SAN FRANCISCO — Coastal California slipped out of reach of all but the well-to-do in the ’90s as demand pushed house prices up and the poor and middle-income out. The problem was that households boomed, by 10.8 percent, but housing didn’t, growing only 9.2 percent, recent U.S. Census data show. At the same time, healthier seniors hung on to their homes, more people lived alone and immigrants entered the housing market.
The result is a state where the coast is the preserve of those with the most, and the squeeze is on all over, defying demographers who had predicted a slack housing market as relatively smaller Generation X began buying homes from the Baby Boom set.
“We have this enormous housing crisis,” said Doug Shoemaker, policy and program director for the National Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California.
Vacancy rates plunged over the last decade. Only 3.7 percent of all rental units were vacant, compared to 5.9 percent in 1990. Looking at homes, the rate dropped from 2 percent to 1.4 percent.
Some of those who couldn’t pony up for mega-mortgages doubled up instead. Average household size grew from 2.79 to 2.87 and the number of households including relatives outside the immediate family grew by 37 percent, from 2.08 million in 1990 to 2.85 million in 2000.
The number of traditional families — a married couple with children under 18 — also grew, by 12.6 percent statewide.
Not along the coast, though. Thirteen of the 15 counties strung along California’s 900-or-so miles of Pacific splendor came in below the 12.6 rate, some well below. The remotely beautiful far northern coastal counties of Humboldt, Mendocino and Del Norte, for instance, showed a decrease in those types of families.
In San Francisco, where $524,000 was the median house price in February, only 12.2 percent of its households consisted of traditional families, the lowest rate for a county in the state.
The ’90s was the decade where many realized the American dream of home ownership meant giving up living anywhere close to the California dream of surf and sand.
“Families have gone inland,” said John Landis, professor of city and regional planning at the University of California.
It was basically all about money.
“Ten years ago, a middle income family with one wage earner could probably find an owner-occupied house probably within five miles of the (San Francisco) Bay or the coast,” Landis said.
With a regional median house price of $394,000, houses here now take two good incomes or one great one.
The same phenomenon occurred in landlocked Silicon Valley, although there the trend came courtesy of a new wave of technology jobs. Median house prices in Santa Clara County passed the half-million mark in 2000. “I can’t afford to live here. I’m not a dot.com millionaire,” said Michael Roberriques, who moved four years ago to the Central California community of Los Banos. Roberriques now commutes 2 hours, 15 minutes each way to his job in San Jose. On the other hand, he paid $125,000 for the small single-family home he was looking for.
In Corte Madera, a small city in ultra-expensive Marin County just north of San Francisco, only three members of the 20-member fire department live in the county. Not the city, the county. The pay’s good, around $60,000, but it doesn’t come close to covering the mortgage in a town where the median house price is $600,000.
Marin County, home to the rich and famous such as director George Lucas, isn’t typical, but it faces the same obstacles to building more housing as the rest of the state — environmental regulations limiting development, builders going for high-end, more profitable houses, and a tax system that encourages cities to go after retail developments, such as big-box discount stores that produce taxable sales.
Charles Rynerson, a demographer with the San Diego Association of Governments, looked at the reshuffling of California’s population and found an interesting trend: Population was falling in established neighborhoods of single-family homes and rising in areas where there were more apartments and condos.
“It was as if the households that were built for families were being occupied by singles and couples and the housing that was built for singles and couples was being occupied by families,” he said.
Even formerly affordable places, like Oakland on the San Francisco Bay, climbed into the high-price bracket.
“It’s really pretty challenging,” says Oakland elementary school teacher Charles Wilson, who’d like to live in the city where he teaches but has been renting in San Francisco.
Wilson and his partner make around $90,000 together, a good income but one that is quickly dwarfed by a market where the median house price is more than $200,000.
“The irony is that anywhere else in the country we’re actually upper class. We’re pushing the six-figure income for two people. Here it’s not,” he said.
There was one surprising number among the flurry of census statistics.
The ratio of homeownership to renters increased slightly in California, with 56.9 percent of homes owner-occupied in 2000, compared to 55.6 percent in 1990. However, that was much lower than the national average of about 67 percent and experts said the uptick could be due to a number of people in the 20-35 age group – potential renters – moving out of state.
In their place, new homebuyers emerged in California, including immigrants and single parents, many of whom used new, low-down-payment loans and other programs to get into the market. Some buyers were coming up with new strategies, such as immigrants buying houses together and young people squeezing in extra roommates.
“All of a sudden what’s beginning to take place is you have an influx of people coming in with families utilizing ... housing stock more effectively,” said Greg Schmid, director of the 10-year forecast project for the Menlo Park-based Institute for the Future.
For people on the bottom of the economic ladder, plunging vacancy rates mean grim measures.
In San Jose, people are renting garages, said Shoemaker of the nonprofit housing association. He’s seen classic Victorian three-bedroom apartments in San Francisco “and there’s a family in each bedroom.”
Long-distance commuter Roberriques looks at the real estate listings in quiet disbelief. His father bought a house in Santa Clara, near San Jose, for $54,000 in 1971. It’s now worth about $700,000. “That is literally outrageous when you consider that in other parts of the country $700,000 would buy you 10,000 acres of land,” he said. “It’s just outrageous. There’s no rational explanation that I can see.”