Some Bay Area workers commute for hours for the sake of affordable rent
on December 13, 2016
Cindy Wood spends her weeknights in a vacant apartment at the Pacifica Senior Living facility in Oakland Heights, a long commute away from her husband and children in Santa Rosa.
She works as the executive director of the gated senior living community, and recently had to move into an apartment on the property after being hospitalized for diverticulosis, a condition that develops when small pouches form within the wall of the colon. Before the move, she was commuting more than three hours a day through Bay Area traffic to get to work in Oakland.
“I was actually septic and almost died,” she said. “It’s affected my health and so it was decided at that time I would come down and stay on site rather than do the commute every day.” She lives on the property Monday through Friday, and travels home each weekend.
Wood’s doctors attributed the amount of time she spent sitting in a car to her extreme medical condition. She had been driving an hour and a half in the morning, and two and a half hours on the way home.
The issue of affordable housing has plagued low-wage in the Bay Area for years. The cost of living in the Bay Area has been a consistent issue for over a decade—especially in San Francisco and Oakland.
So far, for many the only solution has been to settle for longer commutes to find cheaper rent— longer commutes like the one Wood made before moving into the vacant apartment.
Wood and her husband have only been married a couple years. Wood said she was reluctant to take a job so far from home, but couldn’t find anything closer that paid as well.
“I have to be away from my husband and home. So it’s taken a big toll. But for us, we decided as a couple that for now this is what we need to do to get us where we ultimately want to be,” Wood said. “It’s just one of those things.”
The Bay Area’s rapidly increasing housing prices are a direct result of steady job growth in the post-recession economy. But many of the new job opportunities are for college-educated workers at major technology companies. Although the new jobs are bringing new housing to the area, much of it is too expensive for anyone not earning top salaries.
A 2015 report called the Bay Area Regional Prosperity Plan—a program that was formed through a $5 million grant issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development—showed low-wage workers are commuting longer distances than those working the newly introduced high-paying jobs.
The prosperity plan was formed to help the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission address housing concerns for low-wage workers, provide affordable housing near public transportation, and mitigate displacement risks in vulnerable neighborhoods.
The highest employment rates found in the Bay Area are in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. The report breaks workers into three tiers of income—those earning less than $1,250 a month, those earning between $1,250 and $3,333 a month, and those making more than $3,333 a month.
By comparing workers’ average monthly income to regional average monthly rent from 2011 to 2013, the report found that when the number of highest-paying jobs increase within a region, the lowest-paid workers began traveling further distances to work in all three cities.
According to the United States Census Bureau, San Francisco saw impressive growth in lower-paying jobs from 2010 to 2013. However, the supply of housing that a lower-wage worker could afford went down.
Job growth for high-paid workers leads to job growth for low-paid workers, who are rarely the central focus of economic and housing development planning. As a result, affordable housing has not kept up with the high-wage job boom in the area.
Philip Blasingame lives in Concord but spends more than two hours a day commuting on BART to and from work in San Francisco. He works as a caregiver at Homecare Assistance near where he used to live in the city. But a few months ago, not long after getting the job, the cost to live there became too much.
“I did originally live in San Francisco. The rent that I had to pay was about $800,” Blasingame said. “It was just destroying my wallet.”
He didn’t immediately adjust to the amount of time commuting was taking away from his personal life, but ultimately he enjoyed his job too much to let it go. He also prefers the higher wage that he receives working in San Francisco.
Blasingame says he has grown to appreciate his commute and the amount of time he now has to himself as he walks to the BART each morning. “Nowadays, it’s more of a positive thing,” he said. “I enjoy the commute, I enjoy the walking.”
Experts say communities benefit when people work and live in the same city. People have more time after work to spend with their families or exercise, and will often eat healthier when they have more time to pack a lunch or prepare a meal at the end of the day.
Longer commutes don’t only affect workers’ personal life. The daily travel also can extend the standard eight-hour work day.
Cody Shubin works as the internet director for a Nissan dealership in Oakland, and commutes over two hours a day from Livermore. He would prefer living closer to work but wants to keep his rent more affordable. He hasn’t tried to find work closer to Livermore, he said, because he isn’t willing to let his current position go. “I like Oakland, and I like the people I work with here—that’s why I make the commute,” he said.
Shubin hasn’t experienced severe physical consequences caused by his long commute, but it has affected his energy levels. He wakes up, goes through his morning routine and leaves home every morning around 8 a.m. ready for the workday. But his hour and a half commute leaves his energy on the road.
“When I drive over here, it’s like I just got out of bed again,” he said.
Shubin travels back to Livermore after rush hour traffic at 9 p.m. each night, which shortens his commute home to 45 minutes but extends his workday to over 10 hours.
“That’s at least two hours that is wasted out of your day that could be used to spend time with your family,” he said. “Essentially, it extends your work time. So if you work for 8 hours a day it feels like 10 hours a day.”
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