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

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.

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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11 Comments

  1. The only way I’m able to survive living in San Diego is by living in my van. I do this by choice and have my van set up like a small studio apartment. I make 60k/year and am able to save roughly $2000/month after taxes/401k/union dues are taken out. I am saving to move out of this state and hopefully move to Idaho where I can get my own place outright. I was born and raised in San Diego but will never be able to afford anything here.

  2. I just moved to SD from Europe and the prices here are mind blowing. These prices would cause riots, strikes, and a full shut down in society in Europe. There would be emergency laws introduced to stop price increases, housing assistance money, and more welfare provisions. Don’t even get me started about health care. Life in the US is so difficult for the majority of people and it doesn’t have to be like this. Yet, it’s been tough for decades and people don’t do anything. Why? That’s the real story. Why are people in the US so complacent? Why do people here let rich people, corporations, and right wing politicians steal from them? Why do they allow all of this to happen? We are just down the road from Google, Apple, and Facebook. These are the richest companies in the WORLD. and people in this story are talking about struggling to pay childcare and health costs. And a retiree eating one meal a day??? This would be front page news of every newspaper if this happened in any member state country of the EU. Especially if that country reported a budget surplus of over $60 billion. And especially if that country had three of the biggest corporations in the world.

    What does this say about the core values of this society? What does this say about empathy? About looking after the most vulnerable? None of it makes any sense. But the biggest puzzle us why people in the US allow this to happen. That story is the real truth behind all of this.

    1. Thanks for showing us where the US economy is headed….down the tubes like Europe whose standard of living has floundered for decades due to excess GOV intervention. You might ask yourself also who and which policies are at fault for the high cost of housing (40% of which goes to GOV regulations), the skyrocketing cost of energy ( green mandates and anti fossil fuel regs, with taxpayer subsidies for EVs and charging stations) .

      1. While you make claims about the government being responsible for the rising cost of living, you conveniently ignore the fact that wages have remained stagnant for ages when compared to the rising cost of living. During this time, the rich got richer while the poor got poorer. The only people worthy of blame here are the thieving billionaires.

      2. Only somebody who’s never been to Europe could spout such absolute nonsense about European standards of living. I’m here for work, and every time I go back home to the Netherlands, things are better and better, with free universal health care, education, unemployment and retirement benefits, and people live in ever greater freedom from want in one of the most equitable societies on earth. It doesn’t feel like the US are moving in that direction at the moment. In other words, seriously, go have a look before you parrot all these inane right wing talking points.

    2. Why do they allow this to happen to them? Easy they believe in then lie that they too can live like the wealthy. I see every day! And you are right the stuff should be cause of riots and outright upheaval. The corporatism and right wing party wants people to believe the lie to keep stealing form them.

  3. Great article and I appreciate the courage of the individuals interviewed to allow their information to be shared. Having real people tell their story is meaningful to us all.
    A good follow-up for the writers might be just how FAR does that dollar go? For instance what does cost to feed and cloth a family of four each week? We all know that gas and utilities have jumped to the highest rates ever seen – but what about milk, bread, diapers, laundry detergent etc.. ? If the cost of ‘household goods’ has increased about 10% in San Diego and looks to go higher- do we all need to get side hustles ( 2nd job) ? In 1960 it took 6 months of paychecks for the average American to buy a new car ($2,600), now it would take a year or more of paychecks ( $46,000). And that leads to another BIG question: what is the amount of debt is the average San Diegan carrying? Because credit cards, car payments, loan payments – these bills have to be paid or your whole financial world can collapse. If you go to collections, or have your car re-po’d – your credit will be damaged and regular businesses: car loans, renting an apartment and even getting a job( now often do a credit check) will be much harder. Thank you

  4. Very well written article, especially the tremendous depth of details. I think so many households are frozen in place by family ties and job constraints. This prevents them from moving to a better job and lower cost of living. This applies equally in places like a crummy neighborhood in Detroit or Cleveland, very affordable, but very limited opportunities.

  5. Choices, choices, choices.
    You can’t pick chocolate over vanilla and then complain that you can’t afford vanilla.
    Each of the 4 examples have clearly made choices that have significant impact on their cash flow…and continue to do so. Does not necessarily make their choices wrong or bad , but predictably impact what else they can save for or spend.

  6. City just raised sewer and water to finance the ever increasing Pure Water budget. The new pure water high pressure sewer line was designed by the construction vendor and will grind through Clairemont and University instead of going next to the Amtrak line. Additional cost: 100 million.
    City is now making single family housing the boogey man stating only single family houses get free trash service. All apartments or condos who put their trash to the curb get the same free pickup, paid for by property taxes.
    Additional water sewer and soon trash costs will raise low income household housing operating costs 5% to 10% while the wealthiest households will see their costs rise less than 1%. City talks a good game but municipal policies favor the wealthy.

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