“We’ve moved five times in five years. You have to think about how stable that could be,” Jerry May said, motioning to his 5-year-old daughter as he carted a box to his truck.
For Jerry and Nicole May, along with their three kids, this past June 30th was a big one. The very next day, they were poised to move into their new home—one they could finally call their own. But it was also bittersweet.
“We’re excited to have a home, but we would have chosen to stay here,” Nicole said. Their new home wasn’t inside the shores of Alameda. Instead, they left their community behind for a 90-mile drive inland to Sacramento, to the house they just bought. One they could afford.
The Mays refract a personal lens to the housing crunch in Alameda and the Bay Area in general. Across the myriad of reasons—from limited housing stock to wage disparities—the Mays underline a growing chasm for those who work in the public sector.
“Teachers and firefighters, public sector jobs, can’t stay here in Alameda,” Nicole said. “Our jobs haven’t kept up with the market. We’re just four years behind, always.”
For the past year and a half they spent every day on Redfin and toured homes in Alameda, toting along their five-year-old daughter, and two sons (age 3 and almost 1). They were in search of something that could better fit their family of five than the two-bedroom 1,000-square-foot ground-level duplex they were in.
During their initial move to Alameda in 2021, they felt there was a bright chance to finally plant deep roots in the Bay Area. “We did what most people weren’t doing,” Jerry said. They saw the pandemic-fueled out migration as an opportunity, that maybe the area would be affordable again. “That was a facade that didn’t last,” he said.
“I’m a firefighter, my wife’s a teacher. We want to make this happen,” Jerry said, sharing that they were willing to skimp on the size of the home to stay here. “We placed an offer on a box,” he said.
They were outbid.
They applied for the below-market-rate units. “We waited a year and a half and it never came up,” he said.
Speaking broadly about the Bay Area, Nicole continued, “We don’t feel valued here. Everyone needs teachers,” but you “can’t do that and establish a family.”
They are not alone in moving to Sacramento. According to Redfin’s Alameda real estate analytics, the capital city is the biggest single destination Alamedans are making searches for outside of the Island.
The numbers are telling. In July, the median Alameda single-family home sale price was $1.3 million. Redfin estimates that a 30-year mortgage to cover that with current rates would cost nearly $9,500 a month. In the hip and walkable East Sacramento the Mays moved to, replete with strong schools, that same class of homes were $400,000 less. Whereas in Alameda every single family home went for over list price, in their new neighborhood, just 60% do.
Lamenting during their last days in Alameda, the inability to make it their home was a visibly frustrating rub for the two. Nicole has a master’s degree from UCLA. Jerry has a master’s from CSU Long Beach and attended Harvard’s Trade Union Program. They feel like they took all the right steps and applied their skills to places and communities that they felt that could use it. For her it was kindergarten, starting in the Los Angeles, then San Francisco Unified School Districts. Jerry is a captain in the San Jose Fire Department along with being vice president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 230.
With all that investment, Nicole’s years of experience and additional schooling paid, her salary was just north of $72,000 on San Francisco Unified’s payscale. In the Alameda Unified School District, that nets out nearly the same when Nicole looked at its scale.
When they decided to have kids, it didn’t make financial sense for Nicole to go back to teaching. “Nicole loves being with kids, but what are you going to sacrifice to raise someone else’s kid?” Jerry said. With infant day care often starting around $2,000 a month in Alameda, that would eat nearly half of her take home pay—for one child.
“I don’t think the average person knows that a teacher can’t live here. And why would they?” Nicole said with exasperation. In different times, she sees how that was once possible. But for her generation of teachers in their 30s, the math doesn’t make sense to be in that profession and establish a family—particularly if both parents are in public sector jobs. “All of my teacher friends who started families have left the Bay.”
Firefighters fare a bit better. Salaries start at $81,000 and grow to nearly $118,000 after seven years, in Alameda’s negotiated pay schedule for firefighters. Further incentives and long service can add nearly $15,000 as part of the career development program. San Jose pays in a similar zone, and with overtime, Jerry netted a little over $147,000 last year before pensions, dues, benefits, and insurance cuts.
Currently a single-income household, this puts the Mays well inside the Area Median Income of $160,000 for a family of five like the Mays (or $148,000 for four people).
Affordable housing opportunities are city-stipulated parts of large scale developments like Bay 37, a new project behind Target in West Alameda, that recently opened up. Plute, the builder, lists 1,300-square-foot condos starting at $878,000. There, 21 homes were allocated at below market rates available to households making up to 120% of the current Area Median Income (in Alameda County this category, Moderate Income, is $177,000 for a family of four). The same types of units that go for $878,000 on the market, were available for $391,000 in this program. Distributed through a lottery to eligible home buyers, a tranche of six were released in early spring. The Mays weren’t on the list.
“Firefighters will be ok. They can commute,” Jerry said.
Because of the platoon schedule firefighters work through—48 hours on duty, 96 off—commuting from afar is a commonplace. Unlike, say, a tech job, where workers transfer between companies with ease, firefighter salaries are highly tied to years of service at a given department and part of the reasons why transfers are rare. Some even fly in from rural states where the cost of living more than makes up for the cost of regular flights. This arbitrage of location makes it viable for people in Jerry’s profession to buy a home. Teachers, by the nature of their work, just can’t do that, Jerry points out.
“We make just enough not to be low-income, but we don’t make enough to stay,” Jerry said. Then he gets more pointed about his family’s quandary: “You can make a living, positively impact society, and be an engaged public servant. But it will come at a cost of not living in the community or any surrounding communities you serve.”
Author’s note: This was a story of one family, but it captivated me because it reflects a human lens to what sometimes feels like a faceless housing and cost of living crunch. The Mays’ kids went to my daughter’s pre-school. Our daughters are close friends, and—in full transparency—we in turn became friends with the Mays. While the cost of living pushed them from Alameda, even the people who stick around bear the burden. For my daughter, it cost her a friend leaving town.