Rylan Schaeffer

Kernel Papers

9 January 2022

Bay Area housing is f***ed in more ways than you might think

by Rylan Schaeffer

TLDNR: Everyone knows housing in the Bay Area is unaffordable. This is the story of how I learned PhD students are too poor to qualify for low-income housing assistance.

Before starting my PhD, I was starting to stress out about where should I live. The Bay Area is infamous for its usurious rent prices; to give you a sense of scale, the Bay Area’s median income is $113k and my PhD salary is $44k pretax, so probably around the 15th percentile. I didn’t want to lose what little income I had to rent, so I had three choices:

  1. A cardboard box (or maybe a tent) along 280.
  2. On campus, subsidized dorms, paying just under half my income to the university.
  3. Moving back in with my parents, at age 28; my mom lovingly joked that there was room in the lawnmower shed.

I figured there had to be a better option, and when I started looking, I discovered several cities up and down the Peninsula offer “Below Market Rate” (BMR) housing, designed to help low income people afford to buy a place in the Bay. This was perfect! Instead of losing money to rent, I could build equity in my own property. I applied, went through ~10 hours of BMR-required training, before I was able to meet one-on-one with my assigned personal advisor, Ana. After about 5 minutes of looking at my application (paystubs, W2s, etc.), Ana said to me, “I’m sorry, but you don’t qualify.”

“Could you clarify?” I asked. “I thought one had to be below the median income in order to qualify, and I most definitely am. Did I misunderstand?”

“No no no,” Ana said, “You make too little. BMR housing is for people that are around 60-90% of median, and you’re too far below that.”

She could tell by my silence that I was struggling to internalize what she had just said. Before I could respond, she spoke up again with a suggestion: “I’m sure you could qualify if you made just a bit more! Do you have a way to make an extra $10k or $15k a year?”

After my incredulity faded, I started looking into alternative income streams that I could do part-time during my PhD. I explored/tried several ideas, including sperm donation, male escorting and online tutoring (which turns out to be far less lucrative than advertised) before giving up.

A month later, Ana called back to check on whether I had successfully found a BMR property. I reminded her that she told me I was too low income to qualify; she said she was sure I was mistaken, and suggested we look at properties together. After a half hour of searching together, she agreed with my assessment and said it was highly unlikely I’d ever find anything.

Setting my own situation aside, this experience was a stark lesson that the Bay’s social safety programs can be structured in a way that excludes those who need help the most.

tags: housing