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Bay Area has best housing markets in America, and it’s hurting us

Thirty years ago, San Francisco was already priciest city in America

What makes a good housing market a good housing market? It depends on who’s asking.

Take a national survey by the credit site WalletHub, which first ranked 300 US cities by the robustness of their housing markets, comparing things like the proportion of homes with positive equity, the average degree of annual appreciation, the vacancy rate, and the foreclosure rate.

Out of those 300 cities, San Francisco ranked a respectable and downright competitive 64th. San Jose came in an amazing 18th place. Sunnyvale is number 35, and Berkeley just barely slid into the top third at 98. (Oakland scored lower than most Bay Area cities at 138.)

None of these figures should be a big surprise to anyone, except perhaps those market watchers who feel the Bay Area’s overall position might merit being a little bit higher.

So is that a good market? It certainly is if you’re in a position to take advantage of it. Or if six years ago you were spending a lot of sleepless nights staring at the ceiling and worrying that housing would just never bounce back from the flaming disaster of a few years prior.

On the other hand, the same WalletHub study also ranked those 300 cities for affordability, based on home prices relative to median household income, cost of maintenance, unemployment rate, and job growth rate.

You can see where this is going: While San Francisco blew away a lot of other cities on the jobs-related fronts, we got hammered on home prices, ranking only a devastating number 259 on the list.

San Jose managed to come in number 171. Berkeley was a depressing 272. Oakland got the worst of both worlds both times, rating only 278th place on the affordability scale. So is that a healthy housing market? Maybe. But it’s not always terribly healthy for the people in it. (In fact, it’s literally killing some people in Oakland.)

How did it get this way, some people ask? Well, to a degree, it’s always been like this. In a separate but timely report titled "Rich City, Poor City," the real estate site Trulia notes that the median home value in San Francisco has rocketed 557 percent since 1986.

Back then, the median San Francisco home cost a little under $161,000, the equivalent of $353,500 today. San Jose’s median price was just under $155,000. Oakland’s, $130,700.

But here‘s the kicker: Even in ‘86, these three Bay Area cities were already the first, third, and seventh most expensive places in America, respectively.

The Bay Area’s crushing lack of affordability and accessibility is hardly anything new, as longtime residents will testify. The change over time is a question of degree; just like the gap between rich and poor continues to get wider, the gap between middle class earners and the lowest rungs of the home ownership ladder spreads out too.

Home Insurance company Nationwide recently reported that only a handful of home markets in the US are "vulnerable to a downturn." Technically, that’s good news. Secretly, many people have probably been hoping for a bust, either in housing or tech, despite the damage it would do. But you can’t win (or lose?) them all.