Despite a booming economy, pleasant climate and natural treasures, nearly two-thirds of Bay Area residents say the quality of life here has gotten worse in the last five years, according to a new poll.
They cite a litany of reasons: high housing prices, traffic jams, the cost of living and homelessness. It’s so bad that about 44 percent say they are likely to move out of the Bay Area in the next few years, with 6 percent saying they have definite plans to leave this year.
The poll, conducted for this news organization and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, reflects the paradox of Bay Area life — how does a thriving job center with world-class universities and culture stir such dissatisfaction and misery in its people?
Home prices have risen at a record pace since early 2012. Commutes have grown longer and congestion has become worse as workers move farther away for affordable housing.
“It’s a mix of hopelessness and understanding,” said Clint Caldwell, 26, a recruiter at a San Francisco tech firm who grew up in the Bay Area and rents a home in Menlo Park with his wife and three children. “That’s the bargain you have to make living in the Bay Area.”
The dissatisfaction spreads across political parties and county lines, according to the poll of 1,568 registered voters in five counties. Just 7 percent of respondents said life has gotten better here in the past five years, and 23 percent said it’s stayed about the same.
Two-in-three renters sensed a decline in quality of life. And 64 percent of homeowners said things had gotten worse, despite massive and historic gains in property values and personal wealth since 2012.
San Francisco residents showed the most displeasure, with 72 percent saying life in the Bay Area has soured in recent years. Pessimism spread across ethnic groups, with black voters most often reporting a drop in the quality of life.
More than 7 in 10 respondents cited the high cost of housing and living, traffic congestion and homelessness as the region’s top problems.
“The Bay Area has tremendous challenges that we must address,” said Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino. “We should absolutely celebrate our strengths, but not working at our weaknesses will come at our own peril.”
About two-thirds of blue collar workers said they were likely to leave the region, far more than white collar professionals (43 percent) and service workers (44 percent). And more than half of the Latino residents and 7 in 10 black residents polled said they planned to move in the next few years.
Louise Compton, a mental health professional living in Clayton, said she and her husband expect to move after they retire. “I really like the area, of course. It’s really beautiful,” said Compton, 63. “Financially, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to stay here.”
David Metz, president of FM3 Research, which conducted the poll, said locals felt a similar angst about Bay Area life during the dot-com era in the early 2000s, but this new poll suggests those fears are stronger today.
Wage growth is falling behind the rapid escalation of housing prices, and the middle class is slipping farther behind high-earners in the Bay Area. “That gap is yawning,” Metz said.
Even homeowners watching their personal wealth grow with soaring real estate prices feel isolated, he said. Family and friends can’t afford to move here, and parents doubt their children will be able to stay. “There’s this invisible wall around you,” Metz said.
Many respondents shared stories of struggle and persistence to stay despite mounting challenges.
Deborah Acosta, a retired chief innovation officer for the City of San Leandro, grew up in the Bay Area. At times, she’s struggled financially — a bank foreclosed on her home in the Oakland Hills after a divorce and the subprime mortgage crisis.
Too many people in the Bay Area can’t afford a home or apartment, especially seniors and others on fixed incomes, Acosta said. And high costs will slow economic growth and hinder the recruitment of talented young people, she said. She worries about the region’s inability to provide for the homeless.
But Acosta, 64, said she won’t move, despite worsening traffic and high costs. She bought a manufactured home in a 55-plus community in San Leandro, close to her son in Oakland. “I have a toe-hold,” she said. “I can breathe again.”
Renters also feel their Bay Area dream is taking a dark turn.
“You don’t really want to leave. There’s so much to do around here, and opportunities,” said Caldwell, who grew up in Redwood City, graduated from UC Davis and moved back home to find a job in the tech industry.
Caldwell and his wife found a Menlo Park home with below-market rent, but he knows he’ll have to earn more if he wants to support his family in the Bay Area.
Roughly 80 percent of respondents in Alameda, Contra Costa and San Mateo counties called traffic a serious problem. About three-quarters of respondents in Santa Clara County and 70 percent in San Francisco County agreed.
Voters complained in interviews about unreliable public rail and buses, high-density apartments and condos adding traffic, and the steady rise in transportation taxes and fees that never seem to make highways and transit faster and better.
Diego Vela, a software engineer, commutes from Dublin to his office in San Francisco on BART. Some days it takes as long as 90 minutes to come and go from work. It’s time spent away from his wife and infant daughter, and he hates it.
Vela, 30, has a good salary that could be the envy of friends and family back home in Texas. But then he explains to outsiders the high cost of living in California. “It looks nice,” he said, “until you factor in reality.”
But there’s also a stubborn attachment to the Bay Area and the struggle to make it.
Rich Fellner, 61, has navigated the tech world for 35 years, switching jobs, adding new engineering skills and adapting to the changing currents of Silicon Valley commerce and innovation. The region is always changing, and he likes it that way, he said.
“It’s very competitive,” said Fellner, a homeowner in San Jose. “You really have to work.”
For some, the area is losing something more basic — community.
Mark Ruzon, 46, earned his doctorate in computer science from Stanford in the 1990s and chose to stay and start a career. Ruzon, his wife and four children live in Mountain View. He bikes to work at nearby Google.
But Ruzon, a native of Illinois, misses the institutions and traditions in the Midwest that bind communities together. In Silicon Valley, he said, it’s hard to find a decent Fourth of July parade. Despite its vast wealth, the region lacks a civic core, he said.
“We’ve tried to put down roots,” Ruzon said. “It’s been very difficult to put down deep roots.”
The poll of 1,568 registered voters in Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties, was conducted by FM3 Research for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and Bay Area News Group. The poll, conducted Feb. 14-24, has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percent.
Is the Bay Area pushing people to the breaking point?