On Privilege, Generational Wealth, and Housing in the Bay Area

Noor Ali-Hasan
Apr 22 · 4 min read
Densely clustered homes with a hillside in the background. Sutro Tower is at the top of the hill in the background.
San Francisco. Photo by author.

During my second summer living in the Bay Area (2007), I decided I wanted to try finding a place in San Francisco. I was in my late twenties and wanted a new experience. The tech economy was booming and lots of people were moving to San Francisco and the Bay Area in general. Trying to find an apartment in the city was ultra competitive. I’d show up to an open house early only to find 10 or 20 other young people standing outside the building waiting for an agent or landlord to let us in. Once you were let in, it was a mad scramble to see the place, talk to the agent/landlord, and then complete an application and leave whatever paperwork you needed to leave. This process never seemed very fair. I believe according to fair housing laws (I could be wrong on this) landlords are supposed to take the first qualified applicant. Having a bunch of people drop applications in random order meant that they could just pick whoever they liked the most for whatever random reason. Some apartments were especially competitive — it has a dishwasher? A washer/dryer in the unit? Gasp! And don’t even get started on parking. I was completing an application at one such highly desirable apartment when I overhead a young woman about my age tell the landlord that her dad will pay for the full year’s rent in full.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

The idea that someone in their twenties can have their rent paid for (in full! for a whole freaking year! and in advance!) by their parents was astounding and maddening to me. At the time, I didn’t understand how anyone’s parents could have so much cash on hand to be able to lend (give?) their kids what would amount to at least $30,000 (SF rents in my price point at the time were probably around $1800–2500 but my memory could be failing me here). I’m pretty sure I did not have that much in savings myself. Here I thought I was a good applicant — I had a well paying stable UX research job at Microsoft, I had good credit, some savings (but clearly not enough to pay a whole year’s worth of rent up front!), didn’t smoke, and didn’t have a criminal history. The optimist in me continued completing the application but I knew there was no way I could compete with someone’s rich dad.

I never did find an apartment in the city that accepted my application. I ended up moving at the edge of Mountain View and Sunnyvale and paying a lot less rent (it was not anywhere near as exciting as I imagined living in SF would be).

I’m telling you this story because there’s a lot of wealth (some of it newfound, some of it generational) and privilege in the Bay Area. Throughout the past fifteen years of living here, I’ve seen a lot of people I’ve known buy homes before I did. Some were especially frugal and sacrificed to save enough for a down payment. But there were a lot of people I’ve known who would outright say, “My parents are helping us with the downpayment.” Heck I’ve known people whose parents flat out bought them places. I bet the girl whose dad was paying for her rent in advance also paid for a downpayment or heck a whole house. There’s nothing wrong with getting help from your parents if they have the means. But those of us who aren’t in that situation don’t really want to hear about it.

Over. And over again.

If you don’t have rich parents, I’m here to tell you that there’s no shame in that (and there’s no shame in helping your parents) and you can still save up enough for a downpayment in the Bay Area. It might take you longer than your peers but it is still possible. And you don’t have to be super super frugal (although if that’s something you value that’s totally fine too!). I spent a lot of my thirties traveling (sometimes extravagantly). I probably could have bought a house sooner if I had traveled less or spent less on travel. But I don’t regret any of those experiences.

Hating on the Bay Area seems to be in fashion as of late. But if you love the Bay Area as much as I do but don’t think you’ll be able fulfill your dreams here, I know how you feel. And trust me — you’ll get there. I never thought I’d ever be able to buy a house here, either. And there’s nothing wrong with renting if you don’t want to buy a house.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t address my own current privilege. It may seem whiny for someone who’s worked in tech for the past fifteen years to complain about how hard it is to buy property in the Bay Area. Rents are out of reach for so many people who don’t work in tech. I am grateful that I hardly ever had to worry about making my rent (there was a period in 2009 where I worried about getting laid off as so many other people were losing their jobs). But a lot of the people who read my UX research writing are early in their careers. They may look at the wealth and privilege of the Bay Area and wonder like I did so many years ago if there’s a place for them. Well, I am here to tell you that I am a product of the Pell grant and student loans.

I found my place here and there absolutely is a place for you here, too.

Little Pink Taqueria

First time home buyer. Silicon Valley. Renovations. What could go wrong?

Noor Ali-Hasan

Written by

I’m a UX research lead at Google, where I help teams design and build desirable and easy to use products. Outside of work, I love art, Peloton, and Lego.

Little Pink Taqueria

Renovating a 1949 bungalow in the Palm Haven neighborhood of San Jose, CA.

Noor Ali-Hasan

Written by

I’m a UX research lead at Google, where I help teams design and build desirable and easy to use products. Outside of work, I love art, Peloton, and Lego.

Little Pink Taqueria

Renovating a 1949 bungalow in the Palm Haven neighborhood of San Jose, CA.

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