man resting under blanket in his car

Navigating the booming cost of urban life

From extended commutes by car, train, and ferry to living in cars or with strangers, workers struggle to access city jobs.

Mark Tafoya, 69, lost his home in Coronado, across the bay from downtown San Diego, but continued to live there in his car. He'd often been asked to leave by police and was ticketed for sleeping in his car. Tafoya lost his job working for San Diego County five years ago but currently has a part-time job and is studying to be a clinical psychologist. He recently began staying at the Dreams for Change safe lot in San Diego, where he says he feels safe.
A version of this story appears in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

It’s a day like any other in San Diego, built from blue skies, 74 degrees, palm trees, school buses, traffic congestion, Taco Bell, and Hobby Lobby. The morning light is flat. Yet at the horizon, a haze, an implacable stirring.

Drive away from the Pacific Ocean, into the working-class enclaves and commercial strip mall anywheres, and look closer. There, in that random Nissan chug-chug-chugging at the red light, or there, in that minivan by the curb, you see a life’s possessions, consolidated and squashed into rounded lumps of shirts, towels, and blankets flooding through the gaps between the headrests, their driver’s postures pitched forward out of habit.

Now drive about nine miles from the beach to Golden Hill, to a parking lot beneath the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway at the New Life Assembly of God church. The lot is leased by the nonprofit Dreams for Change. Every night around six, you’ll find more cars stuffed with entire lifetimes, parked in the fading afternoon dusk, their occupants looking uniformly beaten down.

For two years Darrick Alexander has lived in the parking lot with his girlfriend, Lola Cheatham, and their three daughters. The lot is part of the Safe Parking Program, one of 35 secure lots in Southern California run by charities and nonprofits and set aside each night for more than 1,500 people who sleep in their cars.

Alexander has just arrived from his job as a manager at a drug treatment and mental health facility, at the end of a 40-minute evening commute. He’s calm, soft-spoken, and disarmingly agreeable for a man in his 30s with a family in this situation. The gray leather seats of his 2002 Volkswagen Passat already are reclined for sleeping, the sunscreens ready to slip into place, more for privacy than any California sunrise. His daughters—ages four, six, and 14—will sleep in their mother’s van, parked nearby.

Many in the lot have full-time jobs. But they can’t afford housing in San Diego, one of the nation’s most expensive markets, where the median home value is $633,000 and the average rental is about $2,000 a month.

They need to live relatively close to where they work, so they wind up living in their cars. Without that reliable commute to whatever paycheck they earn, they’ll never afford housing.

Like many Americans, they’re painfully aware of how conjoined the need for a reasonable commute and affordable housing has become. Their lives are a coiled convergence of personal problems, rising rents and stagnating wages, and little opportunity for housing in metro areas, of minimum wages rising in cities where people who need those wages can’t afford to find a home anyway. It’s never one thing, but like one of those chalkboards on The Wire, a Spirograph of lines running here and there, suggesting vast conspiracy.

In this case, the result is to deny people from having both a home and a means to work near that home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 130 million Americans commute to work daily, the majority by car.

Since 1980, the first year the bureau studied commuting, the average commute for most Americans is up 20 percent and now approaches an average of 30 minutes. But the fastest growing commuter class, by commuting length, are those who commute at least 90 minutes. Almost four million have a commute this long. And it’s not just those outside of San Diego, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, or Washington, D.C.: Three-quarters of the metropolitan areas in the U.S. have seen commutes longer than 90 minutes spike.

I’m from Rhode Island. The percentage of workers there who travel at least 90 minutes to a job now—toward Boston, most likely—is up 40 percent in recent years.

But, say, you are a service worker whose neighborhood in San Francisco gentrified, whose rent has spiked, and who is being pushed farther and farther from the city. (The median cost of a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is now $3,460.)

So you move 80 miles inland to Stockton, California, and commute to San Francisco daily. You’d be among the 10 percent of that workforce who live in Stockton. In Riverside, California, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, the percentage of workers driving to L.A. daily is 7.3 percent.

All of this is steered in part by the need to find affordable housing.

You might have heard that wages are not rising much. But the cost of housing is rising everywhere. A recent study by the personal finance firm GOBankingRates found that in, say, Austin, Texas, where more than 32,000 people are commuting daily to Dallas, a salary of about $73,000 is necessary to live comfortably; in 2017, it was about $55,000. And according to the Brookings Institution, the working poor already carry a disproportionate burden of commuting expenses, never mind housing.

If you are considered the "working poor," 6 percent of your salary typically goes to your commute; 8 percent if you drive. For those in all other income categories, it’s about 3 percent. A University of Minnesota study found that drives of 90 minutes or more are increasingly common, not just for lawyers but for janitors and cooks; for school teachers, the number who drive that long to school went up 26 percent from 2002 to 2015.

Think you can just move close to a commuter rail station, and boom, problem solved?

According to the Regional Plan Association, a research and advocacy nonprofit that studies living issues in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area, 60 percent of municipalities there have passed zoning laws that restrict the ability of those communities to build the kind of mixed-income housing that people who work in service jobs there might be able to afford.

The safe-parking project began in Santa Barbara more than a decade ago and then spread along the West Coast. Many of the residents are not chronically homeless but have been middle-class—they come from families that lived in the region for generations but then began to struggle after a job loss, a rent hike, a divorce, a medical bill, a foreclosure, an addiction. They come from areas that lack affordable housing, which includes much of California. Gentrification of their neighborhoods left them unable to both live and work there.

Alexander and others at the lot did the calculations and decided that if they no longer could afford to pay for decent housing and a car to get them to work, then the car had to stay.

Since his daughters will sleep in their mother’s van, parked nearby, everything he owns fits in this car, an interlocking Tetris of garbage bags and suitcases.

The church, a white-on-white take on a Spanish mission that could become a coffeehouse with a little imagination, looms tall above the car, casting sharp geometric angles across the parking lot.

It’s a week before Thanksgiving. Alexander’s girls spin in sweaty, frenzied laps, chasing each other and flying plastic bags behind them like parachutes.

The four-year-old, Winry, plows headlong into him: “Daddy, bathroom?”

He walks her into the church; like everyone else here, they get five minutes in the bathroom. When they return, he watches the girl dart off and says softly: “They want somewhere to live. We tell them, ‘We are going to get you there.’ ” Those bags, he says, are for snack night, which tonight means a visit from a local church group that drops off sandwiches, salads, and bread.

When the safe lot closes for the day at six a.m., Alexander heads to work and Cheatham takes the girls to a park. They pay two dollars for showers at a community center. The older girls have been homeschooled at a library. Winry has lived in a safe lot for most of her life. At night the family returns when the lot opens at six and claims the usual parking spaces. Children must be in their cars by nine.

Once the girls and their mother are asleep in the van, Alexander tucks a pillow behind his head, pulls up a thin blanket, and curls into the driver’s seat of his car. At night, he says, “I still wake up to every noise.”

Thanks to aid from a San Diego housing program, after years of living in the safe lot, in December 2018 Alexander’s family would finally find an apartment they could afford.

The lot holds a few dozen cars. By 8 p.m., it’s full—actually, it’s full every night. Other safe lots in San Diego hold three times this many cars; one lot is specifically for parents with children. Most of those are full too. Many have waiting lists.

Ava Blackwell began working as a case manager for the Safe Parking Program five years ago. She says she cried a lot at first. Now she walks me through the New Life lot with solemn, efficient dispassion: That car holds a whole family. No one in this car speaks English, but they all work. The owner of that car paints houses. The owner of the car with bicycles commutes two hours each way.

We pass Ferris Hamaw, who is 51 and wears a wool cap and shorts; his body is lean and fit, his face is much older than his years. He says he was an auto mechanic once. When onboard computers became standard, many years ago, he was “caught off guard” and never recovered from the sea change. Now he goes to a local continuing education program to gain skills for a better job. Because the reach of public transit in San Diego can be relatively limited, he walks five miles to school, leaving the lot before dawn so he can find an empty classroom to finish homework. His car broke down; he can’t afford to fix it, but he sleeps in it. He regards it as his eventual ticket out. The way he sees it, he is sacrificing traditional housing for job training that will pull him out of the lot entirely.

He’s betting wisely.

Having a means of commuting to work—reliable transportation—is the most common factor in escaping poverty, according to a 2015 Harvard study. None of this is surprising to Teresa Smith, who moved decades ago from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to San Diego for college. She spent years working on generational poverty for nonprofits. Nine years ago, inspired by the Santa Barbara safe lots, she created safe lots in San Diego. Several years after that, the city of San Diego, finally, formally recognized (and partly funded) her project for the first time.

“We opened under dark of night,” she says, laughing. She looks a little like David Bowie, with the staccato laugh and the sad smile of someone used to being asked for help. She said that she was seeing a new breed of homeless: “We would send them down to a shelter and they would come running back, ‘Oh my God, there’s no way I’m staying in that shelter. I’m not homeless. I just lost my job...’” She also kept hearing that they needed their cars, that they couldn’t afford to park them anywhere overnight. Many had weighed their options and made the choice between securing affordable housing and living farther away from their jobs and paying for the extra-long commute or simply living in aging vehicles, closer to their work.

When you talk with urban planners and transportation experts about affordable housing and its relationship to commuting—when you flip through transportation study after transportation study—California inevitably looks like ground zero. Stockton now sees at least 10 percent of its commuters traveling 90 minutes on average to a job in San Francisco; the commutes from Riverside, east of Los Angeles, often get much longer. The rents are cheaper there, but if you do low-income service work in Los Angeles or San Francisco (where minimum wage tends to be typically higher than in surrounding cities), living within easy reach of that coastal job is rarely an option now. (Read why cities of the future must deprioritize cars.)

But that’s far from the whole picture.

Ask an urban planner what keeps them awake at night, you often hear about affordable housing and a reliance on cobbled-together solutions that aren’t real solutions. You hear about cages in Hong Kong doubling as apartments. And neighborhoods in New Zealand where landlords rent out tents in residential backyards. And squatters in empty London high-rises who remain for a fee (as “temporary guardians”).

<p>Nancy Lopez, a dishwasher and cook in downtown San Jose, lives in a converted back porch. A transgender woman, she came to the United States from Mexico to escape violence and to get away from her disapproving family. She is studying to become a chef.</p>

Nancy Lopez, a dishwasher and cook in downtown San Jose, lives in a converted back porch. A transgender woman, she came to the United States from Mexico to escape violence and to get away from her disapproving family. She is studying to become a chef.

Phil Lasley, an assistant research scientist with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, says the biggest concern for city planners is finding creative ways for housing people in service jobs and getting them to those jobs. He told me of workers residing in storage units, and of informal agreements in Austin that allow commuters to catnap in closets.

David Dworkin, president and CEO of the National Housing Conference, ran through a litany of similarly dodgy long-term solutions, from safe lots to micro-apartments, and sounding frustrated, blurted out: “The alternative, of course, is actual affordable housing.”

In the small city of O’Fallon, Missouri, is Mallory Box, 32, who lives 40 miles and two counties from her job in St. Louis. She commutes; it’s not a remarkable commute—she doesn’t qualify as a “super commuter,” that urban planning name for those increasingly common commuters who leave one urban core for another. But like many who drive to work in one of the 50 largest American cities, her commute has gotten worse—about 80 or 90 minutes—and she can’t quite afford much better. It’s a kind of not-really-crazy commute that, a generation ago, would have looked bananas. (Follow one man's daily, eight-hour commute.)

“Welcome to the suburb of the suburb of the suburb,” she says at her front door.

She leans in for a hug, to make her dog comfortable with a stranger, then steps back, revealing the pleasant, auburn glow of a middle-class home, a curio cabinet that traces her childhood to Texas, a well-appointed kitchen nicknamed “My Tuition”—meaning it’s what her parents would have spent on her if she hadn’t insisted they let her pay for college. She lives here with her wife—and father, who owns the house (and is now divorced). She slides cookies into a plastic bag, grabs her laptop bag, and we’re gone.

Forty-five minutes later, we still haven’t reached St. Louis.

It’s the first snowfall of the season, and lawns resemble Caesar salads. The highway is wide and, at 7:30 a.m., far busier than I would expect any highway near St. Louis to be. Though it’s lighter than normal, she says. It’s a Friday, a holiday weekend.

“Typically, it’s bumper to bumper, but the snow...” It’s not because everyone is taking light rail. In fact, we’re driving to the closest station. “I have to own a car to get out of St. Charles County—I would prefer not to.” She could take a SCAT—the unfortunate moniker for St. Charles Area Transit buses—but she figures that would add another hour to her commute. She would prefer to simply live closer to a rail station, but before her current job, years of struggling to pay rent as a waitress and a bowling-alley events manager did a number on her finances. (Maps reveal how public transit can shape cities.)

“There are times I think, Gosh, I wish I had my own place, but the money,” she says, pulling into a gas station. “Now that,” she says, staring at a big empty office park beyond the pumps, “that would make a perfect rail station for reaching St. Louis. She calculates in her head—“If there were a station here, I would save, three or four thousand a year.”

Instead, we drive to the outskirts of St. Louis to board a train, moving through burned-out neighborhoods, gentrifying corners, across the Missouri River and industrial parks.

Ninety minutes after leaving O’Fallon, we reach Citizens for Modern Transit in St. Louis, where Box works. Twenty-five years ago, the advocacy organization helped bring commuter rail to the city. Kim Cella, its executive director, joined then, partly inspired by accessibility issues—her brother had been paralyzed in a fraternity accident in college.

I ask her why Mallory can’t get a rail station.

Cella places her palms flat on the table. For an hour she lays out a Wire-like murk of social concerns only a David Simon could conjure. Decline in ridership, suburban concerns about security, lack of investment in the neighborhoods where transit stations already exist, a fundamental lack of support from the state for public transit in general—Missouri provides just $1.7 million for its 34 public transit systems. She describes a resistance to support for mixed-income dwellings in suburbs—similar to ordinances in other states that restrict construction of new mixed-income buildings near transit stations in wealthy communities, ensuring the burden of commuting stays on the less advantaged.

She stops.

Never mind the suburbs. Because of everything just explained, if you live in the city, especially if you are a person of color—say, a caregiver traveling to an elderly patient in a white community—your commute into those suburbs can stretch to two and a half hours. (Explore diversity in America, mapped block by block.)

And there's a lack of support for rail stations in primarily white towns. “Everything we do we have to look at through a racial or social inequality lens,” she says. For instance, there is no rail station in Ferguson. Race, she says, “is the undertone of anything happening in this community now.” She says that transit is considered "dangerous," and points out that "a significant percentage of the population thinks the system is not for them.” And when she says it is? “Their heads...”

She raises her fingertips from her skull in slow motion—her head is exploding.

Mahin Manley arrived at Common Sterling in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn a year ago. She works as a data scientist for Capital One in Manhattan and could probably afford to live closer to Manhattan. And yet years of commuting every few weeks back and forth from North Carolina to care for ailing parents, and shouldering years of their medical bills—along with a creeping feeling, now in her early 40s, of staying light on possessions and flexible, and surrounded by a small community—led her to Common.

First time she saw it, she cringed.

“I wanted something in a certain price range, a reasonable commute into the city, and it was a longer commute than I had.” It was also a touch taller than the 99-cent store and brownstones alongside it. Painted black and white, it shouts, Hipsters Inside. “I was thinking gentrification—Oh, this is going to come in, change the tone of the neighborhood, push out people who have been here generations? I still don’t exactly know the answer.” And when she told co-workers about Common, she remembers puzzled looks.

“You can see them thinking,” Manley recalls, “ ‘What mistake in her life did she make?’”

Common is a “co-living” facility—say “dorm” or “group housing” around the people who operate Common and you see pain in their faces or hear a flinch in their replies. It is, said CEO Brad Hargreaves, a way of streamlining everyday roommate scenarios. And in places with the least affordable housing and worst commutes in the country, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New York, it's something like a solution. For about $1,500 monthly, depending on the location, Common residents receive a small efficiency inside a larger home: rent, utilities, a bed, mattress, and regular amenities (such as toilet paper and garbage bags) are lumped into one sum.

When I visited, I wore a button of a cryptic line drawing to alert the 15 or so residents, mostly in their 20s, that I was, I suppose, a certified outsider. Inside, the place was quiet, cute, the walls entirely white, with a whiff of transience. Manley sat on her bed surrounded by not much more than a stack of books on computer science. She held a six-month lease and had not hung a thing. She seemed amused by the place, and not at all uneasy with the connotations of group housing or shared living or whatever you want to call it. Depending on the train and when she left work, she had an hour commute with a seven-minute walk, but she saved money here, taking a $40 bus ride back to North Carolina every few weeks and basically having a modest adventure, she explained. She reached into her closest. Out spilled two suitcases, still mostly packed.

To get in to the safe parking lot in San Diego, the form you need to fill out is a few pages long, with a list of rules and a three-line space where you explain your situation, why you’re there. I flipped through a form one morning, waiting for residents to wake. Their cars were Jeeps and Lexuses and VWs, two identical Priuses parked side by side. As they filtered out, they needed more than three lines to explain themselves. Many spoke in prepared speeches, the kind you hone sitting in your car for hours, day after day, feeling abandoned, fuming. A guy named Anthony Pechulis said that he couldn’t afford to live close to his work anymore, but he was headed there now. He held up a prepackaged egg, stamped “30 percent off.” A man named Eric Stevenson explained that he was on his way to a gym to shower before heading to work; he described a medical situation and a housing situation, and it all sort of sounded like a shipwreck.

A man named John McCarthy removed a blue tarp from his windows and belted his pants. He put on his uniform for work, driving a bus for disabled people. His shirt had coffee stains. His car has 200,000 miles on it and needs a new starter. His rent went up $100, now he’s here. (Historic maps reveal housing discrimination across the United States.)

“It’s a problem for the ages—things didn’t go your way, the gods didn’t smile on you. It’s the cost of living—OK, OK, I get it. But this—” he watched the lot wake—“is heartless.”

A teenager uncurls from the back of his father’s hatchback, stretching. A woman walks her dog beside her car. The sun rises, and another nice day in San Diego begins.

Chris Borrelli is a writer for the Chicago Tribune. Carolyn Drake is a photographer with Magnum and has been supported through grants from the Fulbright Program and National Geographic Society.

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