SF Chronicle Reports on Bernal Family’s Struggle With Housing Shortage


A few weeks ago, Bernal neighbor and Bernalwood contributor Heather Hawkins sent a sad email announcing that she was having a garage sale. “As the struggle becomes too real to be worthwhile for us any longer,” she told Bernalwood, “our family is calling it quits from the City and heading for the hills (Truckee, to be exact).”

Bernal Heights is famous as a great place to raise children, in part because our neighborhood is packed with single-family homes and open spaces. Yet the median price of a single-family home in Bernal now hovers at around $1.3 million, and that’s way more than many middle-class families with kids can afford.

In this morning’s paper, reporter Heather Knight at the San Francisco Chronicle introduces Neighbor Heather Hawkins in the context of San Francisco’s ongoing housing shortage, and the toll it takes on young families:

San Francisco has no official definition of “family housing,” but Heather Hawkins knows what it isn’t.

It isn’t the little two-bedroom flat in Bernal Heights that she paid more than $4,000 a month to rent, where her baby slept in the closet of her sister’s room, and where space was so tight she knew the number of steps between every point. Seven steps from her bed to the toilet. Thirteen steps from her bed to the girls’ room.

Hawkins, her husband and girls, like so many other San Francisco families, have packed up to head for the hills — well, the mountains. Her family is renting an apartment in Truckee while they look for a house to buy. They’ll probably get twice as much space for half the price of anything they could find in San Francisco.

“It’s hard when your kid comes home and says, ‘But I love my little blue house!’ It’s this sinking feeling of, ‘This isn’t yours. This isn’t ours.’ That’s never going to happen for us in this city,” said Hawkins, a 42-year-old consultant in the health and outdoors industry whose husband works in tech. “I roll my eyes when people say it’s the techies. Nope! We’re leaving too.”

San Francisco notoriously has the smallest percentage of kids — 13.4 percent — of any city in the nation. But while San Francisco officials sweat and bicker over affordable housing, they rarely talk about family housing.

Read the whole thing at the San Francisco Chronicle.

PHOTO: Neighbor Heather preparing for her garage sale. Photo by Lea Suzuki from The Chronicle

10 thoughts on “SF Chronicle Reports on Bernal Family’s Struggle With Housing Shortage

  1. Just watched the 20/20 report by Diane Sawyer on something similar. Where do the “regular” people, the middle class, fit in all of this new economy? Makes one wonder.

    I tried living in San Francisco for 15 months, and had a great time while doing it, but could not find a job for a retired school teacher with a lifetime of marketing expertise. It is definitely a city for the young and the childless.

  2. Yep. I read that article this morning and thought, “Us too.” We’re gathering up our 2 daughters and moving this summer after 25 years. My husband and I both came here for college.

  3. Heather,
    My family has a home in Truckee and I have nothing but fond memories of the many summers and winters there. If I had to raise my two daughters again, it would be in Truckee. The schools are great. The family friendly town offers many attractions from the arts to music to outdoor activities. Your kids will love the place. You will see children playing on the street without the close supervision that you must have in the city. The high school has a good number of national merit scholars and graduates go on to prestigious institutions around the country. What a great opportunity for you and your family to get out of this place and find a real home in Truckee.
    Good luck

    • It tickles my heart to have our grand exit covered by the only San Francisco news outlet worth reading!

      And, thanks so much for the note, Craig! We are so blessed to have Truckee as an option. We spent a lot of time pre-kids in the Kings Beach, Carnelian Bay area. When I thought about where my “heart felt at peace,” the only two answers were the top of Bernal Hill and in Tahoe. The Truckee community has already been more than welcoming, and I am just really feeling the vibe of the people up here (dare I say, they have a lil’ bit o’ Bernal in them.) The only thing not quite on-tone in the article was the sentiment we had over leaving: We are ever grateful and aware that we are some of the lucky ones in that we weren’t forced out (though we lived every day knowing we were 30 days from being priced out of the flat we were living in were ever put up for sale.) It was definitely a choice, and one that I summed up in our social media announcement with: “the only way to win is not to play the game.”

      Sheila, I, too, was in SF for 24+ years (I also moved here for college.) I lived all over the city, but definitely found my “home” in the community of Bernal Heights 10 or so years ago. My time in the City was rich- I was involved in the “rave” scene way-back-when, did stand-up with Robin Williams (he told my mother I was very talented!), was a performing member of Cheer SF, active in the arts scene… my husband and I met putting on a sketch comedy show. I like to think I was a “contributor” in grand form to what made this city special over the years. I never thought I would leave (in fact, I tried in 2001. Moved to NYC and moved back a year to the day later!) I was committed to staying here and, importantly, to being a public school parent and giving back via activism in that sh*tshow of a system. But, a lot of coalesced this Fall, including the loss of my job of 6 years just 5 months after returning from maternity leave. When I looked at the job options, I knew I would have to take the biggest-baddest-highest-stress job I could find, likely at a start-up I didn’t much feel passionate about, into order to even pay rent– and forget about building up a future. With the move to Truckee, I can take a risk and start my own PR consultancy (I specialize in wellness and the outdoor industries, so operating out of this market is a selling point.) With technology, there’s nothing I can to do from the top of Bernal Hill that I can’t do from here…

      As I took an inventory, I realized the only think I valued anymore was the family we’d found in our two-square-mile patch of Bernal Heights, and the ever-awesome Park Street neighbours! (Holler to the inimitable Neighbour Dick! Don’t forget to take out our bulky item pickup!)

      Anyhow, long story short to say THANK YOU to all of you who make Bernal so special. If we could annex our corner of the city and somehow bring the cost of living into check, I’d never want to leave. But, I get it… all great things come at a premium. I have faith that Truckee is a great thing. I’m happy that my girls will get to grow up outdoors in the snow and sun, playing in the street with neighbor kids, swimming in the summer and snowball fights in the winter and all of that. My 3.5 year old got her first snow shovel today and was proud as can be that she helped mama carve our mailbox out of a snowdrift (now icedrift, is “icedrift” a thing?)

      Anyhow, take care, ye kind denizens of Bernalwood, and may our paths cross again!

  4. This could have been us too. Two kids and we are headed out. Only difference is we own our home – and still think it isn’t worth it.

  5. I know lots of people in this very situation have found a new home in Truckee, Grass Valley, etc. Ironically, the locals there might have something to say about the influx of city folks, but you’ll be in good company regardless.

    • We moved in just two days apart from our neighbour two doors down– they’re from Livermore and will still be working down there most of the week, but this is their “primary” residence. I am definitely cognizant of being the “interloper” in this situation and hope to set a good example.

      Also, our good friend Karen, former owner of Stray Bar, is newly back to Truckee, making a home for herself up here these days (she was here for a few years after leaving SF and being a bit of a global nomad.) LOTS of Bay Area folks, for sure, and important not to be seen as a nuisance.

      • That’s about all you can do. Someone ALWAYS got there first.

        And for what it’s worth, peppered amongst the depressing-but-occasional-fun old casinos, Reno actually has some cool spots popping up.

  6. SO WHAT? Go ahead and move. Don’t gripe about the housing costs. Either you can afford it or you can’t. It’s not anyone else’s fault but yours if you choose to pay big rent or a big mortgage. Nobody is forcing you to live here.

    That said, there are plenty of places in California to live where the rents are very low. I usually recommend northeastern California where you can buy a 4-bedroom home for $100k or less on half an acre of land. Fishing, hunting, hiking, horseback riding, and even some skiing nearby. Alturas, Burney, McCloud, Weed, Mt. Shasta, Westwood, Chester, etc., there are all kinds of communities.

    I’m assuming that at some point, along about 2024 or so I’ll be unable to afford to live in SF and then I’ll move off to a cheaper place as well. What’s good about people moving away is that they’ll take some of their SF culture with them and help spread it around. Portland wouldn’t be as cool as it is today if it weren’t for so many Bay Area people moving there in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

  7. For what it’s worth, promoting family housing has long been a goal in SF. SF has been increasingly requiring construction of family-size units (2 or more bedrooms) in new residential projects, often with minimum requirements for both 2 bedroom and 3+ bedroom units (varies by neighborhood and type of development). Per the 2014 Housing Plan, “Recent community planning efforts promote the construction of new housing for families by requiring that a minimum 40% of new units constructed have two-bedrooms or more.” (40%!) And, “The construction of new family housing, especially affordable family housing, was a major goal of the 2009 Housing Element. Some 1,340 units of designated affordable family housing, consisting of three or more bedrooms, were produced from 2007 to 2013. This represents roughly 30% of all affordable housing constructed in the city or 7% of total housing production during that time.” There is of course a question about who ultimately ends up living in family-size units, relatedly what can be done to promote family units instead of just family-size units, and whether there is more to family suitability than bedroom count alone, but the Chronicle article made it seem like it was something that the City hadn’t really been considering and that just isn’t the case. That’s not to say more can’t be done, but let’s not depress folks by pretending it’s been ignored. http://www.sf-planning.org/ftp/General_Plan/2014HousingElement-AllParts_ADOPTED_web.pdf

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