If you can’t afford at least $1,000 in rent, then it may be difficult to find anywhere to live in San Francisco — even just a room. The average market rate per room on new leases has now gone well above $1,000 per month. Spots in shared-living situations with rent-controlled leases that make prices lower are few and coveted. And even some privately run single-room-occupancies (SRO), often a last resort before homelessness, are now charging $1,000 in rent for a room that doesn’t even have its own bathroom or kitchen.
Bedrooms for under $1,000 a month can still be found on the fringes of some less popular neighborhoods or with students near San Francisco State. But the only way to get a spot in one of the city’s trendier neighborhoods for that price is to convince a master tenant with a rent-controlled lease to let you move in. For these spots, applicants compete against dozens or, in some cases, hundreds of other candidates.
Getting selected to sublet a room in a shared-living situation depends on the whims of the leaseholders. Applicants send tailored cover letters, fight to win attention at open houses, and attempt to impress potential housemates during one-on-one interviews. The whole thing is a subjective process with little protection against prejudices like ageism, sexism or racism. If the master tenant doesn’t like you, you won’t get picked.
To beat the competition and get a hotly coveted room, applicants are trying anything they can. Some advertise themselves on Craigslist as great roommates. Others send LinkedIn and Facebook profiles. Francesco Mursia made a video introducing himself and describing his favorite pastimes. He is not getting many responses.
Mursia thinks part of the problem is his age. Many of the other applicants are 20-somethings in a period of transition. Mursia is 39. He would like to live alone, but with his budget ($1,000/month) that’s not possible in San Francisco. He’s been looking for a room since September. He checks Craigslist every day, sends out emails and goes to open houses. During this process, he said, “You ask yourself, why don’t I stand out?”
Even expensive rooms are highly contested. Eun-Joung Lee lives in a three-bedroom on the border between the Mission and Noe Valley. She recently put a room on Craigslist for $1,500 a month. That may sound like a lot, but according to Tracy Ballard from the Bay Area Rental Advisors, the average asking rate for a three-bedroom in San Francisco is around $5,000/month.
So, $1,500 for a room in a hot neighborhood isn’t that bad. Lee got 20 responses to her post, which suggests she could have probably priced the room even higher.
The standard financial advice is to not spend more than a third of your income on rent. For a $1,500 a month room you would need to earn $54,000 a year after taxes. Lexie Scanlon barely makes half that as an hourly employee. She says she cannot find anywhere affordable in the city to live, so she is considering an SRO.
Scanlon has lived in an SRO before. It was not a pleasant arrangement. The place had bedbugs, she said, but at least it was affordable — only $185 a week. She recently called to inquire about a room at the same place, and the price had gone up to $225 a week. But, $900 a month is too much to pay for those conditions, she said.
Scanlon has seen a few shared-living situations she can afford — mostly student houses or apartments that advertise themselves as “tech houses.” These places post on Craigslist as group living arrangements for people with startup ambitions. One such post was titled “the good life 2.0.”
Another reads: “We all went to top schools and work at the companies you read about.” Scanlon doesn’t fit that profile. She is 42 years old, transgender and a veteran. She works in the city and wants to know why there isn’t a place for her here.
Brian Harrigan is on the other side of the equation. He is on the lease of an iconic four-bedroom Victorian in the Lower Haight. He could probably rent the rooms out for as much as $1,500 each, but he doesn’t want to be greedy. At the same time, he said, “If I was to rent it out at like $500 I would have hundreds of emails. You would get everyone applying for it, and it wouldn’t be manageable.”
Harrigan recently had a room open up in the apartment and he decided to put it up at $1,000 — about double the rent-controlled rate and $500 below what he could have charged. Even with the inflated price, he received about 50 applications for the one room. The odds of getting selected from that pool are worse than obtaining undergraduate admission at Harvard.
Getting an affordable room has not always been so cutthroat. Twenty years ago, John Hattori paid $70 a month to rent on Valencia Street in the Mission. Today he lives in a rent-controlled apartment, which he can afford as a video artist and substitute teacher. “The type of people that moved when I moved here are very different people, and that’s an unfortunate thing. You can’t experiment with your life in the same way that we were able to,” he said.
That old San Francisco, he said, is long gone.