall asleep. He'd look out the windows of his car at the construction sites. Each night, a bit more progress was made; here was a Salesforce building; that recently-cleared block of land was for the Trans-Bay Terminal; and that one there, a few blocks down, that was a particularly sweet one — its newly-installed wall of shiny windows reflecting the stars.