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The Cost of Living

Read about our public panel discussion on the cost of living on Jan. 26

Consumer Prices Outpace Efforts to Aid City’s Pinched Middle Class

In the drive to build a robust technology-driven local economy, San Francisco has attracted droves of high-income earners, giving it a larger share of wealthy residents than any other U.S. city. That is making living here increasingly unaffordable for everyone else. Studies suggest that more than 10 percent of residents who would be middle class anywhere else should be considered poor here.

Housing accounts for about half the growth in what consumers across the Bay Area spent over the last 15 years, and there is ample evidence showing that the housing crunch is most acute within city limits.

San Francisco leaders are tackling the affordability crisis, but existing and emerging policies just prune the edges of the problem.

The city has made costly investments, including Healthy San Francisco, perhaps the nation’s most comprehensive municipal health-care safety net. It also plans to offer low- and moderate-income residents subsidies beyond the Affordable Care Act.

San Franciscans enjoy cheaper transportation overall, since car ownership is optional. But a $2.25 one-way Muni fare is no bargain for low-income residents if slow service limits job and shopping opportunities.

The city and state offer help to reduce the price of Internet service (including a plan for free citywide Wi-Fi); low-cost child care; and nutrition assistance on top of food stamps.

But many policies, including cost-of-living adjustments for wages, welfare guarantees and low-cost housing, are based on national or regionwide inflation statistics that do not reflect the city’s economic reality.

San Franciscans not sheltered by rent control, subsidized housing or other protections are at risk of losing their homes. To increase the housing supply, in October of 2015 the city announced a plan to house 500 schoolteachers by 2020. The mayor’s ambitious $310 million bond issue that voters passed this fall promises to build 775 units.

Yet the need is often pegged in tens of thousands of affordable apartments, so these modest efforts are unlikely to affect housing prices anytime soon.

Stories published online Jan. 21, 2016


How Bay Area consumer prices changed from 2011 to 2015


Housing 18%

Food & Beverages 13%


Transportation -1%


Medical Care 12%


Education & Communication 8%

1. High Housing Prices Undercut Aid Programs

In four years, costs for Bay Area residences dwarfed other expenses

Illustration by Anna Vignet / SF Public Press

2. How San Francisco Plans to Shield Residents From Runaway Prices

San Francisco offers many programs; activists call for more

Graphics by Tom Guffey and Eric Lawson. Illustrations by Anna Vignet / SF Public Press / SF Public Press

3. You’re Not Crazy: Data Show Housing Saps Our Checkbooks

In the Bay Area, spending on housing has grown at twice the national rate

Photo by Stell Sladikin / SF Public Press

4. San Francisco to Expand Health Insurance Support

Covers families not poor enough for free clinic-based care

Photo by Dayvon Dunaway / SF Public Press

5. State Subsidies Lag Behind Local Child-Care Costs

Outdated poverty measure means some no longer qualify

Photo by Stella Sladikin / SF Public Press

6. Well-Off Foodies, Bargain-Hunters, Cruise Different Aisles

Mid-Market stores are worlds apart, a sign of rapid change

Photo by Stella Sladikin  / SF Public Press

7. Hidden Costs of Affordable S.F. Public Transit

Riding the bus is cheaper than driving, but only if Muni arrives on time

Photo by Monica Jensen / SF Public Press

8. In the Heart of Tech, a Persistent Digital Divide

One proposal to bridge the digital divide: offer free citywide Wi-Fi

  Photo by Sara Bloomberg / Public Press

9. A Tale of Two Markets

Mid-Market stores are worlds apart, a sign of rapid change


Local and state governments, among other institutions, rely on economic indicators that are often outdated, and use average prices from across the Bay Area — glossing over the distinct spike in the cost of housing in the city. In our research, we found that city leaders are struggling to formulate policies to rescue longtime residents from the effects of surging costs, which are reflected in price increases across a wide array of goods and services.

REPORTING: Angela Woodall, Tatiana Dzekon, Caroline Cakebread, Sophie Murguia, Peter Snarr, Dayvon Dunaway

EDITING: Laura Impellizzeri, Michael Winter, Michael Stoll

DATA GRAPHICS: Amanda Hickman, Tom Guffey, Eric Lawson

PHOTO: Dayvon Dunaway, Tearsa Joy Hammock, Peter Snarr, Stella Sadikin


ONLINE: John Angelico, Eric Lawson, Meka Boyle

SPECIAL THANKS: Todd Johnson, Bureau of Labor Statistics