Here’s What You Make As a ‘Low-Income Earner’ in San Francisco

And in order to live what’s considered a “middle class” lifestyle in SF, you’d need to pull in around $300,000 a year — an amount that hasn’t changed since 2021.

Without my rent-controlled, 280-square-foot apartment — an approachable $1,250 monthly debt — in Nob Hil, I couldn’t afford my demure, minimalistic lifestyle in San Francisco. (Before my moving into my newest place, which was only procured through some sort of divine kismet, I lived in a 160-square-foot SRO in the TenderNob).

I feel incredibly fortunate to have found such an affordable, rent-controlled domicile inside one of the world’s most costly metros; as of publishing, my current rent sits nearly $1,000 less than the median price for a similar-sized apartment in San Francisco, per Rent Cafe. Though the rental market has cooled substantially since the woefully warm trends seen in late 2021 and early 2022, the cost of living continues to surpass what a growing number of people can comfortably afford.

Since 2000, rent burdens have risen dramatically in the region and statewide. Almost half of Bay Area renters are rent-burdened, meaning they spend at least half of their monthly income on housing — a far cry from the 25% many finance experts believe you should spend on housing. A gallon of gas now regularly sits at above $5.10 in the SF Bay Area. Groceries increased, on average, by 10% last year. And this has all occurred in tandem with massive tech layoffs and a general retreat in the work sector amid concerns of a recession.

Comparatively speaking, I’ve now entered my thirtieth year of life with a fair amount of vocational cache. I’m the editor-in-chief and founder of this darling online publication that’s coming up on eight months old. I have long-standing relationships with freelance clients; I’ve proven myself to be quite the avid dog walker; I can shuttle food to and from corners of the city on my single-speed bicycle. I can make things work. I can fill in the gaps.

My annual income standing is quasi-stable in San Francisco — a city where I’m described as a “low-income earner” and fall into poverty metrics. Why? Because I make less than $82,000 a year. (By contrast: I’d be happily considered an above-average earner in Irving, Texas… the city where I was born over three decades ago.)

Among my career cohort, I’m fortunate (and exceptionally grateful) to make my living as a freelance storyteller. A traditional office setting is as alien to me as heterosexual normalcy.

However, it’s not for a second lost on me how precarious my financial certitude is in San Francisco. The weight of my ability to continue occupying my residence in San Francisco, essentially, rests on a City ordinance passed in 1979.

Positive happenstance played a part in my current reality. But life has a habit of pulling the rug out from any one of us when we least expect it. For some of us renters — a population that makes up over 62% of the city’s residents — that sudden shift comes in the form of an Elis Eviction.

And with $300,000 nowadays considered the minimum salary needed to live a contentful, conventional middle-class existence in San Francisco, it’s impossible to overlook the city’s bleak livability standards.

San Francisco was a 30,000-acre slice of Northern California once synonymous with bohemian lifestyles and the arts not too long ago. There’s not a single artist orbiting any one of my social circles who doesn’t have some semblance of a financially necessary side hustle. (Those who, however, are able to make a sizable chunk of their income through their expressed creativity don’t make anywhere near that described six-figure salary. They cut corners elsewhere in their lives, revising their aspirations in a quilt work of daydreams)

Authentic creative expressions exist outside the realm of profitability. By proxy, so does San Francisco’s authenticity. Though the city will only grow more of a stranger to itself as wage gaps widen.

After canvassing readers and crunching the numbers, S.F.-based finance expert Sam Dogen, who runs the famous finance blog Financial Samurai, found $300,000 is the salary needed to secure a middle-class lifestyle in San Francisco. That same salary, too, was found applicable to holding a similar way of living in other favored high-cost-of-living (HCL) areas New York and Seattle; other HCL cities like Denver, Boston, and Miami require salaries north of $200,000 to maintain a middle-class existence, per his index.

Dogen was clear in his assessment that the middle-class parameters he used in figuring out these needed salaries weren’t obscene nor unfamiliar. They’re familiar metrics that so many of us have cast aside… just to make it by.

“[A middle-class existence] is not an extravagant lifestyle,” Dogen previously told SF Gate when discussing his viral blog post published in 2021, which was updated earlier this year to reflect our current state of inflation and general economic unease; the $300,000 figure remains unchanged. “It’s a middle-class lifestyle if you consider a middle-class person should be able to afford a modest home, have at least one car, and have a kid or two. There are no private jets in this budget.”

That modest house in his estimates includes three bedrooms and two bathrooms; such a domicile would cost north of $1.5 million in San Francisco and require buckets of TLC. One may not need a vehicle to get around SF — but setting aside about $100 a month for a Muni clipper pass would be a must, never mind a budget for hailed rideshares (which can easily eclipse $15 per ride in San Francisco).

Children? In this economy? Unless you have $2,450 burning a hole in your wallet at the end of every month, forget about it. (But, TBH: It’s probably for the best to stop ushering in new human life amid the climate crisis.)

Per Dogen’s estimates, a family of three in San Francisco could well still be living paycheck-to-paycheck on a $300,000 salary from the breadwinner — without ever putting aside funds toward any retirement plans.

That’s not living. That’s not even existing. That’s just barbarism masquerading as hustle culture.

“We’re in this perpetual grind in San Francisco, and it’s a city for people who are willing to hustle,” he added to the digital news outlet. “At one point in the past, $300,000 was a lot of money. Now at this amount, you’ll probably always end up working a long time and having a constant struggle to keep up.”

I’ve been finding it increasingly demoralizing as of late to find solace in San Francisco’s trajectory. This city is my home, my touchstone; I can’t imagine seeing out the rest of my days on this mortal coil elsewhere. But fits of pandemic-born optimism that promised elements of modern San Francisco life would change for the better have all but flickered and faded — snuffed out by the realities around us.

Filthy sidewalks and failures to house the unsheltered among us and privileged, greedy, absentminded neonativism perforating City Hall taint the San Francisco I can still see silver linings inside.

Like the human feces that greeted me when I left my previous apartment building on Larkin Street, San Francisco’s failures around livability make life around the seven-by-seven exude a pungent aroma. Everything in SF has begun to taste ashen, dissolved of life-supporting sustenance. It doesn’t help either that it’s usually served on $10 toast and sipped through $6 lattes.

I bemoan, yes. That’s not to say I’m any closer to putting what few things I have in the back of a U-Haul. No, I’m not leaving San Francisco. I never will.

It’s just now, more than ever, a question as to how I can coexist in a city where some dreams must surrender to the realities around them.

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