Homeless in the Bay Area

The weather is turning chilly.  While most of us were enjoying a surfeit of food with friends and family indoors last week, the Bay Area’s homeless were struggling to stay warm.  I’ve lived in this city for over 30 years, and the only other time I can think of when homelessness was this visible occurred during the mid-1990’s, before the dot com bust. Then, like now, the city was doing well.

It’s easy to avert our gaze from the tent encampments that gather under the freeways and along certain streets. Meanwhile, home prices are at record levels. Surely we can do better.

SPUR is a leading urban planning organization focused on Bay Area development and government. In its September issue of The Urbanist (available here),  SPUR breaks down the demographics of homelessness by county and provides background on its causes. It also offers some policy directions, if not solutions.  Here are some takeaways from the article.

It should not come as a surprise that the most urban of counties, San Francisco, has the highest homelessness rate at about 0.85%.  With SF’s population currently estimated at around 870,000, that puts the number of homeless at about 7,400 individuals.  I found it surprising, however, that the homeless rate in San Francisco has not gotten worse in recent years — if anything it’s improved slightly.

Third-Largest Homeless Rate in the Country

Still, that should be of little comfort.  As the next chart shows, San Francisco’s homeless rate is the third-worst in the country.  It ranks only behind Washington DC and Boston.  New York is in fourth place.

As the SPUR article puts it, this chart is “the smoking gun.” It reveals that nearly 60% of SF’s homeless population is “unsheltered”  — far in excess of any other city or county covered on the chart.  That’s well over 4,000 people living “in a place that is not designed as a sleeping accommodation for human beings.”

Why the disparity between East and West Coast cities?  The article suggests that East Coast cities have adopted strategies that emphasize shelters as a low-cost, temporary solution. In some cases, like New York, the cities force people to go to shelters, as opposed to allowing them to choose to sleep in public spaces.  In fact, New York state law requires the city and state to provide shelter beds to all New Yorkers who are homeless by ‘reason of physical, mental, or social dysfunction.’

What have we done on this coast?  Here’s SPUR’s analysis: “By making ‘real housing’ with wraparound social services the only acceptable solution, without having enough money to actually scale up that solution, Bay Area cities, especially San Francisco, have created the conditions in which thousands of people are living on the streets.”  I’d add that we would not tolerate this condition if we were stepping over corpses:  it’s the relatively mild weather that allows us to take an “all or nothing” approach.

Who are the Homeless?

While alcohol and drug use is certainly a significant cause of homelessness, it is by no means the predominant one.  In San Francisco especially, a lost job, an eviction, or even an argument with a friend or family member can leave you living on the street.  Nearly half are under age 24 when they first experience homelessness.

The majority of our homeless are from the region, not from other parts of the country.  While, like other cities, San Francisco may act as a “magnet” for the homeless, 69% of San Francisco’s homeless became so in this county, and 55% have lived here for more than 10 years.

Towards Solutions.

The SPUR article concludes that “Permanent supportive housing using a “housing first” approach (offering housing without any preconditions like addressing substance abuse or unemployment) produces the best outcomes.” At the same time, it is “too expensive…to be the only solution.”  Other suggested measures seem self-evident:  offer more emergency shelters and try to prevent homelessness before it starts. Since the author points out that taking a “real housing or no housing”  approach has contributed mightily to the number of homeless living without any form shelter, presumably, we should be concentrating on emergency shelters.  At least, that’s my conclusion.


The most comprehensive list of organizations dedicated to homelessness that I’ve been able to find is at The Homeless Shelter Directory. This is a national database of resources and services dedicated to the homeless.  Those in San Francisco and other Bay Area counties are listed here

Surprisingly, it’s been difficult to find a list of resources focused on San Francisco alone.  SF Homeless Project maintains a list but it’s not very user-friendly.  What’s more, it appears that the site has not been updated for almost a year.

San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing is the city’s administrative response to the problem.  The site mostly provides links to specific programs run by the city, but there are also links to news and research. In fact you can find some of the annual homeless counts for San Francisco that SPUR likely used in its research here.


At Paragon, our Community Fund regularly donates to local causes including shelters.In past years, my family and I have volunteered to prepare food and clothing bags at Glide Memorial Church through programs sponsored by Temple EmanuEl, and we will do so again this year. But I plan to do more. In a city as rich as San Francisco, surely we can do a better job taking care of the less fortunate among us.

As always, your questions, comments and referrals are much appreciated.


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Winter: The Best Time of Year — for Buyers

I wanted to entitle this newsletter “Winter is Coming,” but decided that comparing buyers to the Dead Walkers might not go down well.  Besides, it’s buyers that have been getting the short end of the, um, spear for years now.  Prices really took off in 2012; with inventory relentlessly low (see my previous newsletter, it’s been a seller’s market ever since.

But everything slows down in winter.  There’s (even) less inventory, and buyers — being human — batten down the hatches from approximately Thanksgiving through early February.  Who wants to be out house-hunting when the weather’s turned cold and dreary? Besides, everyone is either preparing for or recovering from the Holidays.

Meanwhile, sellers, also human, do the same.  They reduce the price on homes that are already on the market; withdraw unsold homes; or hold off listing their homes till the Spring (see the three charts below).

You might think that if there are fewer buyers chasing fewer listings, nothing much would happen to prices. But in fact buyers seem to come out noticeably better. That’s reflected both in lower “premiums” above list price overall and in a lower percentage of homes selling over final list price (see the two charts below).

Let’s be clear: these are averages.  If you’re hunting for the perfect home that checks all the boxes, you will probably find yourself with plenty of competition.  That’s especially true for single family homes, which are a shrinking part of the market. But, overall, there’s just less activity — and that tends to be good for buyers.

So, buyers, here’s some advice: Bundle up, hope for lots of rain, and keep looking! Winter is your friend!

And, for those of you who have gotten this far, a competition!  First person to email me  the location of the picture at the start of this newsletter gets a nice bottle of wine.

Enjoy these Indian Summer days and don’t hesitate to contact me if if you have questions about the market or comments about this newsletter!

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Here’s What’s Really Sustaining the San Francisco Real Estate Market

As I was getting ready to send out yet another newsletter showing further year over year gains in home prices(see first two charts below for single family homes and condos, respectively), I took a closer look at a chart that focuses on the supply side of the supply/demand equation.

August Median Sales Price

August Median Sales Price

“New Listings Coming On the Market”  is the simplest indicator of how many homes are being put up for sale in any given time period.  Take a look at the chart below, which tracks new listings (homes, condos, etc.) on a rolling 12 month basis. 

Continue reading

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Online Resources for Just About Anything You Want to Know about San Francisco Real Estate

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Let’s Talk about Taxes

First, a big thank you to everyone who responded to my RealDataSF Poll about how to make this newsletter better.  This month’s topic is a direct result of your input, as information about tax-related topics was among the top 3 subjects my readers wanted me to cover in addition to market news (the other two were investing in and renovating property).

Some other quick results: Continue reading

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The Cost of a Hot Economy in California: A Severe Housing Crisis

Today’s NY Times talks about the California housing affordability crisis and how the state is considering legislation to make it harder for opponents of developments to create roadblocks to projects that otherwise fit within a locality’s zoning laws. There’s finally a movement of “YMBY’s” That are saying “yes” to greater density – which is really the main issue – because they understand that sprawl is the enemy of the environment in so many ways. In San Francisco, that’s resulting in projects that, for example, don’t require parking for each unit – a recognition that younger buyers are abandoning cars in favor of car-sharing and public transport. Continue reading

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It’s Official: San Francisco Housing Market Reignites

In last month’s newsletter, I said that initial signs pointed to a newly robust Spring housing market after evidence that prices had flattened somewhat — especially for condominiums — in 2016. The data gathered through May confirms that conclusion.

The median house sales price jumped to $1,500,000, its highest point ever, about $100,000 (7%) above its previous monthly peak. The SF median condo sales price also hit a new peak at $1,200,000, $20,000 (1.7%) above its previous high. Continue reading

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Meet The Expert – ‘Everything You Wanted to Know About Buying a Home in San Francisco’

JUNE 08, 2017

(*But were afraid to ask!)


Join Misha Weidman, J.D., Broker Associate and Attorney at Paragon Real Estate Group, for a lively and informative discussion about the essentials of buying a home in San Francisco. Here are just some of the questions he will address: Continue reading

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Spring Has Sprung Once Again in San Francisco’s Housing Market.

Between 2012 and 2015, the median price of a single family home in San Francisco increase by around 70% as we came out of the Great Financial Crisis. Condominium prices increased by around 55% during the same period.

San Francisco Home Price Appreciation

It’s not surprising, then, that the market took a breather and leveled off a bit during 2016. However, along with the return of warmer, dryer weather, buyers seem to be returning to the market in droves, and there is simply not enough inventory to meet demand. While it’s still a little too early to tell, our data suggests that things are heating up again. Continue reading

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How Does San Francisco Compare to Other Bay Area Markets?

Bay Area County Map

While we wait for the rain to stop and for the market to give some sign of its direction this spring, let’s take a look at what’s going on around us.

We’ll start with a look at single family homes.  I was surprised to see San Mateo running neck-and-neck with SF, and ahead of Santa Clara, Marin, and LaMorinda/Diablo Valley (Diablo).  I suspect that’s both because ritzy communities like Atherton and Hillsborough bring up the median values and because there are relatively few low-priced neighborhoods.  Continue reading

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