Squeezed Out: Housing prices gut dream for Jewish middle class

It was naptime, but 20-month-old Rose was wide awake.

“Rosie, are you eating the Play-Doh?” asked her father, Zachary Bernstein. “Please don’t eat the Play-Doh.”

It was a normal weekday afternoon for Bernstein. He was home with his two kids, Rose and 4-year-old Samuel, while his wife, Ashley, was at her job as a physical therapist at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco. As Samuel slept in the next room and Rose wandered through the cozy, toy-filled living room, Bernstein, 36, described how their family of four makes life work in their modest one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco’s Excelsior District.

on the cover: Zachary and Ashley Bernstein with Rose and Samuel. photo/andy jeung

“We’ve gone vertical; we’ve got really tall bookshelves,” he said. “And as soon as somebody has a baby, we give them stuff we’re not using. We went to Ikea, and looked online, for things that can be multiple-purpose. The bench on the side of the table is really a big drawer. There’s a bunch of toys in there, but also the kids sit on it while we eat.”

When Bernstein, a writer and a teacher, moved into this apartment in 2006, he didn’t have to be nearly so strategic about organizing the space. He was living on his own, enrolled in a graduate program in writing at the California College of the Arts. After Ashley joined him (the couple, who met as students at the University of Michigan, married in 2008), they stayed in the apartment and embraced city life, exploring different neighborhoods and traveling to wine country on the weekends.

But when Samuel and then Rose came along, life became more difficult — and more crowded.

Bernstein left his job as a teacher at the JCCSF’s Helen Diller Family Preschool to stay home when Samuel was born because, he said, his salary would have barely covered the cost of child care. The family primarily gets by on Ashley’s income, although Zachary earns a small amount teaching religious school at a San Francisco synagogue. They save money by staying in their $1,400-a-month apartment and sending Samuel to a co-op preschool. But they put away little savings, and at this point, they feel priced out of the city. They’re planning to move back to their native Michigan within the year.

The Bernsteins are not poor. In fact, they are solidly middle-class, together earning close to $110,000 a year. That’s slightly above the median income for a family of four in San Francisco, which was $101,900 in 2015, according to the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (in the U.S. overall, the median income for a family of four was $83,613 in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).

And yet, like many other middle-class families, they feel they’re being squeezed out by the exploding cost of living in the Bay Area, especially San Francisco.

“A family bringing in $100,000 and living in a one-bedroom apartment and being just above a paycheck-to-paycheck [existence] is insane to me,” Bernstein said. “San Francisco’s starting to become another life, and it’s a life that we’re not leading.”

It’s long been expensive to live in San Francisco, but the most recent tech boom has caused home prices and rents to careen out of control. The median sale price of a home in San Francisco was $1.25 million in 2015, up from $760,000 in 2012 and $895,000 at the peak of the last boom in 2007, according to data collected by the Paragon Real Estate Group. Prices are even higher in Silicon Valley, and Berkeley has seen its median home price top $1 million.

Zachary and Ashley Bernstein with Samuel and Rose in Michigan last year.

The escalating prices reflect the surge of people who have flooded the Bay Area, growth that has not been accompanied by a proportional increase in housing. Between 2010 and 2014, San Francisco’s population increased by about 47,000 people, according to the U.S. Census, but housing units increased by only about 7,000, according to the San Francisco Planning Department.

“The big elephant in the room is housing,” said Rita Clancy, director of adult services for Jewish Family & Community Services of the East Bay. “I think it’s killing the middle class here.”

The Jewish community has programs that offer financial assistance for those in need, and increasingly that need is driven by the high cost of housing, according to Jewish professionals in the field.

However, the resources available generally are put toward emergency assistance for those in crises, often seniors. Middle-class Jewish families who are otherwise stable but struggle to afford housing don’t have a clear place to turn for help within the Jewish agencies. And in most cases, they aren’t looking for it in the first place.

“There’s probably even more of a stigma for them to pick up the phone and call us, to call and reach out for help,” Clancy said.

Residents, business leaders and politicians argue endlessly about how to create more affordable housing (End rent control! Get rid of Airbnb! Simplify the permit process! Remove building height limits!). But at the dawn of 2016 there is little practical relief in sight for middle-class families who must balance high housing prices with other considerable costs such as child care and, for many, student loan payments.

And that’s how two parents with a good income and graduate degrees find themselves sharing a bedroom with their two young children.

“Right now, our student loan payments are a little more than rent,” Bernstein said. “One more room would make a difference, just one more door. But a two-bedroom, even with one bath, is going to double our rent.”

Many Jewish programs aimed at assisting local families focus on subsidizing Jewish educational experiences: the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, for instance, provides financial aid for Jewish preschool, day school and summer camp. Other programs offer crucial emergency assistance; Shalom Bayit, for example, assists Jewish victims of domestic violence.

But such resources are not aimed at middle-class Jewish families struggling with the cost of housing.

“We are seeing people leave the San Francisco Bay Area for areas that are more affordable,” said Nancy Masters, associate executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services covering San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma counties. Masters said her agency is available to counsel any family through a challenging situation, though financial support is reserved for emergency situations. “It’s always helpful to have resources to help you think through a plan and to address these kinds of challenges, and we definitely want to be able to retain the diversity of our Jewish community.”

The phone has been ringing off the hook recently for Project Ezra, JFCS East Bay’s emergency financial assistance program, Clancy said. The program offers one-time financial assistance — such as paying rent or a medical bill — for community members in crisis. But the budget is small and the demand is great, especially from older residents struggling to afford housing, Clancy said. As of the first week of February, the program had already gone through most of its monthly budget. Clancy worries that potential donors don’t realize how much need there still is, even with the recession over.

The problem is pressing, Masters agreed. “I think the high cost of housing in all of our counties makes it increasingly challenging for people to find affordable housing and stay in affordable housing,” she said. “I think this is a time of great need.”

The “great need” is evidence of a difficult truth: While a booming economy has brought prosperity to the Bay Area, it has also created large wealth disparities. Some have seen their incomes grow and horizons expand, while others struggle with basic expenses. Left in the middle, and sometimes left behind, are those middle-class families who often wonder if there is still a place for them in the Bay Area.

Dave Plotkin and Liora Kahn with their children, Zev and Autumn, last Passover.

When Liora Kahn moved to San Francisco in 1993 at the age of 24, she saw the city as a bohemian paradise, a home for artists and activists. She took dance classes in the Mission District and performed in the city’s annual Carnaval parade. On Saturdays, when the weather was nice, her Mission neighbors would keep their windows open and salsa music would serenade the streets. She paid $281 in rent for her portion of a three-bedroom apartment that she shared with three other women. It was located two blocks from the intersection of Mission Street and Cesar Chavez Street.

“I really loved the Latino culture,” said Kahn, now 46, who has traveled extensively in Latin America. “I frequented all of the places.”

The city has changed a lot in the nearly 23 years she has lived in San Francisco, Kahn reflected on a recent Tuesday night as she sat in her Bernal Heights living room after putting her children, ages 5 and 3, to bed.

Kahn and her husband, Dave Plotkin, moved into their cozy $3,000-a-month rental home five years ago, shortly after their son, Zev, was born. Toys are tucked here and there, and the couple’s ketubah hangs on one wall. There’s a bedroom for the parents and one for the kids; outside is a yard and deck where they construct a sukkah every fall. The house even has an extra room downstairs that functions as a flexible office, play space and guest room. The family is settled here. It’s the home where they’re raising their children.

But they learned just last month that they will soon have to leave. Their landlord, a family man who grew up in the home and raised his daughter there, sent them a letter announcing that he planned to sell the house.

With rents as high as they are, the family will likely need to leave the city and pull Zev out of the public charter school where he is flourishing as a kindergartner.

“We’re in limbo,” Kahn said. “I have no idea what the next phase of our life is going to look like. I feel really powerless. We work really hard, and we’re really working hard to serve our community, and I feel like there’s no place for us.”

Kahn is deeply rooted in the local community. More than a decade ago, she was one of the founding members of Mission Minyan, a lay-led Jewish group that draws large crowds to its weekly Shabbat services in the Mission’s Women’s Building. She’s the director of volunteer services at the San Francisco SPCA, and used to work at Community Boards, a nonprofit conflict resolution and mediation center in San Francisco. Her husband is an electrician, and together, they earn nearly $160,000 a year.

That sounds like it should be enough, but between rent, day care and student loan payments, they are stretched. When they move, they would like to find a three-bedroom home, and they are willing to increase their rental budget to $3,500 a month, though Kahn said she doesn’t know where the extra $500 would come from. Even at that rate, Kahn said they’re priced out of San Francisco and have limited options in the East Bay.

Ilana Greenblatt and her fiancé moved in with her mom, Kate, to save for a house.

San Francisco is no longer her bohemian paradise.

“I feel like the city has moved on, and I’m just a relic,” she said. “I’m part of some other way that it used to be; I’m not really represented anymore.”

Still, Kahn says she feels tied to the Bay Area, particularly the friendships she has made here. Many people have offered their support and have volunteered to talk to her about different school districts since she let people know what was happening. It’s hard for her not to notice, though, that some friends are in different circumstances, having accumulated wealth and bought property. Kahn said she feels envious sometimes, but believes that’s her problem to deal with.

“I really don’t want to be the kind of person that has a hang-up about that kind of stuff. That’s not how I want to be in the world,” she said. “There are really great, wonderful people that have more money than me, and there are really great, wonderful people that have less money than me.”

The Bay Area offers fantastic opportunities for business entrepreneurs, app developers and others in high-paying fields that benefit from the wealth brought in by the tech boom. But life has become increasingly unaffordable for those in public service, such as teachers, nurses, nonprofit workers and Jewish communal professionals.

As a JCC preschool teacher for nearly five years, Bernstein said he would have been eligible for a 50 percent discount in tuition for his kids had he stayed in his job. That’s a steep discount, but because preschool costs so much, even the discounted rate would have consumed most of his income, he said.

Increasingly, public officials have taken note: Santa Clara has subsidized housing for teachers, and San Francisco recently announced a plan to build 100 units of below-market teacher housing. But those are measures that will benefit only a lucky few, leaving others to come up with creative solutions in order to achieve the middle-class dream.

Ilana Greenblatt, 35, and her fiancé, Kurt Becker, are in the midst of one such solution: Living in her mother’s home for one year — rent free! — which will allow them to save the money they need to buy a home.

Greenblatt, a speech pathologist for the Mt. Diablo Unified School District in Contra Costa County, and Becker got engaged last spring. A few months later, her mother invited them to move into the Martinez home in which she grew up.

“We both thought it was a really great opportunity,” Greenblatt said. “I was more worried about what it would be like for him. While he gets along with my family, living with them is a completely different situation. I have to say, I have been so pleasantly surprised by the way he and my mom have gotten to know each other and get along.”

Though Greenblatt and Becker both work full time, they say it’s only by living rent free that they are on track to save the money they’ll need; they intend to look for a home in Martinez or Benicia in the range of $600,000 to $700,000. Greenblatt has some money from an inheritance that she can put toward a down payment, but before they moved in with her mom, owning a house seemed out of their reach, especially since they plan to start a family soon after they marry this summer.

Greenblatt’s mother has had sticker shock seeing the way prices have shot up in her neighborhood since she bought her home in the late 1980s.

“She always talks about when she and my dad [now deceased] moved from San Francisco to the East Bay that they had an opportunity to buy a house in the hills of Lafayette,” Greenblatt said. “It was $90,000, and they said, ‘I can’t imagine spending that much on a home.’ ”

Those homes now sell for more than $2 million, Greenblatt said.

Greenblatt and Becker are disciplined and organized in their savings plan; they’re actually ahead of schedule and are on track to start looking at homes. They have certainly benefited from the advantage of having supportive family locally, which will make it possible for them to buy a home on a combined income of about $130,000. Still, it surprises Greenblatt how hard it is to make it work on their salaries.

“It absolutely floors me that having a combined income over $100,000 isn’t enough to get you into a home in this area,” she said.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.