What it Takes to Survive in Our Region – Voice of San Diego

This is the first story in our new reporting series that explores the different pressures affecting cost of living for San Diegans.

It’s a crisis. Just look at the numbers stacked against San Diegans. 

Rents across the region rose by almost 30 percent in 2021. Even if a person can afford to buy a home, they will have a hard time finding one. The number of homes on the market has decreased by as much as 80 percent since 2018, according to some counts

San Diego’s home prices are among the top three in the United States by most measures. Median income is not. San Diego’s median household income – at $85,507 per year – is below that of many other metro areas. That makes San Diego the least affordable city in the country, according to one report.

The gulf between income and the price of shelter – which has been a problem for years – is now perilous. The growing number of people sleeping on the streets are a living testament to this fact.

And that’s just focusing on housing, the biggest budget item for most households. Transportation, food, child care, utilities, health care – they’re all headed in the wrong direction.  

Voice of San Diego will explore the different pressures affecting cost of living in a series of stories over the following week.

For this story, four households gave Voice an inside look at their budgets to show just what it takes to get by in San Diego. Out of four families, just one owns its own home. Sophia Rodriguez and her husband bought a condo in Chula Vista five years ago. They worried they were overpaying at the time – but now they are relieved to have bought when they did. Their housing costs, minus the HOA fees, are locked in. 

Even owning their own home, and both being from the area, Rodriguez and her husband have flirted with the idea of moving. His company is based in Texas and offered incentives for workers to relocate there. 

“‘Hell no, I’m not going to Texas,’” she told her husband. But at the same time, she saw the logic in it. She and her husband both yearned for a more middle-class existence, where monitoring the budget doesn’t require hyper-vigilance. 

Had they not bought a home five years ago, moving would be a real possibility, Rodriguez said. 

Young families across the region are clearly experiencing the same pressure. San Diego Unified’s enrollment declined by 4,000 students two years in a row. 

To the extent the four families tell a similar story, it is this: Getting by comfortably in San Diego is becoming more and more a luxury that only the ultra-wealthy can afford.

‘Being Actually Middle-Class Is Being Able to Take the Kids to Disneyland on a Whim’

The Rodriguez Family

Sophia Rodriguez works for San Diego County and her husband works in tech. They own a condo in Chula Vista where they live with their two young children. 

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Sophia Rodriguez and her husband, Dan, have a four-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son. They own a condo in Chula Vista they bought five years ago. 

“It’s funny, because when we bought it, we were both like ‘Dang, it’s so overpriced,’” said Rodriguez. “But now, we’re really glad we bought something when we did, since housing prices have gotten so crazy.” 

Rodriguez and her husband consider themselves lower-middle class. 

“For me, being actually middle-class is being able to take the kids to Disneyland on a whim,” she said. 

Even though they aren’t as financially secure as they’d like, they still realize that in San Diego they’re in a privileged position. 

“It’s tricky, because I know how different it is for other people – even in our family,” Rodriguez said. “They tell us, ‘Oh, you’re doing so well.’”

Rodriguez had hoped they would qualify for free, state-funded preschool or at least a subsidy. But in February they found out they wouldn’t even get a discount. Their four-year-old daughter is very social, said Rodriguez, and they want to get her in a preschool setting. Right now, they have their sights on a program that costs $160 per week. 

Saving Up for a Home Isn’t Easy

Stephen Shepherd

Shepherd, 28, is a software engineer renting an apartment with a roommate in University Heights.

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Software engineer Stephen Shepherd makes $130,000 a year, a salary that would likely make a home purchase relatively easy in his native Ohio.

Instead, the 28-year-old is living in a University Heights apartment with a roommate and hoping to save enough money to eventually buy a home in the neighborhood.

“That’s the goal,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd acknowledges he’s not sure if he’ll be able to make it work despite his robust saving strategy. In January, he was able to set aside about $2,500.

After the initial down payment he’s been saving up for, Shepherd imagines a hefty mortgage that he thinks might require a bigger paycheck – or perhaps a backyard unit that could help with the monthly bill.

In the meantime, the biggest drag on his budget are monthly student loan payments that total about $875 a month. Shepherd is looking forward to paying off his smaller loan with a $276 monthly payment in about four years. But a larger loan based on his father’s income that comes with a larger $599 monthly bill will remain for another 19 years.

Thankfully, Shepherd said, salary increases in recent history have made those bills a little less painful.

‘You Have to Roll with The Punches’

Christopher LeFall

LeFall, 44, is a father of two and a full-time student. He lives with his partner and two-year-old daughter in Chula Vista.

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“I never realized how tight it was until now. Wow,” Christopher LeFall said after reviewing his monthly budget income and expenses. 

LeFall, 44, is a full-time student at San Diego City College. He used to have a full-time job at a local company, but in 2011 he had to leave after developing a health condition that left him 75 percent disabled. He’s in the process of applying for assistance for his disability, but in the meantime, he and his partner split rent and gas expenses. He also relies on extra money from student loans and works side jobs doing photography and delivering food.

LeFall lives with his 2-year-old daughter and partner in Chula Vista. They both have other children who don’t live with them. They rent a bedroom in Chula Vista and share the living space with four other individuals.

Although rent is their largest expense, transportation costs and gas prices represent a big burden on their budget, he said.

LeFall drives to San Carlos once a week to visit his son. Their children don’t often realize how tight money is for the family. He said it can be stressful, but he tries to keep a positive attitude.

“You have to roll with the punches,” he said. “You have to put one foot in front of the next and just keep moving.” 

$100 in Her Checking Account

Teri Petersen

Petersen, 70, is a retiree living alone in a senior affordable housing complex in East Village. 

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Teri Petersen’s budget is tight.

Roughly half of her monthly income is eaten up by her rent at a senior affordable housing complex downtown.

Other bills only add to the monthly balancing act. As of last week, Petersen estimates she had about $100 in her checking account.

For that reason, Petersen considers a 2019 state policy change allowing people over 65 who are low-income or disabled who receive federal Supplemental Security Income to get food stamps to be a life saver.

“I don’t know how I made it before,” said Petersen, who enjoys cooking at home and looking for deals.

For example, she’s wise to an additional 30 percent markdown on petite sirloin steaks at the grocery store when they’re already on sale and reach their sell-by date. Petersen just hurries home to put them in the freezer.

Yet more recent rising food costs have led Petersen to limit herself to a single meal a day: dinner.

To get some extra cash, the senior, who has lingering injuries and chronic pain from a past accident, signs up for medical studies that supply what she calls “survival money” whenever she finds an opportunity she qualifies for. They help her pay the bills and support a couple indulgences: DirectTV and Netflix, which she enjoys watching to relax when she’s not looking after her son’s German shepherd in North Park.