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How San Francisco ended up with the nation’s richest renters

A pedestrian walks by a "for rent" sign posted in front of an apartment building on June 02, 2021 in San Francisco. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

San Francisco is home to some of the highest rents in the country. But SF renters pay relatively less out of their paychecks to live in the priciest market in the U.S.

More San Franciscans pay below 20% of their household income on rent than any other major city in the nation, according to a new analysis of census data by The Standard. 

This counterintuitive finding speaks to how extreme the city's high property values have become, keeping home ownership out of reach for even high-earning residents, who would undoubtedly buy property in almost any other market in the country. The result: San Francisco has the nation’s richest renters.

SF renters pay dearly for their apartments; the median rent in the city was $2,167 in 2021. That was higher than any other American city with more than 500,000 residents, except for San Jose, according to recently-released data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

But high earners in San Francisco end up paying out a relatively small portion of their paycheck to their landlord. The median household income of renters in SF was more than $98,000 last year. That’s nearly double the median income of renters in New York City.

“Americans love home ownership, so as soon as people reach the middle class they tend to try and buy a home,” Joe Fish, a researcher at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, wrote in an email. “This means that at any given point in a metro, renters tend to be a lot poorer than homeowners because the rich renters usually stop renting.”

But the ladder to climb from high-earning renter to homeowner has become so steep in San Francisco that many residents aren’t taking that final step towards the classic American dream.

It’s well-known that eye-popping prices are the norm in San Francisco’s real estate market. Coming in at $1.3 million, SF had, by far, the highest median value of owner-occupied housing units in 2021. San Jose was the only other city that came close.

Nearly 75% of the owner-occupied units in the city are valued at $1 million or more in SF. Compare that with 60% of those units worth $1 million in San Jose, and in very distant third place, 33% in Seattle.

Housing researchers commonly look at a city’s ratio of median house price to median household income as an indicator of housing affordability, Professor Ayse Pamuk, director of San Francisco State University’s Applied Housing Research Initiative, explained in an email. Any value over three means the city’s housing stock is not affordable to the average worker. 

San Francisco’s value is 10.7.

Even if someone is able to scrape together enough money to put down money on one of these premium properties, they’ll be shelling out staggering sums for decades. The median monthly cost for housing unit owners who still owe on their mortgage is $3,964, which is the highest in the nation. 

Priced out of ownership, many San Franciscans resort to renting. That, combined with the city’s relatively high percentage of rent-controlled apartments, explains why so many residents pay smaller chunks of their paychecks to rent compared to other American cities.

However, about 42% of occupied rental units in SF have occupants who pay more than 30% of their income towards rent. That means that nearly half of residents in the city are burdened with what housing researchers consider to be unaffordable rent, Pamuk explained.

More than a third of city residents live with an annual household income under $75,000. So while we are home to the nation’s richest renters, we’re also home to many scraping by in a real estate market that’s grown incredibly expensive.

Matthew Crane contributed additional research for this story.
Noah Baustin can be reached at