Priced out of the Castro, LGBTs seek housing elsewhere

  • by Matthew S. Bajko and Seth Hemmelgarn
  • Tuesday June 24, 2008
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Photo: Rick Gerharter
Photo: Rick Gerharter

Starting in the 1970s the Castro became home to countless LGBT residents of San Francisco, who began moving into the rundown neighborhood and revitalizing what was then known as Eureka Valley.

But the community's success at turning around the residential area has come at a cost. Today, many LGBT people find themselves priced out of the Castro. Rents for one bedrooms now range from $1,500 to more than $2,100 a month while housing costs $450,000 for a one-bedroom unit to upwards of $1 million or more for a single-family home.

The impact has been an increase of straight couples moving into the Castro while queer residents migrate to neighborhoods deemed less than desirable, such as the Tenderloin, Civic Center, and Bayview-Hunters Point. A once thriving lesbian scene along Valencia Street has been reduced to a few businesses, while fears rise that lesbians will soon be priced out of the Bernal Heights neighborhood.

Cities ringing the bay have established themselves as appealing alternatives to LGBT people looking to buy a home or find reasonable rents. Oakland in the East Bay and Santa Rosa in the North Bay have thriving lesbian populations.

Vallejo, a 55-minute ferry ride from downtown San Francisco, continues to be a draw for many gay male couples. And San Jose recently launched a new campaign to attract younger gay professionals who work in Silicon Valley to its downtown.

The changing demographics of the Bay Area's "gayaspora" and the emergence of new "gayborhoods" has led to much anguish among San Francisco's LGBT community, fearful that one day the Castro will merely be a historical reference point as opposed to the gay mecca it has served as for close to 40 years.

"I'm not sure there's anywhere in San Francisco for poor, working class queers to go," said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a longtime queer activist who works with the Housing Rights Committee. "The Castro is going to be a place strictly for upper-middle class queers and straight people. The rest of us are going to be living in the East Bay."

Openly gay Supervisor Bevan Dufty, whose district includes the Castro, agrees that the city's unaffordable housing prices are having an impact on who can live in San Francisco.

"I don't think the Castro is immune from the pressures that people feel across San Francisco," he said.

But Dufty is hopeful that the growing economic development programs at the city's LGBT Community Center will offer LGBT residents help with buying a first home, particularly in new residential projects slated to be built near the Castro.

"This development is not going to happen overnight," Dufty said. "It will take from two to five years, and I think it's important that we get people ready to hopefully buy their first place, their first home."

Supervisor Bevan Dufty. Photo: Rick Gerharter

John Rahaim, the city's openly gay planning director, said the concern about real estate prices is not unique to San Francisco, or something only impacting the city's LGBT population.

"The price of housing is a huge issue in the city right now, as it is in many other coastal cities. Obviously, prices here are very, very high. That is no secret," said Rahaim, who is renting an apartment in the Mission District. "It is affecting a lot of people who have obviously been here a long time and used to having lower prices. It is affecting the Latino community in the Mission and other parts of the city too where the price of housing is just changing the demographics of our neighborhoods. It is very important we look at this issue all over the city."

One unintended consequence of gay and lesbian couples being given the right to marry is it may increase the migration of queer people outside the city.

"As people get married, they want to make a home. They want to go where it's affordable and have a backyard," said Debra Walker, a member of the city's Building Inspection Commission as well as the board of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. Doing that in the Castro can cost $2 million, she said. "People can't afford that."

Avicolli Mecca agreed, saying that LGBTs "are being pushed to wherever there's some semblance of affordable housing."

City still a draw for LGBTs

Despite its high cost of living, San Francisco still attracts LGBT people. According to the report "Same-sex Couples and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Population: New Estimates from the American Community Survey October 2006" by Gary J. Gates, a senior research fellow at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law, the city's LGB population totaled 94,234 and comprised 15.4 percent of all residents.

The report also found 8,490 same-sex couples living in the city, with the vast majority �" pegged at 6,233 �" being gay men. As for the city's transgender population, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2007 that some local leaders estimated it as large as 19,000 people.

When he moved to town from Seattle six months ago, Rahaim said living in the Castro was not a priority. More important for him was being able to walk to work.

"I prefer being in a very diverse neighborhood," said Rahaim.

He is renting an apartment because his Seattle home has yet to sell. When it does, Rahaim said "eventually" he would buy a house here.

Recent arrival Matt Foreman, who stepped down as executive director of the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force in April, is renting an apartment in Eureka Valley for $1,400 a month.

"It's actually smaller than my New York apartment, which I did not think would be possible. But I'm completely happy," said Foreman, director of the gay and lesbian and immigrant rights program at the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund.

As a former East Coaster, Foreman said his impressions about what life would be like in San Francisco have proven to be unfounded.

"I'd heard it was ridiculously expensive, that I would feel like I was in a small town, and that it would be hard to get to know people on more than a superficial level, and I have found all those things to be completely untrue."

However, Planning Commission President Christina Olague, who moved to San Francisco in the early 1980s, said she doubts she would be able to afford San Francisco's prices were she to make the same move today.

"If I were just straight coming in from Fresno, as I did in 1982, chances are I wouldn't be able to find anything unless I was right out of college and able to pay half a million for a condo," said Olague, who identifies as bisexual and joined the oversight body four years ago.

Olague herself recently moved into a different apartment in the Western Addition as she increasingly became concerned that her old apartment building would be converted to condominiums. While the property owners insisted that wasn't the plan, all signs pointed to a conversion happening down the road.

"We decided it was too stressful to live under that so we found a place together. It is a room in a house. It seemed like a more stable situation," said Olague, who lives with her sister. "Anyone who rents in the city there is this constant �" unless you are renting long-term or from people you know �" shadow or dark cloud hanging over you. Is my below-market-rate unit going to go on sale or will I be pressured by my landlord to move out? That happens all the time. You just never know if you're a renter in the city. You always feel like there is that possibility you could lose your housing."

While acknowledging it's an expensive city, Foreman said he has found it to be no more so than New York. And the costs are outweighed by San Francisco being so welcoming and "overwhelmingly gay-positive," he said.

"When I came out of the Muni station June 2 and I realized that there were 4-by-6 rainbow flags from the foot of Market Street all the way to the Castro, I just started crying. It was like something that would not happen in any other city in the United States," said Foreman.

Residents fight to keep Castro gay

It is San Francisco's complete embrace of its gay population that has caused much anguish about the possibility that the next generation of queer people will be forced to live elsewhere as the city becomes a playground for the international jet-set.

The city is seeing "one community overtaking another. ... You want to be able to sustain population and diversity throughout the city and we're not doing that," said Walker. "Even though the folks moving in have no ill intentions, gentrification happens anyway. It's the fault of the city for not having better policy."

Avicolli Mecca suggested a moratorium on market-rate housing in the Castro, but Dufty said, "I don�t think a moratorium is either practical or legal."

Olague said during talks about new zoning guidelines for construction along upper Market Street and Octavia Boulevard it didn't matter if she was talking to queer homeowners or renters, the number one concern on many people's minds was what can be done to ensure LGBT people will be able to call San Francisco home.

"The one issue that came up across the board with all people from the community, regardless of where they are economically, is they're concerned about gentrification," said Olague, who became president of the Planning Commission in January. "Not that the Castro is the only mecca for queers anyway. We have SOMA and other areas of the city people could go from other parts of the country."

But throughout town affordable housing options are "getting smaller and smaller," said Olague. What to do remains a conundrum though, and Olague would like to see the community come together to devise some solutions.

"I don't know. How do you change the market? We need to talk more about what issues are out there," she said.

Residents have rallied in the past two years to try to keep the Castro the heart of the city's gay population. In July planning officials are set to approve new design guidelines for the neighborhood. Rahaim said he would like to see the same discussions take place in other neighborhoods.

"I really do think it is an excellent model. It creates a very clear vision of what we want that corridor to be," he said.

A separate planning process is under way South of Market, where gay residents of that neighborhood are also looking at how to keep the area affordable and connected to its history as home to the leather community.

Ideas of what can be done run the gamut. Some have called for turning the Castro's two city-owned parking lots into affordable housing projects for people with AIDS built above underground garages. Others back the idea of a gay-focused land trust that could buy up apartment buildings as they become available to ensure they are not converted to condos. Others are eyeing closely what gets proposed for 12 developable parcels in the upper Market corridor and are insisting that units cater to the needs of LGBT people.

"One of the things I am a big supporter of is the idea in the upper Market plan that creates zoning incentives to provide cultural facilities," said Rahaim. "The idea there is in certain places we might allow taller buildings if they include cultural facilities. Legally we can not specify it be gay-oriented, but we can encourage that."

Theatre Rhinoceros has explored numerous options of relocating to the Castro, from moving into the city's LGBT Community Center to potentially being included as part of a new residential development. The GLBT Historical Society has also been hunting for a suitable location in the Castro.

"I think there are a lot of possibilities," Dufty said. "That's part of what this upper Market plan does. It creates interest, and hopefully an encouragement, for people to come and do creative things that are going to support the neighborhood."

Dufty said another priority is seeing more done in terms of housing for people living with HIV and AIDS.

"I would like to see us develop some specific housing addressing that need and general housing that's affordable," said Dufty, noting that young adults, seniors, and artists all face hardships in terms of affording to live in the city.

Brian Basinger, the founder of the AIDS Housing Alliance, said his agency is "really focusing on housing for people with HIV and AIDS, and we need to focus on that because housing is one of the best HIV prevention tools we have."

Behind the scenes, Dufty said he has been working with activists like Basinger and leaders of neighborhood groups to try and increase the number of affordable units generated through the new Castro developments.

"It's an ongoing process of dialogue and negotiation and looking for opportunities, because I would like to see development that is affordable," said Dufty. "Everyone has said that the Upper Market planning effort is positive in drawing out the neighborhood to engage potential developers about a shared vision for the Castro, and I think it's extremely exciting that I have three different streetscape initiatives ongoing simultaneously for Market Street."

Several developments planned for the area are in the early stages of taking shape, and Rahaim said he expects to see some of the projects go before the planning commission within the next two to three months.

Richard Springwater is a principal of the Prado Group, which plans to build about 85 units at the former S and C Ford dealership at the corner of Market and Dolores streets. Springwater said the site is in the preliminary stage of design, and construction won't start until 18 to 24 months from now.

The entire ground floor of the new building will be occupied by a grocery store, and a likely tenant could very well be Trader Joe's, which has long expressed a desire to open a new store in the Castro. Springwater said he couldn't say which store would ultimately open in the space.

He said the development would include affordable units, as required by the city. Springwater agreed that the only buildings being constructed in San Francisco are out of reach for many in the city, but said factors such as rising construction costs and interest rates make building expensive.

The upper Market and Castro design plan "has been a very effective forum for developers to better understand what the community would like to see built," said Springwater. "We have a lot of reasons to do what the neighborhood wants us to do. We are part of the neighborhood, we respect the neighborhood consensus."

Oakland seen as cheaper alternative

LGBT people looking for affordable housing are increasingly turning to Oakland, already home to a sizable LGBT population. According to the 2006 report from the Williams Institute, more than 162,000 LGB people were living in the Oakland-Fremont area. Outside of San Francisco, Oakland's metro area has the highest concentration of same-sex households, according to the Urban Institute. The policy group ranks Oakland's population of gay male couples as the ninth highest in the nation, while the number of lesbian couples who live there puts Oakland in fifth place.

As for large metropolitan areas with high concentrations of same-sex households with children, Oakland ranks third, behind San Francisco and New York, according to the Urban Institute.

Michael Colbruno, the openly gay chair of the city's planning commission, has been in Oakland since 1999. He said he moved there after realizing living in the city would be half the cost of living in San Francisco.

"I have seen an increase in the visibility in the [LGBT] population," Colbruno said. "I think Oakland's always had a huge queer population. It's just now starting to come out of the shadows a little bit."

Peggy Moore, who's lived in Oakland for about 15 years, said the city's women's community has been building for some time, but more recently she has seen an increasing male population. While she believes housing prices there "are still kind of steep," Moore said it is possible to find condos at $250,000 to $300,000.

"You can get more for your money on this side of the bay," Moore said.

Oakland resident Peggy Moore. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

Colbruno said he wants to encourage gay-oriented development in Oakland, and he's been talking to developers about providing space for a community center. He said he's talked to half a dozen developers, but declined to identify them.

Moore helped found the Oakland Rainbow Chamber of Commerce and Labor to promote LGBT visibility in the East Bay's business community. Participation in the annual Sistahs Steppin' in Pride event continues to grow, she said. The seventh annual event will be held August 23 and 24.

An added benefit of living in Oakland is its diversity, said Colbruno said.

"Other cities struggle to truly be diverse," he said. "Everybody gets along so well here. There's no racial strife in the gay community. San Francisco is very segregated in many ways. In Oakland, everybody lives together."

David Weinreich, an aide to state Senate Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) left San Francisco for Oakland in the fall of 2007 after he thought about how it would be cheaper and he could bike to work there.

"It's not such a big deal here," Weinreich said of Oakland's LGBT presence. "... It's more like you just see people walking in the street in couples here and there, just kind of mixed in with everyone else."

Prices a problem for many gayborhoods

LGBT people who have recently moved out of San Francisco have discovered that housing prices have queer-friendly neighborhoods in their new hometowns in flux. In Manhattan many find themselves priced out of gayborhoods like Chelsea and the East Village, and Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. is facing the same predicament.

Farra Trompeter, 34, and her partner moved to Brooklyn's Bornum Hill area from the lower Haight/Hayes Valley in San Francisco in 2004. Prior to moving to the Bay Area the couple had lived in D.C.

"They are all expensive. San Francisco is probably the most reasonable price-wise," said Trompeter, who is on the board of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project.

When they left San Francisco they were paying $1,395 a month in rent. They signed a lease in New York for a $1,600-a-month, one bedroom apartment with garden, which increased to $1,800. Trompeter expects the next tenants will pay $2,000 a month, as the couple is relocating to an apartment in Windsor Terrace in Brooklyn.

Their new address is slowly becoming a new gayborhood for lesbians who are priced out of Park Slope, nicknamed Dyke Slope, to the north.

"In part we were looking for a little bit more space. It is a one bedroom with washer and dryer and dishwasher right by Prospect Park," she said. "It is similar in price but has a different, kind of calmer vibe in the community. It seems a lot more visibly gay friendly. We just found out our neighbors are a gay couple."

Friends of Trompeter's just left Brooklyn for San Francisco but ended up settling in the East Bay.

"They moved to Oakland by Lake Merritt because they got a much better deal there. I think a lot of people aren't living in the city," she said.

Simon Aronoff, 31, who is transgender and queer, moved to D.C. in 2005 after five years in the Bay Area. Shortly after graduating from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, he moved to Piedmont Avenue in Oakland in 2000 and then to San Francisco in November of 2002.

"My dream since I was a little girl was always to live in the Castro, which I actually got to do. I moved out there with a bunch of people from western Massachusetts and the first person who arrived got a one bedroom in Oakland. Six of us lived in that space until we could find a space," said Aronoff. "My partner at the time and I found a studio. Then we found a larger one bedroom down the block and lived there for two years. Then I moved into the Castro right above Orphan Andy's on 17th for a couple of years and then moved to the Inner Sunset."

Having met a new partner who was enrolled in law school in D.C. at the time, Aronoff said they decided to find a place together since he was able to transfer his public relations job.

"We rented a place site unseen in Columbia Heights, it is an area in D.C. sort of like the Mission. It is an up and coming area and it is similar to San Francisco prices," said Aronoff. "When I was planning to move to D.C. I thought this is great you will save on cost of rent and living. I was really surprised D.C. was just as expensive as San Francisco."

The couple paid $1,670 for the two-bedroom apartment. Now single, Aronoff moved into his own studio in Adams Morgan, another new gayborhood in the nation's capital. He now pays $1,240 a month for a tiny studio about 600 square feet in size. Yet the cost of living doesn't seem to be a topic of conversation, he has found.

"In the Bay Area prices are so out of control it is sort of like talking about the weather. Oh, what sort of ridiculous rent are you paying?" said Aronoff.

Interested in becoming a homeowner at some point, he said when he is ready to purchase property it will likely mean moving to a seedy neighborhood or outside the district altogether.

"It was one of the thoughts of moving to D.C. My idea it was a cheaper place to live proved untrue. The hope was I would be able to purchase something but it really isn't that much cheaper than in San Francisco," he said. "If you want to buy something here it needs to be in a transitional, somewhat unsafe neighborhood or you need to live in the suburbs of Virginia or Maryland or need to make a lot of money."

Rowhouses in his neighborhood fetch $700,000, said Aronoff, while in Dupont homes cost between $1 million and $2 million. Outside the city, a one-bedroom condo in a suburb can be bought for $200,000 to $300,000.

"What I do see here driving through transitional neighborhoods, you will see a gay pride flag and you know the gays have started to buy property in a given community. That is always an indication for an area that is up and coming," said Aronoff. "We are kind of the trendsetters in the real estate market that way."

Zander Keig, 41, who identifies as a transman, moved to the Bay Area in 2002 to attend graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley where he met his wife, Margaret. After a short stint in San Diego the couple moved to Walnut Creek in 2005 and into Fox Plaza in San Francisco's Civic Center a year later. The lack of a neighborhood feel to the area had them soon looking for a new apartment, and they signed a lease for a $1,600-a-month place in the Inner Sunset.

Now they are on the move again, going back to San Diego to live where Keig's wife has been hired as a hospital chaplain.

They have been looking at apartments in that city's gayborhood of Hillcrest and in Linda Vista near the University of San Diego. Both are walkable areas and on public transit lines.

"The reason is because coming from San Francisco we don't own a car and San Diego is larger and spread out more," said Keig. "It is for convenience sake really, but also where we want to live anyway."

Price-wise, Keig said they have been surprised by how much further their money will go in San Diego. He said they have been able to find rental units in brand new buildings priced between $1,000 to $1,200 a month.

"We weren't expecting to find places in Hillcrest that were so new. We weren't expecting to find that in our price range," he said.

Even homeownership now seems plausible to the couple, something they doubted would be within their grasp financially in San Francisco.

"It is not a priority right now but we've definitely talked about doing it in the near future. It seems completely feasible for us in San Diego," said Keig. "We found really nice condos in Hillcrest around $250,000 to $300,000. That is quite a difference; a year ago in San Francisco we were finding $600,000. We were not looking in the Castro; we could never afford the Castro. We could afford Hillcrest."

Feeling like he needed a change after 15 years in San Francisco, Chris Holguin sold his florist shop and in January moved to Las Vegas where he has family and friends. The city has seen a huge influx of LGBT people in recent years, attracted to its cheap housing and jobs in the hospitality industry.

In the city Holguin had been paying $3,500 to rent a three-bedroom house in West Portal. Now he pays roughly $500 a month to share a two-bedroom, two-bath house with a friend.

"I am looking to buy a place right now. The real estate market dropped significantly here. Condos start at $100,000 to $125,000," said Holguin, 43, who just went back to work for a local florist. "You can buy a 4,000 square foot house for $350,000."

Holguin's decision to move prompted most of his Bay Area friends to say he would move back to San Francisco, but so far, he sees little reason to leave Las Vegas.

"I am not going back to San Francisco anytime soon," said Holguin.

San Franciscans remain optimistic solutions can be found

As for the future of San Francisco's status as a gay oasis, those living here now say they won't give up without a fight.

"This has always been where we have come. There is a certain ownership and pride people take in the city who are from the LGBTQ community. We will never let it up," said Olague. "People from the queer community will cease to exist here when they are ready to cease to exist here. But they are not going to push us out."

The reality, though, is that as the gay community has gained more rights and acceptance the need to congregate in certain neighborhoods has lessened. Each year gay publications and researchers locate ever more up and coming towns and cities across America where LGBT people are calling home.

Gates, of the Williams Institute, said, "My hunch is that as people are coming out in more conservative parts of the country, demographically, same-sex couples look like the general population, and less and less distinct as a demographic group."

"I think this is not just a cost issue; the gay community now feels it can live in other places," said Rahaim. "I don't think all gay people want to live in the Castro. But I think the Castro will be the heart of the gay community here in the city. It is important that we do things there to keep its identity as gay."

Those who have moved away in recent years say the Castro and San Francisco will always remain a special place for LGBT people.

"I miss the Bay Area, I do. I definitely left my heart in San Francisco, it is my favorite place on earth," said Aronoff. "The thing about San Francisco is yes, the housing prices are ridiculously high, but you get a lot by living in San Francisco as an LGBT person. The history is there, the community is there, the nightlife is there.

"In D.C. you are paying a lot because a lot of people need to live here because their jobs are here. But the same kind of access to a huge gay community, the numbers and things to do, that isn't there in D.C.," added Aronoff. "We have lot to offer in terms of politics, history and museums, but all of that wonderful queer energy in the Bay Area you don't get out here."