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This story is part of our new reporting series that explores the different pressures affecting cost of living for San Diegans. View more stories here.
Dohney Castillo and Maricela Lopez-Beltrán weren’t necessarily priced out of San Diego. But they were priced out of the home they wanted.
They were ready to buy a house. They saved money living with family and two steady incomes. He is a sanitation worker at Republic Services in Chula Vista. She is a social worker with San Diego County. They were pre-approved for a $450,000 mortgage, enough in San Diego to buy a two-bedroom condo, and its monthly HOA fees.
Maricela had another idea. That same $450,000 in Murrieta could get them four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a yard and a big kitchen and living room to entertain.
“We decided to start a life and take that next step, and a home was something we had in mind,” Castillo said. “I come from a family where, I wanted to have a home first before I started a family.”
They wanted a house. They could afford a house in Southwest Riverside County. Now, by one estimate, they’re two of about 50,000 people who live in Riverside and work in San Diego. “Drive until you qualify” is a common phrase among real estate agents. And in San Diego, housing costs and transportation costs go hand-in-hand, and together, they make an already-unaffordable housing situation even worse.
Four years ago, when Castillo and Lopez-Beltrán started their home search, the median sales price of a Riverside home was $380,000, according to Redfin. At the same time, in San Diego, it was $553,000.
“Single-family homes just weren’t in our price range,” Castillo said. “If someone could wave a magic wand and give us everything we have up here down there, that would be ideal. But even that, she’s really fallen in love with where we’re at.”
Their decision reveals the extent to which housing costs and transportation costs are inextricably linked. Due to the somewhat hidden nature of transportation costs, though, families that expand their search for housing don’t always save as much as they think. Riverside, for instance, is the most expensive region for transportation among the country’s 20 largest metropolitan areas.
For Castillo, his decision came with trade-offs, both emotional and financial.
Until January, Lopez-Beltran’s 15-year-old daughter Ariana was still attending The Preuss School UC San Diego, a charter school for low-income students regarded as one of the best in the state. When Castillo woke up at 2 a.m. and started driving south every morning, she came with him. He’d drop her off at her grandmother’s house in Barrio Logan. Her grandmother would then drive Ariana to a bus stop, before the bus would take her back north to La Jolla. Castillo would pick her up after work, and they’d get back to Murrieta at 7 p.m., 17 hours after waking up.
This semester, she enrolled at Vista Murietta High School instead.
“It wasn’t just the drive,” Lopez-Beltran said. “We realized we were taking high school from her.”
Now, Castillo is alone when he pulls in at 7 p.m. That leaves him about two hours to spend with his 4-month-old daughter, Mila, before he needs to get to bed to prepare for the next day.
“For me, it’s still worth it – there are small moments where I get to see her, and I cherish those moments,” he said. “I spend so much time commuting and working that, even just seeing her sipping a bottle or sleeping, I cherish those moments too.”
The personal costs imposed by a super commuting lifestyle, though, aren’t the only ways that San Diego’s housing market hits working families.
That’s because San Diego is one metropolitan region where both housing and transportation are among the most expensive in the nation. In other areas – New York, Boston, San Francsico – the cost of transportation can at least alleviate the burden of high housing costs.
In southern California, though, there’s increasingly nowhere to hide.
Two Awful Tastes That Taste Awful Together
Researchers at the Center for Neighborhood Technology developed a database to quantify the extent to which housing costs and transportation costs compound on family budgets.
San Diego is already one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. But it’s also one of the most expensive regions to get around.
Together, the typical household in San Diego spends 57 percent of its income on housing and transportation alone – fifth highest of any region in the country. While economists refer to a rule-of-thumb that housing should not represent more than 30 percent of a household’s income, there’s no such rule for transportation.
“We wanted to make the case that transportation cost is on average the second highest cost for the average household, and it’s totally location driven,” said Peter Haas, chief research scientist at CNT. “The saying, ‘drive until you qualify,’ well, when you do that, you aren’t accounting for the cost of driving around every day, and that’s typically more important than your daily commute.”
In other words, a 30-mile commute isn’t cheap, and it’s not great for the environment or anyone’s leisure time. But families can cut out a lot of driving if the start and end of the trip are bikeable and walkable, or at least short drives to the store. That doesn’t just mean savings on gas – savings that can feel especially acute today, in March of 2022, when supply-chain disruptions and economic sanctions from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have pushed prices beyond $6 a gallon in some places – but also in car maintenance and the overall depreciation of a car’s value.
“Gas, driving, fixing the brakes – that’s 25 percent of the cost of a car,” Haas said. “The other 75 percent is just car ownership. With gas prices, you see the price, and certainly an increase might push a family with stretched incomes over the edge.”
But commuting, Haas said, isn’t the biggest driver in how much transportation costs for most people. Families must own two cars or more in more car-dependent places. They can’t sub an alternative for any kind of trip whether they need to go work or get a gallon of milk. That all adds up and ends up driving the cost of transportation.
In some places, cheap transportation can compensate for pricey housing. San Francisco households pay 16 percent of their income on transportation and the two combine to eat up 48 percent of a typical household’s budget, good for 42nd among the region’s 50 largest metro areas. (San Francisco’s large incomes play a big role in keeping that percentage down, too; housing there would swallow 70 percent of a typical income nationwide.)
It’s not alone – residents of famously expensive cities like Washington, DC, New York, San Francisco and Boston all pay the lowest share of their incomes from any of the nation’s 20 largest metro areas.
San Diego isn’t like that. Here, both housing and transportation are expensive.
Transportation in Riverside, though, is more expensive than in any other of the country’s 20 largest metro areas, as a share of the regions’ typical incomes. San Diego’s housing refugees end up spending a healthy chunk of their savings getting around their new community, according to the Housing and Transportation Index.
Compared to those other regions – including San Diego – Riverside ends up looking exceptionally expensive, even more expensive than San Diego. That’s because its median household income is lower – a concern that isn’t relevant for the people who opt to take their San Diego income north to live in Riverside. Compared to the national median income, the combined burden of housing and transportation is much heavier in San Diego.
But that also means the index, which shows people in Riverside spend more on transportation in San Diego, isn’t accounting for all the Riverside super commuters. Rather, transportation rates are so expensive there because of all the driving people need to do day-in, day-out, just to get around.
“It’s not the commute so much, it’s the milieu,” Haas said. “In basic economics we say that people only pay attention to things that are transparent – in transportation, only the price of gas is transparent. Transportation cost is more driven by, is it a compact, efficient neighborhood? Is transit available? In an energy inefficient house, a leaky house, you need to turn up your burners to stay warm, but in an efficient house you don’t. It’s the same thing here. You use your car less in a more efficient area. And that also reduces greenhouse gasses, and in those neighborhoods, people invest the money they would have spent on a car into their neighborhood.”
Commutes, in other words, aren’t the only factor driving a household’s transportation budget. How a city or neighborhood is designed, for instance, could make it easier for a family to rely on only one car, substantially reducing their out-of-pocket costs.
In San Diego, though, there aren’t many places to hide from an elevated transportation bill – even for residents who don’t flee to Riverside County for cheaper housing.
Nowhere to Hide
Johanna Bernal, 40, lives in Sherman Heights and works two jobs as a custodian, both downtown, just a few miles from her home. The end points of her commute make her one of the lucky San Diegans who could rely on transit.
But that doesn’t account for the daycare she can afford for her baby, in City Heights. She said it wouldn’t be viable to head east on a bus to take her son to daycare, just to catch another bus to double back toward downtown, and still get to her first job, where she, ironically, cleans the trolley station at City College.
The cost of having a car so she can get around adds up. She has a $350 a month payment on her Ford Fiesta, and her $40 weekly gas purchase has lately crept up to $50. Throw in a $120 monthly insurance payment, her $100 monthly bill for a parking space downtown, annual charges for registration and the occasional need to take the car into the shop, she regularly pays over $600 a month on transportation.
That’s more than half the cost of her housing – she pays $1,100 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in Sherman Heights. Her two teenage daughters share the bedroom. She sleeps on the couch in the living room, sharing space with her 4-month-old’s bassinet.
“I just wish I could pay off my car, so we could all have a bigger place to live,” she said. “I wish the transportation system could be better, so everything would be easier.”
Sherman Heights is among the more transportation-efficient neighborhoods in town – the average household in Census tracts there spend about 17 percent of their income on transportation. Transportation is cheaper for downtown residents, but otherwise it’s comparable to what people pay in other urban neighborhoods near downtown and Balboa Park like Golden Hill, University Heights, North Park and City Heights. That expense climbs to a quarter of household incomes in Clairemont, University City and Scripps Ranch, and in excess of 30 percent of incomes in Temecula.
That’s where Juan Carlos Bonilla, 42, ended up buying a four-bedroom house with his fiancé, at her urging. Like Castillo, he was making a solid living, without getting anywhere closer to owning the type of home that he considered worthy of a down payment. Then his fiancé convinced him to just check out a few open houses.
“Everything up there is bigger, newer and cheaper,” he said. “She finally convinced me to do some open houses and I was like, ‘man we can actually afford a place like this,’ which I didn’t think we could do ever.”
Riverside County has, like San Diego and nearly everywhere else, seen its housing prices boom in recent years. The sales price of the median home there has increased more than 50 percent since the start of 2018; now at $605,000, according to Redfin, it’s more than the price of the median home in 2018, when both Bonilla and Castillo decided to move there. Of course, San Diego home prices have increased only slightly slower in that time, reaching $825,000 last month.
When Bonilla made his decision, he was renting in Chula Vista. Much earlier, in 2004, he had purchased a condo in San Ysidro, but when his divorce coincided with the housing market crash, he sold that in a short sale.
Throughout that time, he was working as a banquet server at the Sheraton Hotel & Marina, on Harbor Island. Before the pandemic, he could earn about $100,000 a year as a banquet server. Unsurprisingly, that’s an industry that’s had a hard time recovering.
He went back to work last April, including picking up shifts at the Loews Coronado. Combined, he made about $39,000 last year. He made it work by taking advantage of the one-time opportunity to tap into his 401k without a penalty, he said, and if things keep coming back on line, he’ll be fine. Right now, though, he gets a full schedule of banquets, then waits for planners to cancel the events at the last minute.
That’s not the only thing that the pandemic changed, though. He also suddenly spent a lot of time at home, with his three kids – ages 18, 12 and 7. He started looking for a job closer to home.
“We were here with them every day, and it started taking a toll on both of us, just realizing how much time with them we were missing,” he said. “I said, ‘I might just find a way to work here, even if it means leaving banquets.’”
In the end though, there was nothing he could easily switch to that would pay him what he made working banquets.
Castillo has started thinking the same way. Five years in to making the commute – with one daughter in high school and another an infant he doesn’t see as much as he would like – he’s started looking for work in Riverside County.
The price of driving hurts. But that’s not the price that hurts the most.
“About a year ago, I didn’t see a way to do it long term – and now with gas going up, vehicle maintenance going up, it’s hard and getting harder,” he said. “More than that, it’s my family. Those two to three hours on the road every day, without them, it’s changed my mind. I’m looking for something in the area.”