Stockton is less affordable than the Bay Area because of sprawl

One of the things Stockton has that other larger cities in the state do not is relatively affordable housing. You can buy a good sized three bedroom house for the amount it costs to pay rent in a studio basement apartment in San Francisco. Our lower cost of living is one of the big reasons why bay area commuters flocked to our sparkling new subdivisions; they got more bang for their buck. But just because housing is cheaper here than the Bay Area overall does not necessarily mean that living in Stockton is cheaper for its residents.

In fact, San Francisco turns out to be a more affordable place to live than Stockton.

I realize that this is a counterintuitive statement, but hear me out. According to data from the American Communities Survey (ACS), the average Stockton household commits a higher percentage of their annual income to housing and transportation costs than their counterparts in San Francisco and the Bay Area. While housing in Stockton is very reasonable compared to other cities, our single-zoned and sprawling growth creates extra costs that largely neutralize any financial savings accrued from cheaper housing. Sure, the average Stocktonian’s rent might be much less compared to someone in the bay area, but the fact that we have to drive far and often means that we spend a greater percentage of our income overall on housing and transportation than the average Bay Area resident.

Here’s how we know this is true. Take a look at these maps below provided by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT).

Source: Center for Neighborhood Technology

Source: Center for Neighborhood Technology

The map above breaks down Stockton into two areas: neighborhoods where households spend less than 30% of their income on housing (yellow) and those where households spend over 30% (blue). According to CNT, 30% of a household’s annual income spent on housing is the threshold that is considered “affordable.” You can see that there are several neighborhoods in Stockton where housing costs are relatively affordable for the average Stockton household. In fact, as a whole, Stockton residents spend about 28% of their income on housing, not a bad number, especially for California.

Unfortunately, once you consider transportation costs, living in Stockton becomes much less affordable. Take a look

Source: Center for Neighborhood Technology

Source: Center for Neighborhood Technology

As you can see, Stocktonians commit a huge chunk of their annual income to driving. The blue areas (pretty much everywhere) indicate where residents spend over 15% of their annual income on transportation, which includes commuting as well as day-to-day expenses. According to CNT, 15% of annual household income is the threshold for affordable transportation expenses. Shockingly, Stocktonians on average spend a whopping 26% of their income on transportation, nearly as much as is spent on housing. By comparison, Bay Area residents spend about 18% of their income on transportation, and San Franciscans spend just 12%. This disproportionate spending on transportation appears to be a problem throughout the Central Valley. In Modesto, residents spend 27% of their income on transportation. In Fresno, it’s 29%. In Bakersfield, it’s 30%.

When transportation costs are combined with housing costs, you can see that Stockton turns out to be less affordable thanks to the amount of time spent driving.

Source: Center for Neighborhood Technology

Source: Center for Neighborhood Technology

When these two expenses are added together, Stocktonians spend about 54% of their income on housing and transportation. Bay area residents as a whole spend 48%. Oakland residents spend 41%. San Franciscans spend 40%. It is important to keep in mind that these comparisons are made based on a percentage of each city’s average annual household income, not the total actually spent. Still, it’s pretty remarkable that the average Central Valley household spends a significantly higher percentage of their income on housing and transportation than those living in the Bay Area.

Source: Center for Neighborhood Technology

Source: Center for Neighborhood Technology

Why is this important? Because the more money we spend on gas, the less disposable income we have to spend on groceries, movie tickets, restaurants, shopping, sporting events, etc. The money spent filling our tanks and repairing our cars could be better spent on local goods and services. Instead, money that could have gone to a few extra nights out with friends or a day at the mall is spent on gas that probably came from overseas.

Stocktonians will probably always spend a larger than normal amount of income on transportation as our city has been built around the automobile for the last 60 years. However, this doesn’t mean that moving forward our planning decisions need to maintain this pattern of forced car dependency. We already know that the city of Stockton can’t afford more sprawl, and it turns out Stocktonians can’t afford it either.

Tags: , ,

Categories: Smart Growth, Transportation

Author:David A. Garcia

David A. Garcia created SCL in March of 2012. Garcia is a Stockton native with a background in urban policy and planning, holding a Bachelor's Degree from UCLA as well as a Master's Degree in Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. He currently serves as the Policy Director at the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. David was also COO at Ten Space, a real estate development firm focused exclusively on Downtown Stockton, and continues to advise on their projects. Prior to that, he worked three years as a researcher/analyst for a Congressional research agency in Washington, DC. The views expressed on this site are entirely of the author's

5 Comments on “Stockton is less affordable than the Bay Area because of sprawl”

  1. Chris Mondragon
    July 9, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    Only if we could do what the City Of Lancaster did……….

  2. Jon Seisa
    July 9, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

    Well, this is very fascinating, and there is a connection to the sprawl, I agree, to some degree, but also there is another factor I suspect, since Stockton only exceeds San Francisco in land area by a small amount, an extra 16 square miles (a small patch of 4 miles by 4 miles), SF = 46.9sq.m., and Stockton = 64.7sq.m.

    The tremendous amount of time Stocktonians spend on commuting is due to the visionless city/county leaders, Caltrans and the state’s negligence to budget, develop and execute viable and comprehensive regional expansion of transportation infrastructure to meet the population growth demand, because 90% of the travel time is on congested surface street arteries due to the complete lack of efficient freeway arteries that would otherwise cut driving time by 4/5ths that of the current norm. Though expressways are not a cure-all, I advocate a balance between multiple modes of transportation, light-rail street cars, RT buses, etc. and comprehensive community planning, it is a fact that Stockton is highly deficient in expressway infrastructure for a city of its size, say compared to a similar city in scale and population like Cincinnati, Ohio.

    Stockton has east-side and west-side north-south expressways (1-5 and frwy-99), true, but the only east-west express route is isolated downtown (Frwy-4); there is absolutely none for the entire northern part of the sprawled out city where the majority of the population lives, or the entire south part of the city; and no expressway “Loop” encompassing the periphery of the city to expedite traffic access and flow around the whole city. So to travel from east to west, or diagonally, in these inner regions commuters have to use the tangle of surface streets, which is time consuming due to the overload of vehicles for lack of strategic and efficient freeway routes.

    It’s unbelievable that after all these years that Caltrans is alas and actually constructing a direly needed west-east thoroughfare connection between I-5 and Frwy-99 in the critical industrial aeropolis area along Arch-Sperry Road for more convenient and speedy trucking access to and fro the southside Metro Airport and the industrial sector. I must say I consider this achievement a true supernatural miracle.

    Additionally, the still 40-year incompletion of 4-Frwy towards its ultimate due east connection to Antioch and the Bay Area is incomprehensible; as well as a logical projected eastward route to the Sierras is unfathomably puzzling.

    If Stockton had an upgraded and expanded regional freeway system, then this would drastically relieve congestion on the surface streets and greatly improve travel time for Stockton city commuters.

    Case in point is Cincinnati of relatively equal population and size to Stockton, having a population 296,727 (2010), density = 3,809.9/sq mi., and area = 79.54 sq mi. [Stockton population 291,707 (2010), density = 4,500/sq mi., and area = 64.75 sq. mi.] Cincinnati is slightly more sprawled than Stockton, and Stockton actually has a higher density level. See in this map how the city of Cincinnati has a comprehensive expressway system that is inter-connective and facilitates access and flow to its different populated and urbanized sectors.


    Even another comparable city, Lexington, Kentucky, utlilized the expressway loop to bridge its sprawling sectors for easier commuter accessiblity.


    • Gary Prost
      July 17, 2013 at 10:43 am #

      A couple of points about Highway 4. 1) Turning 4 into a freeway out to Antioch has technical challenges that would prove economically insurmountable. That is a direct route across the California Delta, and the ground there is too soft to support such a facility. A freeway would have to be built on a causeway all the way across, which would be prohibitively expensive. It would also be more infrastructure to protect from flooding, and it would connect to a section of Highway 4 through Antioch and Pittsburg that is already so congested that it’s practically impassible during commute periods. 2) I just don’t see the traffic demand to warrant a freeway east of Stockton to the foothills, though this would be a developer’s dream. Such a freeway would likely increase congestion in Stockton, rather than decreasing it, because it would induce more sprawl to the east.

      As for no loop encompassing the whole city, Highways 99 and the Crosstown, and I-5 are used by residents in combination for this purpose. Eight Mile Road is becoming a de facto expressway to the north, which will complete a loop. As you mentioned, with the completion of Arch Road to French Camp Road/I-5, there will be a southern loop.

      I don’t know where it would be possible now to build other expressway facilities at a reasonable cost. New lanes involve new right-of-way, which must be purchased. That’s not cheap. Where will the money come from, and how do you deal with a homeowner or business who refuses to sell? Eminent domain isn’t as easy as people think, and it’s not cheap. There may be some opportunities to convert existing arterials to expressways, but that’s still easier said than done.

      A bigger problem with expanding the number of lanes is that they cost a lot of money to maintain, and we’re not maintaining the lanes we already have adequately because of lack of funds. A better near-term solution for Stockton is better traffic management using state of the art technologies and better data. In the longer-term, having more self-contained neighborhoods throughout the city would reduce the demand on Stockton’s arterials and have the added benefit of an improved quality of life for residents. Adequately funding the Regional Transit District (RTD) would also likely to get more bang for the buck that paving new lanes.

      • Jon Seisa
        July 21, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

        Hi Gary… You bring up some excellent points, particularly about soil integrity around Delta Highway 4, and I know there is a gradual incremental sinkage process from the loss of carbon dioxide from the microbe soil exposed to oxygen that has produced the below sea level elevations in the area, though roads sink much slower because they act as a barrier preventing oxygen exposure and reduce carbon dioxide loss.

        But you’d be surprised what can be built on reclaimed marshland, i.e. the Lincoln Memorial and the entire National Mall. Even 1/12th of San Francisco and major parts of Tokyo are landfill supporting skyscrapers and heavy infrastructure. Modern technological engineering is just amazing. Pylons would be sunk through the soil and drilled and anchored into bedrock for stability if a freeway were to be built properly across the south delta periphery. Designs could even feature hydraulics or a pylon latchet system with the option to lower the freeway incrementally through the years at the same identical rate and elevation as the soil sinkage and elevation.

        I’ve combed the net for the #4 expansion and have found nothing other than the current ½ mile expansion in the Seaport area past Fresno Avenue to Navy Dr., with some indication of connection, eventually, to Charter Way at the San Joaquin River. So I do not know what the state’s overall master strategy is beyond this, if anything at all. The Caltrans site was not very informative.

        My concern is that in a mere 36 years (2050) the Stockton/San Joaquin County Metro will boast a staggering population of 1,700,000+ residences, more than the current population of Philadelphia today (1,517,628), or larger than San Diego today (1,284,347), which will completely overtax the current expressway infrastructure. Two parallel north-south routes (I-5 and 99) and two east-west surface street boulevards in North Stockton (8-Mile Rd) and South Stockton (Arch-Sperry), along with the centrally located east-west Crosstown Freeway will be entirely inadequate to support this population magnitude’s transportation needs, and the simultaneous influx of outside commuters, trucking transport and deliveries, and transitory traffic passing through the region. In my analysis, the state, county, regional cities affected, California Bay-Delta Authority, and Caltrans need to develop a projected regional design metro mobility strategy and earmark specific artery construction zones for comprehensive future freeway routes, freeway intersections sites and surface street connection links; and have the future urbanization designed, bulit and infilled around it, rather than the current nearsighted modus operandi of allowing the urbanization design complete carte blanche to land-grab and crowd out the possibility for any strategic integration of a comprehensive expressway system.


  1. SCL responds to the Building Industry Association of the Greater Valley | Stockton City Limits - July 17, 2013

    […] the Building Industry Association of the Greater Valley returned to respond to my latest article on transportation and housing costs. Regular readers of SCL will remember Mr. Beckman from my post in early June where I challenged his […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: