Living on the Flip Side of 18th Street

A sketch of 18th and Guerrero streets by Tom Stolmar.

A sketch of 18th and Guerrero streets by Tom Stolmar.

En Español.

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Most Thursday mornings at 8 a.m., after her husband has taken their daughter to school, Zsuzsanna Legradi leaves her apartment at 18th and Guerrero streets to get groceries.

Across the street, Tartine Bakery is already full of people sipping bowls of coffee and eating buttery croissants for breakfast.

Legradi, her husband, Tom Stolmar, and their 12-year-old daughter live on 18th Street, just steps away from some of the Mission’s most popular restaurants and the Bi-Rite Market, but they can’t afford any of these places.

As the neighborhood turned into a gourmet destination in the 1990s and prices of food and real estate soared, the couple lost their jobs, and now find themselves barely able to make ends meet.

Now Legradi’s family depends on free grocery handouts at the food bank.

Their story is not singular. The median household income in 61.5 percent of Mission District census areas is less than $71,304 a year — the city’s median income. The nationwide median income is $51,914, according to census documents.

For Legradi’s family, city life is distinctly different than for those with money to burn.

Shopping cart in tow, Legradi walks down 18th Street, past Farina restaurant.

It’s raining but Legradi doesn’t seem to mind; it could mean that the lines won’t be as long at the food bank.

She walks past new restaurants and shops on Valencia Street and makes her way to Arriba Juntos on Mission and 15th streets to stand in line.

In a typical month, the family now earns a little over $2,000.

In San Francisco, 11.9 percent of residents are considered below poverty level, which means they earn less than $22,113; nationwide, the percentage is 13.8.

“We live month to month,” Legradi says as she goes over February’s accounts: $2,072 in income minus $2,068 in expenses. That means that after everything is paid — including $1,400 a month for rent — the family is left with only $4.

It wasn’t always like this.

Stolmar, 50, is a trained carpenter, and Legradi, 44, is a cook-turned-gardener. They both held regular jobs until 2008. Then the loans stopped coming in at the construction company they both worked for and the owner had to let them go.

They were both contractors and didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits, so they relied on savings.

Map by Molly Roy

Stolmar had been working on a novel for several years when he lost his job. He decided to use his free time to finish it while also looking for a job. But their savings dwindled and after a while he couldn’t focus on writing anymore.

Getting a new job became crucial, but it wasn’t easy.

Although he takes on repair jobs here and there, Stolmar is still barely employed. When he does work, it’s a reminder of his own situation: in construction, you work amid money, Stolmar said. “You build [houses] and you’re at good at it, but you could never buy one.”

Nevertheless, he’s used his skills to make their rented apartment better, by sanding and varnishing the wooden floors, painting the walls and renovating the bathroom.

For her part, Legradi has started a gardening business and developed a steady network of clients. It doesn’t pay enough, but they’ve managed to keep their two-bedroom apartment so far.

The couple, who have been together for 21 years, moved into their 18th Street apartment in 1997. They had roommates at the time and shared the $1,200-a-month rent that rent control has kept to $1,400 a month. Recently, a similar apartment in the building rented for $3,500.

They’ve learned to pick up odd jobs here and there to make ends meet.

Legradi bakes cookies for weekend bake sales, when the weather allows.

“They call us the other Tartine,” Stolmar jokes, explaining that they set up across the street from the popular bakery.

Legradi and Stolmar also pick up used furniture left on the street.

“He fixes the furniture, I make cookies and Sophie sells,” Legradi says, referring to her daughter, Sophia.

She usually lets her daughter invite a friend and she gives them a little bit of money instead of an allowance. Whatever else they make goes toward rent.

With the bake sales, the gardening and the odd jobs, they’ve been able to keep going.

The third week of the month is the most stressful, because that’s when they wonder if all the payments they’re waiting on will come in time to make the rent. After paying rent in February, they had $4 left in the bank.

The family found that food was the easiest expense to cut, Legradi says as she stands in line at the food bank on a recent Thursday.

Even with a short line, people still try to cut in to make sure they get food.

Indeed, while we wait, two people walk up to Legradi and try to tell people behind her that they’re together.

She smiles and tells the people in line no, the man isn’t her husband and she doesn’t know the woman either. She’s polite but firm. She’s waited two hours in line on some visits only to discover that no food remained.

This time, in a little under one hour she’s made her way to tables full of produce and dry goods.

She opens her reusable shopping bag as volunteers hand her three stalks of broccoli, a restaurant-size can of peaches, six cans of diced tomatoes, 12 potatoes, a flat of lemon yogurt and two loaves of Acme bread.

Zsuzsanna Legradi pulls a shopping cart full of free groceries on a recent Thursday.

She most looks forward to the bread because she knows her family likes it.

“It’s a little stale, but I found that if you slice it and freeze it, then toast it before you eat it, it tastes good,” she says.

The volunteer hands her one stalk of celery and asks if she wants a second one. She politely says no because she doesn’t want it to go to waste.

Legradi is one of approximately 1,000 people who receive free food from the food bank each week.

She’s originally from a suburb of Budapest, Hungary. She went to culinary school and learned how to cook traditional Hungarian dishes.

She’s now learned to cook with ingredients she gets at the food bank — things like hot and sour soup and egg rolls with cabbage and carrots.

Sometimes she’s able to get oatmeal and flour. She has used these ingredients to make cookies for the bake sales.

The food she gets at the food bank represents about a fourth of her family’s monthly food bill.

Five years ago, she applied for food stamps but was told that her household income was too high.

According to CalFresh, the program that hands out food stamps in San Francisco, the maximum income for a family of three to qualify is $2,008 per month or $24,096 per year. Although her family made less than that in March, Legradi says that because their income fluctuates, she doesn’t think they would qualify.

At first she worried about people seeing her at the food bank, but she’d rather save money than care about what people might think. Stolmar doesn’t like to come, and that sometimes makes her mad.

Once Legradi’s bags are full, she walks to Julian Avenue, where some people have chosen to leave behind groceries they don’t want — celery stalks and containers of yogurt lie on the ground for anyone to pick up. After they get the food, people often trade items right outside Juntos Arriba, she says.

The rain has stopped and Legradi says she’s glad her husband is working right now, even if it’s only for a short while. The rain has slowed her own work.

“If Tom wasn’t working right now, I’d be very anxious,” she says.

Legradi knows exactly how much is in her bank account at all times. Right now, a few days away from the middle of the month, there’s $99.

24 Comments

  1. Thank God (and tenant activists) for Rent Control! No way these folks would be able to still be here without it.

  2. Excellent piece, Hélène! An important topic (wonderfully covered) that, sadly, seems to get ignored.

  3. curious

    Interesting article, but it makes me wonder why people continue to struggle to live in a city that is clearly unaffordable for them? $1,300 for a 2br is really pricey compared to some other cities. They could move and use the rent money saved to provide a better life for their daughter….

    • Jeremy

      Move? Really? Where exactly do you think they should move to? And how are they going to get there? In the car that they don’t have? Are they going to replace thery $1300 a month apartment for an $800 one, + $300 a month for a car payment, + $100 for insurance, and $50 per gas tank?

      Read this and get back to me on moving:
      http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/17/AR2009051702053.html

      • Neighbor

        You’re right. They’ve gotten accustomed to sucking off the teat off welfare and food kitchens in SF. Where else are they going to find such services to help support them?

      • Edgy

        I just read the entire article, thanks for positing the link.

      • jim

        Don’t know, but millions upon millions of people have faced even worse financial outlooks than these folks (some were even literally starving) and they found the gumption to pick up and move to a whole new country where a different language was spoken — just to find new/more opportunity to make a life for themselves!

        I’m referring, of course, to immigrants to the USA.

        Immigrants rarely agonize that its too expensive to move to the USA. They just do it.

      • marco

        San Francisco is pretty much the most expensive place to live in the entire country. Many people move just across the bay. In fact, an article in SFBG the other day talks about Oakland being the next big destination, and with rents at 30-50% of SF rents, why not? If you’re not working anyway, why pay the sky high rents? And moving to Oakland you could rent a U-haul for probably $75.

    • Kathleen

      Where will they even get first and last months rent let alone the cleaning deposit. Living in an area with lower rent doesn’t mean it will also be a safer place to live or have better schooling for their daughter. They will also lose the little cliente that they have now that provides work for them to live on presently. They seem to be trying to be creative to survive and I hope job with benefits comes up for them.

  4. Edgy

    Thank you so much for writing this article, It really says a lot. Not everyone can earn the median average income, does this really mean they shouldn’t be able to live in a wonderful city too? Diversity in San Francisco is fast becoming a vacuum. So sad.

    • Neighbor

      There is not nearly enough housing for everyone who wants to live in SF. The right of anyone to live in SF is in direct conflict with the laws of supply and demand.

    • jim

      I disagree with this comment. Diversity may be fading fast in hipper and more trendy areas (like the Mission) but diversity is alive and well in cheaper, less trendy areas like the sunset – a neighborhood I know well as I live here.

      I see plenty of folks in my hood put 3 generations of family members under one small roof – just to economize. And just to be clear – in many of these families, all three generations are working jobs and they can clearly afford MUCH bigger housing/cars/etc …. they just choose not to and to live well below their means.

      The issue with the people outlined in the article is that their income, sadly, shrank, and now they need to find a way to live within their means. They are currently not living within their means. I’m not willing to subsidize their currently lifestyle (living above their means) through increased taxes.

  5. matt

    the sad story here is that the construction business collapsed more than any other. i hope with the turn around they may be able to get back into their profession.

  6. JS

    Thanks so much for covering this issue. It’s an important reality check – one that is rarely covered in other local media.
    This is a great focus on housing issues in the Mission. While the city’s Planning Commission is approving so many condos, luxury high-rises, and the new CPMC deal, more affordable housing is needed in every neighborhood – not just in the Mission.

  7. Teacher

    EVERETT MIDDLE SCHOOL on Church st. Between 17th and 16th host the San Francisco Food Bank every Friday year around from 2pm-4pm or when they run out.

  8. Slug

    Does it make sense to build “affordable housing” in a neighborhood where people can’t afford the groceries? I’m all for affordable housing, but it seems like it would be better for everyone if it is in an affordable neighborhood. It’s unfortunate that they are being priced out of their neighborhood, but there’s no stopping change. We so often rejoice in the “economic revitalization” of a neighborhood, and then complain that everything is too expensive. What is the solution? Use tax dollars to subsidize a Safeway?

    • Girl on the Hill

      Yes. It is close to the parks and churches. Better than creating poor ghettos where there are no jobs, public transportation or services.

  9. Joyce

    I live by the park and have seen their bake sales. I am fortunate not to be in a precarious life position (for now). Do not presume to judge the less fortunate; they are doing the best they can, and are as decent as anyone, and none of us knows what life will throw us. Reformat your hard drive if you find yourself unhealthily cynical, small-hearted, unchristian (not meant in the religious sense; i am agnostic). Less snark, more heart = a great city.

  10. Girl on the Hill

    Income is not guaranteed, whether you are a carpenter or a Corporate worker. My husband and I were laid-off in the same week at the last dotcom crash. It was 3 years before we had health insurance or regular income again. We lived in San Jose (no rent control) our landlord doubled our rent. We couch surfed, and lived with different friends. It was anything but easy.

    Be grateful for what you have, make hay when the sun is shining and save, save, save. You never know when it might happen to you.

    I wish them well, and hope fortune smiles on them soon.

  11. Where in the world is the love, sheesh!

    What a great piece and it goes to show that people in the Mission are hurting. It’s about thinking about your fellow human being who is not eating $100 of food at Farina, hoping in their BMW and sleeping in their $3500 or more apartment in the Mission. Families, just people find a way to survive and no one should judge them; I call those who judge wannabe eltist in training.

    I wish this family and many other people and families well, that not everything is rosy in the Mission. For those who judge don’t you never know when you are going to be on the other side. Their was once a another boom that went down hill in the city:dot.com. Judge now and you may be eating those words with a slice of humble pie later.

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