With apartments going for bargain prices around San Francisco in what will likely be a short-term dip in the rental market, so-called below-market-rate (BMR) housing is tied to other metrics, and renters can find better deals in the open the market right now.
Affordable housing has been one of the most central and existential issues in San Francisco politics for several decades now, but what constitutes "affordable" is actually a wide range of prices that are tied to area median income. And though the pandemic has left an army of local service-industry workers in poverty and sent some tech workers fleeing for the hills while they work remotely, average incomes in San Francisco haven't officially declined. That means that BMR housing prices haven't come down, despite the fact that rental housing in the city has seen a dip that's been estimated around 27 percent.
Anyone trying to move to San Francisco right now or just switch apartments is better off trying to find a rent-controlled unit they hope to stay in long-term — and lock in a rent during this market slump — rather than seeking out BMR units through official channels. Because as KPIX reports, some of those units in newer downtown towers that had BMR requirements when they were built are currently listed at higher rents than what's on the broader market.
This isn't how the system is supposed to work, but this is what recent college graduate Christine McDow found as she apartment-hunted from afar, with plans to move to SF this year from North Carolina.
In one case, as she tells KPIX, she found a furnished one-bedroom that was renting for a lower price than an unfurnished BMR unit.
At the Avalon on King Street in SoMa, KPIX finds that BMR tenants are paying $2,700 for studio units, but market-rate units of the same size in the same building are renting for less.
The city responded to an inquiry from the station saying that the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH) would look into the Avalon and contact the building owners about finding tenants on the city's affordable housing waitlist. "The City has rent procedures in place that ensure affordable housing is in compliance with Planning Code and other regulations that keep below market rate rents between 10 and 20% below market," the MOH said in a statement. "The DAHLIA system (the city's affordable housing portal) does not allow a building owner to solicit rents that are above market."
The discrepancy between BMR rates and the actual market has caused a lot of renters who were paying those locked-in rates to seek out cheaper and better digs elsewhere. KPIX spoke to Dave Osgood, a resident at Rincon Tower, who says he's seen many people in the building's 76 BMR units move out in the past year, having found cheaper places somewhere else in the city. And he estimates that 20 percent of the BMR units there are sitting empty — though that can't be confirmed.
A review by SFist of current listings on the city's DAHLIA portal shows just a few BMR studio units available or recently awarded via lottery that are renting well below the market of any time in the last 20 years, with income limits and prices between $900 and $1400 a month.
"Places like San Francisco are becoming cheaper but they’re by no means affordable,” says Rob Warnock, a research associate for Apartment List, which published the recent figure that SF rents are down 27 percent since last March.
But all of this is relative — as SFist has discussed before, San Francisco has been talked of as expensive place to live since the Gold Rush days. And when longtime residents here talk about a heyday of cheap rents, they are mostly referring to a time when the Mission and a few other neighborhoods were more accessible, and things were generally cheaper after the recession of the early 1990s.
And this moment of relatively cheaper rents may be looked back upon with fondness or regret by city denizens in a year or two, depending on whether or not they seized on it for a great deal. Because prices here never stay "low" for long.
Photo: Diane Bentley Raymond/Getty Images