Supervisor Gordon Mar talks at a press conference describing the dissonance between job pay and low and middle-income housing availability. Photo by Will Jarrett. Taken Oct. 29, 2021.

Only a fraction of certain union workers can afford to live in the city without working more than one job, according to a new report sponsored by the Council of Community Housing Organizations, San Francisco Labor Council, and Jobs with Justice.

The report investigates how jobs and housing “fit” together. Roughly 50,000 trade and union workers volunteered wage data for the study, which the UC Berkeley Labor Center analyzed and compared to local housing prices. 

The report spanned industries from nursing to airport staff, and found that only 7 percent of those employees could afford market-rate rent.  According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, anyone who pays more than 30 percent of income on rent is “housing cost-burdened.”

“We can’t afford to live here,” said John Doherty, the business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 6. 

More than 40 percent of workers don’t live in San Francisco, which the report’s authors say reflects “the prohibitive costs of market housing.”

Even with “respectable” electrician wages, Doherty said, he struggles. At a Friday press conference in the union hall, Doherty estimated that 73 percent of their members qualify for below market rate units.

That issue pushes locals to relocate, as he did, said Doherty. He grew up in San Francisco and completed his apprenticeship here.

Ultimately he could not afford to stay in the city and has ended up “locked behind a steering wheel for a couple hours a day, like many of our members,” he said. That, he added, was the same struggle faced by sanitation workers, teachers, homecare workers, and other middle-income union industries.

The “job fit” dissonance, the report stated, can be chalked up to San Francisco’s exorbitant rents. According to the rental listing website Zumper, market-rate rents for a one- or two-bedroom apartment can cost as much as $3,300 to $4,300 per month. To avoid paying more than 30 percent of income on rent, an individual employee must earn $132,000 a year.

Meanwhile, the median 2020 employee wage in this report was far less than that: $67,000.

That causes some workers to take extreme measures. One couple at Friday’s press conference lives in Sacramento and rises at 2:30 a.m. each morning for the husband’s 4 a.m. shift in San Francisco. While he toils away in the morning, the wife, a housekeeper, sleeps in the car until her shift starts at 8 a.m. When the husband clocks out mid-day, he knocks out in the car until 4 p.m when his wife finishes her cleaning job and the pair head home. 

“If people are spending more time in their cars than with their families, that is a problem,” said Kim Tavaglione,  executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council who also spoke at  the press conference.

Though the study is new, it tracks with recent trends of a housing shortage. A San Francisco October 2019 Budget and Legislative Analyst Report revealed that “job growth far outpaced housing production” between 2010 and 2018. At the time, about nine new jobs were listed for every new unit of housing produced.

From 2016 to 2018, the city added about 27,500 new low- and moderate-wage jobs, while only slightly less than 3,000 affordable housing units were produced.

On Friday, supervisors Myrna Melgar, Gordon Mar, and Connie Chan joined housing and labor advocates to demand more affordable housing for low and middle-income workers. 

“What we fail to produce is that middle income housing. We need to do it to keep our workers here, and to keep our communities stable,” Melgar said. 

Melgar declared the city needed to “innovate” and find avenues besides the federal low-income housing tax credit program that funds a majority of affordable housing and “sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t work.” 

Some are at our fingertips, she argued, point to cooperative housing like St. Francis Square that houses International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union members, and utilizing local dollars from sources like Proposition I to fund affordable housing. 

They echoed the report’s proposed solutions, which included co-ops, subsidies for home-ownership, increasing numbers of below market-rate housing in mixed-income developments, and bolstering revenue for nonprofit housing.


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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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  1. We need more housing and lots of it. Meanwhile the Board of Supervisors is blocking major housing developments with affordable units located close to public transportation

  2. market rate housing of today is affordable housing of tomorrow. Build more THROUGHOUT the city and these issues will be addressed. People need to live in the communities in which they work.

  3. IBEW Local 6 electricians make $80 per hour. Foreman $90 per hour. General Foreman $100 per hour. The only person I know who was able to afford tickets to that first Giants-Dodgers NLCS game is an IBEW Local 6 General Foreman. I completely agree with everything that’s being said here about housing failing to accommodate low- and middle-income workers, but it’s quite a stretch to call Local 6 electricians “middle-income.”

    1. Take into account that they have no expense account, paid mileage, paid parking, transportation,etc and also have NO “paid” holidays, NO “paid” sick days and NO “paid” vacation, so if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. So work missed during the pandemic meant in many cases “NO INCOME”. I am a retired RICH (as you would say) UNION ELECTRICIAN and one time I got into a rather heated discussion with a “salesman” about this topic and after we factored in all the “paid” benefits I listed above, he admitted to me that “you guys don’t make near as much as I thought”. I also told him that some years you don’t get a full years work. Things like rain can cut off your income or just plain old work slowdowns. Finally add to the scenario that we have 5 years of apprenticeship (at a graduated pay rate) and go to school through the entire time…….all of a sudden things start to average out …plus it’s damned hard work…and final, final, when you hire Union Electricians, you get the BEST OF THE BEST…..our motto “RIGHT THE 1ST TIME” next time you have to get an operation, go hire the cheapest surgeon you can find…..let me know how that works for you

  4. and yet these dolts on the BOS are rejecting housing projects left and right. Did we not learn anything during the pandemic? When supply outweighed demand, rents went way down. When the supply of housing (you can call it luxury or market rate all you want) goes up, it will bring the cost down. Its Economics 101, our local politicians should be forced to take it.

  5. Yes! The SF Chron and Heather Knight appear to be embracing the absolutely the wrong ideas and principles about this and must be powerfully refuted. Sometimes I wonder if the SF Chronicle is only read by rich people who don’t have kids. So they are absolutely untouched by how hard it is economically to make a place for yourself in SF if your income is “normal.” Thank you for this article and keep up the good work.

    1. Since Teresa seems to be alone here, I just wanted to say I think she is absolutely right. Some think this is simply a market-logic situation in which more housing equals lower prices. That ignores that we got into this unbalanced market somehow in spite of market pressures. If we keep building to the point of living like ants in an anthill, the quality of life in SF will be diminished. The only fair solution is to concentrate further building on affordable units so SF can be better than a city for the rich. The BOS has made some effort to do that, and is right for doing so.