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Even well-paid union workers can’t afford SF housing, advocates say

Just 7% of local union workers can afford market-rate housing in San Francisco, according to an October study from three local housing nonprofits. The report found renting and homeownership to be mostly out of reach for surveyed local union members, with just under 5% able to afford monthly payments for a median-priced home in San Francisco. 

The report, which was based on surveys with 50,000 local union members from 13 local unions, was prepared by housing groups Council of Community Housing Organizations, San Francisco Labor Council and Jobs With Justice. Leaders from the organizations presented their findings to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee on Monday.

The findings point to a gap between jobs and housing affordability in San Francisco that remains insurmountable for many workers, despite a drop in rents during the COVID pandemic. Nearly half of the union workers surveyed live outside of the city and commute to work from across the Bay Area. 

“Middle-class jobs are not leading to a middle-class lifestyle because most wages go to housing in our city," said Conny Ford, campaign director for housing nonprofit SF Clout, part of the San Francisco Labor Council. 

The report is grounded in interviews with local workers, including firefighters, EMTs and transportation, security and health care workers. Among the groups surveyed, only registered nurses could afford the median rental rate in the city. Among every other worker group surveyed, even the top 75% of earners would not be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment. 

A UCSF employee, dressed in scrubs, walks through the UCSF campus courtyard, underneath Hearst Tower Housing, where many UCSF medical students and staff reside, on November 8, 2021. | Photo by Camille Cohen

The new data comes on the heels of a more comprehensive 2019 report from the city which found that job growth was vastly outpacing housing development. It found that over the prior decade, the city built nearly 25,000 units of new housing, most of which was suitable for high-income renters: By 2018, the city had met 96% of its 2022 RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Assessment) goal for new high-income housing but just 39% of its low-income housing goal and 15% of its moderate-income housing goal. 

Under RHNA, a state mandate for local housing production, San Francisco is required to build about 82,000 new housing units suitable for varying income levels by 2031. That includes 2,000 new affordable housing units each year, and would require the city to triple its spending on housing, according to the 2019 report. 

John Doherty, financial secretary of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 6—a union representing local electrical workers—said while electricians fall on the high end of the earning scale, most housing in the city remains inaccessible. 

"We do earn a fair living,” Doherty said at Monday’s meeting. “But what this report shows is that even at the living wage we have, which is at the high end ... this just shows how difficult it is in San Francisco to keep that core mixture of people.”

A bicyclist rides past 888 7th Street, a current Below Market Rate (BMR) listing, on November 8, 2021. | Photo by Camille Cohen

Also included in the report are recommendations to protect low- and moderate-income renters through targeted eviction bans or rent relief in response to crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. In the longer term, the report urges government investment in affordable housing, including establishing investment funds and focusing on preserving public land for affordable housing. 

The report also encouraged bolstering homeownership by establishing more below market-rate (BMR) homes that are government-subsidized. But BMRs aren’t a silver bullet for everyone, notably families who need units with multiple bedrooms. 

“The type of housing that folks would really like isn’t really available,” said Peter Cohen, co-director of The Council of Community Housing Organizations. “We have to get serious about either requiring or incentivizing two- and three-bedroom larger units so we can encourage that family growth.”

Supervisor Dean Preston, who represents District 5, said that he supports helping to fund nonprofits to buy affordable housing to prevent displacement. 

“These are very moving stories of everyday San Franciscans who really need help from all levels of government seeing a future in this city that they helped create,” Preston said.