Where are Renters with Low Incomes Living in the Bay Area?

February 23, 2022

Mapping low-income renters in the nine-county region reveals that nearly half live in communities without robust tenant protections. This map highlights where state and local leaders should prioritize resources — including local American Rescue Plan funds — to alleviate affordability challenges and keep people in their homes.

By Ángel Mendiola Ross

Based on the affordability benchmark of paying no more than 30 percent of income on rent, a household needs to earn $111,440 annually to afford the median Bay Area rent of $2,876 per month, yet the majority of residents earn far less. About half of the 1.2 million renter households in the region (46 percent) were earning less than $75,000 annually at the onset of the pandemic. About a third (32 percent) were earning less than $50,000, and nearly a fourth (23 percent) were earning less than $35,000 per year.[1]

The vast majority of renters earning below $75,000 per year are cost-burdened, and many of them lost employment or wages and accrued debt during the pandemic. According to the National Equity Atlas rent debt dashboard, about 68,000 low-income renter households in the five-county metro alone currently owe back rent, and most of those who’ve applied for rental assistance are still waiting for that support to come. High cost burdens and lingering debt increase housing insecurity, placing households at risk of eviction and displacement. 

To support efforts to target protections and resources to those most impacted by the pandemic and ongoing housing affordability crisis, we mapped where low-income renters live across the nine-county region using three different income thresholds: under $35,000, under $50,000, and under $75,000. This analysis highlights our findings for renter households with incomes under $50,000, which generally corresponds with the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “very low income” threshold and qualifies them for federal housing assistance in the form of vouchers.

A Plurality of Renters with Low Incomes Live in the Region’s Three Largest Cities

Unsurprisingly, the largest concentrations of low-income renters are in three of the region’s largest cities: 40 percent of low-income renters in the Bay Area reside in San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose alone. More than 2,700 low-income renters live in San Francisco’s Civic Center neighborhood — more than the total number of low-income renters in the cities of Emeryville, El Cerrito, or Albany. Gentrification and displacement are undoubtedly ongoing processes in places like San Francisco and Oakland. But many low-income renters remain in these relatively expensive cities in the center of the Bay Area, due in large part to a suite of renter protections that advocates have worked tirelessly for years to establish and maintain.

Nearly Half of Renters with Low Incomes Live in Communities Without Strong Tenant Protections

Unfortunately, nearly half of low-income renters in the nine-county region reside in cities or towns without strong renter protections like rent control. Take the cities of Vallejo, San Leandro, and Concord as examples: Vallejo is home to some 7,400 low-income renter households, San Leandro roughly 6,800, and Concord over 6,300. None of these cities, however, have strong rent control or just cause for eviction ordinances to protect tenants from displacement. A growing tenant’s movement in Concord is reason for hope, as organizers there have worked to strengthen anti-harassment legislation and push for greater renter protections.

This map of low-income renters also reflects the pattern of regional resegregation described by Urban Habitat. Tech-driven growth and skyrocketing rents have been pushing Black and Latinx service-sector workers out of core cities to the outer parts of the region. Of the 1,577 census tracts in the region, 28 are home to more than 1,000 low-income renters (shown in the darkest blue on the map above). These neighborhoods are largely located in San Francisco and Oakland, but there are several exceptions. One Concord neighborhood near Meadow Homes Park is home to more than 1,200 low-income renters, 99 percent of whom are housing-cost burdened. In one Antioch neighborhood, 87 percent of the roughly 1,000 low-income renters are cost burdened.

Renters with Low Incomes Living in Unincorporated Communities Lack Political Representation

Nearly 21,000 low-income renters live completely outside of the region’s municipalities in unincorporated communities like Castro Valley, Rodeo, and Marin City. Renters in these places lack local council members and other municipal elected officials who can adopt legislation that protects tenants. Instead, they must directly advocate for renter-friendly policies to their county elected officials, who often represent tens of thousands of residents. This lack of representation contributes to political exclusion and reduced access to resources like rent relief, especially for low-income communities of color.[2] More than 750 low-income renters, for example, reside in one neighborhood in the predominantly Latinx and Black unincorporated community of Rodeo in Contra Costa County, and 81 percent are rent burdened. With no municipal government, they rely solely on state- and county-level protections and programs.

Stronger Renter Protections and Long-Term Affordability Solutions Needed Across the Bay Area

Many working-class renters have lingering rent debt that places them in further financial distress and at greater risk of eviction, and many are are living in places with few long-term protections from displacement. As cities and counties are determining how to spend their American Rescue Plan fiscal recovery allocations, they should seek to address the needs of renters who have been hard hit by the pandemic’s economic fallout. Partnering with local tenant-serving organizations can help ensure renters with pandemic-related rent debt apply for and receive emergency rental assistance.

While the growth of the renter population has sparked tenant activism and the adoption of rent control and eviction protections in places like Alameda, Hayward, Mountain View, and Richmond, more Bay Area localities need to follow suit and ensure their residents are protected from eviction and homelessness. And local leaders must also commit more time to developing long-term solutions to reduce the high cost of rent and boost the incomes of economically insecure renters.



[1]This income data is based on the 5-year 2019 American Community Survey, which is the most recent income data available. For a family of four, these income thresholds correspond roughly to just under 80 percent, 50 percent, and 30 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), which the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) classifies as “low-income,” “very low income,” and “extremely low income”, respectively.

[2] Gomez-Vidal and Manchikanti Gomez (2021). “Invisible and unequal: Unincorporated community status as a structural determinant of health” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953621006249#!