Thrifty Housing Solutions

Monday, October 19, 2015

Rental prices in the Bay Area are high enough to send any student into cardiac arrest from sticker shock. Before moving to San Francisco, I remember telling my parents the average price of rentals on PadMapper and hearing their shocked voices respond that my older sister had paid about half that amount to live in a house during undergrad. Granted my sister went to school in Davis, whereas I would be moving to the city I had dreamed of living in since middle school, a city with arguably more appeal than Davis, but their indignation still resonated with me. It seems ridiculous that I spend the majority of the loan money I take out on a place where I spend the minority of my time.

In an attempt to better understand the financial burden that Bay Area living places on students, the UCSF Office of Institutional Research (OIR) recently sent out a “Cost of Living Winter 2015 Student Survey” which asked respondents about rental costs, transportation costs, and the average amount they spent on books, supplies, food, and child care. I will be using much of the data from that survey to explore housing options for students trying to be more frugal in paying for shelter.*

1. University Housing: UCSF offers both on- and off-campus housing options to Parnassus and Mission Bay students. Rental prices may be lower than what the average student could find on their own and include utilities. The university has further expanded its housing availability with the recent acquisition of a master lease on a block of apartments in a complex in SOMA that will be rented out to students at subsidized rates. However, even with this expansion, there is not enough university housing to guarantee it for all students who want it.

2. Commuting: The thriftiness of this solution is highly variable. According to the OIR survey results, the average rent paid overall by respondents living outside of the city was $1,172 per month in Berkeley; $1,240 per month in Oakland; and $1,248 per month in Daly City compared to an average $1,264 per month for respondents renting in the Inner Sunset and $1,206 per month for renters in the Mission District. Those numbers change when you restrict the results to single respondents with no children, but depending on how often you have to physically be on campus and whether you decide to drive or take public transportation, choosing to commute could actually end up costing more.

Of course, these are all just averages. Students still find deals on housing outside of the city that justify the downsides of commuting. Many students also have to consider things besides money when choosing where to live in the Bay Area, such as a partner who works in another city. Those who have lived in the Bay Area but outside the city for several years prior to starting their school program may also be reluctant to move away from the personal and community ties they’ve established.

3. Re-living Childhood: Since UCSF only offers graduate programming, this may seem like a strange one to include on the list, but 2% of OIR survey respondents whose parents live in the Bay Area have been allowed to return to the nest. While this saves a lot of money (and possibly time if your parents are the doting type who cook you food, do your laundry, etc.), it does decrease the amount of privacy you can have and may affect your ability to be productive at home.

4. Cooperative Housing: I considered this option when I was moving to the city. There was a quirky ad on Craigslist for a cheap room in a Yoga Cooperative. Of course, the low rent came at the cost of having to attend 6 AM group yoga every day; being on a house chore cycle (which meant cleaning messes that were not my own); helping cook house meals; and being respectful to other residents by not coming in or having guests over after certain hours. A reasonable swap for some, but after a terrible personal experience with too many people under one roof, I was looking for something a lot more … independent.

5. Work-Rent Trade-off: During summer session of my gap year at UC Berkeley, I noticed some flyers for low priced housing peppered around the school campus. A faculty member was offering subsidized rent to any student who would be willing to babysit during specific times during the week and on the occasional weekend. Other similar arrangements I’ve seen in the city include helping an elderly landlord around the home and watching pets during specific times. The main downside to these offerings is that the renter must have a flexible enough schedule to accommodate the work.

6. Downsizing: The Tiny House Movement has exploded across the US and the Bay Area has not been spared. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the definition of a tiny house is subjective, but many consider a home of 400 square feet or less to be “tiny.” I spoke with Jennifer Lee, a fourth year medical student currently taking a gap year, about her recent obsession with tiny homes and the possibility of building her own before graduation.

Jenn was first introduced to the idea of tiny homes several years ago through YouTube videos produced by early adopters of the movement, Dee Williams and Jay Shafer. Since then, she hadn’t thought much about tiny houses until, while taking time off from medical school, she was horrified to think about how much she was spending on rent and would continue to spend throughout any residency program, anywhere from three to six years in length.

As a result of her rediscovered interest, Jenn is currently taking a tiny house construction class through the Department of Carpentry at Laney College in Oakland. The class is a mixture of informal morning lectures and hands-on building experience. It has run for several sessions and each class has continued the work of the previous classes towards construction of a tiny house. Working together with other technical departments, the carpentry department under chair Cynthia Correia, has nearly completed their first tiny home, referred to as the “Dandelion”.

The department hopes to raise money for future projects, including their entry into the 2015 Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) Tiny House Competition, by selling the 144 square foot, trailer-mounted home for $35,000 upon its completion.

In weighing in on tiny housing, Jenn believes it might not be the best alternative for students in terms of its accessibility. According to her, the average tiny home will take about 1 – 2 years to build yourself depending how much time you have to devote to it, and costs around $25,000, not including any contracted work or specialized materials.

“It takes substantial initial capital and time, which most students don't have, and then … finding a place to park it is also really hard and potentially STILL really expensive, but it can, in some cases, still be a good idea financially, especially for people's early professional years,” such as when the occupants are still young, able to maneuver in smaller spaces, and likely do not have a family and kids to think about, says Jenn. However, she adds that as a potential benefit, a smaller space cuts down on time spent on maintenance and so more time can be devoted to studies.

Jenn still hasn’t decided whether she will go through with the idea of building a tiny home. She has yet to determine how much capital she has available and where she might park a trailer during construction. If she does decide to move forward with the plan, she will use the second half of her gap year to begin the process and continue to work on the project as time allows during her fourth and final year. By her own account, the most surprising things she has discovered throughout this process are the extent of personal development that takes place during tiny house planning and the large community driving the movement.

Jenn says, “My impulse was to rebel and become a hermit. But what I discovered in this process was that … it’s not necessarily about the money, though that’s a huge part of it … it forces you to re-evaluate the way you live your life and that by giving up so many possessions … it forces you to really get to know yourself, one, and then two, you open up so much space for all the things you really care about in life, like your family and your friends and your community.”

I know that I have not covered every possible means of cheaper housing, but I hope that this handful of options will inspire students looking to save a buck on rent to further research these and other alternatives for living in the Bay Area.

*Data from the OIR survey is susceptible to self-selection bias. There was a 49% campus-wide response rate. For the curious, the demographics of respondents and survey results are viewable on the OIR website at