Scraping by on six figures? Tech workers feel poor in Silicon Valley’s wealth bubble
Big tech companies pay some of the country’s best salaries. But workers claim the high cost of living in the Bay Area has them feeling financially strained
“I didn’t become a software engineer to be trying to make ends meet,” said a Twitter employee in his early 40s who earns a base salary of $160,000. It is, he added, a “pretty bad” income for raising a family in the Bay Area.
The biggest cost is his $3,000 rent – which he said was “ultra cheap” for the area – for a two-bedroom house in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He’d like a slightly bigger property, but finds himself competing with groups of twentysomethings happy to share accommodation while paying up to $2,000 for a single room.
“Families are priced out of the market,” he said, adding that family-friendly cafes and restaurants have slowly been replaced by “hip coffee shops”.
Silicon Valley’s latest tech boom has caused rents to soar over the last five years. The city’s rents, by one measure, are now the highest in the world.
The prohibitive costs have displaced teachers, city workers, firefighters and other members of the middle class, not to mention low-income residents.
Now techies, many of whom are among the highest 1% of earners, are complaining that they, too, are being priced out.
The Twitter employee said he hit a low point in early 2014 when the company changed its payroll schedule, leaving him with a hole in his budget. “I had to borrow money to make it through the month.”
He was one of several tech workers, earning between $100,000 and $700,000 a year, who vented to the Guardian about their financial situation. Almost all of them spoke only on the condition of anonymity, or agreed only to give their first names, fearing retribution by their employers for speaking publicly about their predicament.
‘The American dream is not working out here’
Complaints from well-compensated tech workers will sound like chutzpah to many of the other 99% who are struggling to get by on a fraction of their income. But there appears to be a growing frustration among tech workers who say that they are struggling to get by.
Facebook engineers last year even raised the issue with founder Mark Zuckerberg, asking whether the company could subsidize their rents to make their living situation more affordable, according to an executive at the company who has since departed.
The cost of housing is a common complaint among Bay Area techies. Engineers can expect, according to one analysis, to pay between 40% and 50% of their salary renting an apartment near work.
One Apple employee was recently living in a Santa Cruz garage, using a compost bucket as a toilet. Another tech worker, enrolled in a coding bootcamp, described how he lived with 12 other engineers in a two-bedroom apartment rented via Airbnb. “It was $1,100 for a fucking bunk bed and five people in the same room. One guy was living in a closet, paying $1,400 for a ‘private room’.”
“We make over $1m between us, but we can’t afford a house,” said a woman in her 50s who works in digital marketing for a major telecoms corporation, while her partner works as an engineer at a digital media company. “This is part of where the American dream is not working out here.”
The prospect of losing her job and not having health insurance is a particular concern, given that she had cancer a couple of years ago. “If Obamacare goes away and I lose my job I am deeply screwed,” she said.
Michelle, a 28-year-old tech worker who earns a six-figure salary at a data science startup said her only chance of buying a home would be if she combined income with a partner. “For all the feminist movement of ‘you can do it all’, the concept of home ownership is really truly out of reach,” she said. “For me that’s disheartening.”
Another tech worker feeling excluded from the real estate market was 41-year-old Michael, who works at a networking firm in Silicon Valley and last year earned $700,000. Sick of his 22-mile commute to work, which can sometimes take up to two and half hours, he explored buying a property nearer work.
“We went to an open house in Los Gatos that would shorten my commute by eight miles. It was 1,700 sq ft and listed at $1.4m. It sold in 24 hours for $1.7m,” he said.
Although he said his salary means he can afford to live a decent life, he finds the cost of living, combined with the terrible commute, unpalatable. He’s had enough, and has accepted a 50% pay cut to relocate to San Diego.
“We will be unequivocally better off than we are now.” He said he won’t miss some of the more mundane day-to-day costs, like spending $8 on a bagel and coffee or $12 on freshly pressed juice.
Michael isn’t the only tech worker considering leaving Silicon Valley in search of a better life. A Canadian IT specialist in his late 40s, earning more than $200,000, has a similar plan. “When I came to the Bay Area the amount of money they were going to pay me seemed absurd,” he said. However, the cost of rent and childcare, which cost “more than I paid for my university education in Canada”, has been hard to swallow.
Sam, 40, lives with his wife and three kids in San Jose, earning around $120,000 a year at a multinational software company. “I get paid a very good wage, but I have three kids, childcare is ridiculously expensive so my wife mostly takes care of them,” he said.
He feels pressure being the sole breadwinner. “I’ve got no safety net,” he said. “I have credit cards, but this is not sustainable. If something bad happened I’d be out of the house in a month.”
Fred Sherburn Zimmer from San Francisco’s Housing Rights Committee agreed that housing is too expensive in the Bay Area, but points out that there are much graver consequences for people not working in tech.
“For a senior whose healthcare is down the street, moving might be a death sentence,” she said. “For an immigrant family with two kids, moving out of a sanctuary city like San Francisco means you could get deported.” She described a building in San Francisco where there are 28 people living in “studio-like closets” in a basement, including a senior and families with children.
For their part, many well-paid tech workers complaining about their own predicament say they also sympathize with the plight of people on more ordinary incomes.
“We think a lot about how people with normal jobs afford to live here,” said the Canadian IT specialist. “The answer is: they don’t. They commute from farther and farther afield.”
The digital marketer added: “During the first dotcom boom we had secretaries commuting three hours into work … It’s happening again. It was absurd then and it’s absurd now,” she said, adding that she and her husband both “know what it’s like to be poor”.
Sam, who works at the software company, isn’t optimistic about the future. “The only solution I see is a huge reset and we’ve already done that once in the last decade. It was really painful for a lot of people, including myself,” he said, referring to the dotcom crash in the early 2000s.
Some tech workers expressed a sense of guilt about their complaints when so many people are worse off, including San Francisco’s desperate homeless population.
“You are literally stepping over people to get to your job to make hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Michael. “How do you go about your daily life as if it doesn’t matter?”
He suggested venture capitalists should stop investing in “stupid applications” and funnel some money into solving real societal problems like homelessness.
“You are caught in this really uncomfortable position. You feel very guilty seeing such poverty and helplessness,” added Michelle, the 28-year-old on a six-figure wage. “But what are you supposed to do? Not make a lot of money? Not advocate for yourself and then not afford to live here?”
Sam agreed. “The whiny millennial snowflake type would say ‘you’re a terrible person making things worse for us’. The truth is, if I gave up, what would I do? Should I knit sweaters and trade them?”