Priced out of the Castro? Head for Brisbane, says economist
by Matthew S. Bajko
San Francisco's Castro district may be considered a gay mecca the world over, but it costs a pretty penny to live there these days. Housing prices have climbed so high that fears of the neighborhood's degayification have steadily increased over the years.
As they search out cheaper neighborhoods, more and more gay men are taking up residence elsewhere in the city. Some of the areas, such as the Bayview and Visitacion Valley, are as down-on-their-luck as the Castro was in the 1970s when it first started to attract gay residents.
Yet the cheapest place for gay men to live, according to real estate website Trulia, isn't within the city's borders. The San Francisco-based company issued a report last month declaring Brisbane, just south of the city, as the best alternative for those who can't afford the Castro.
"To get much below $500 per square foot and still have gay-male neighbors, look to Brisbane," wrote Trulia chief economist Jed Kolko in a report posted to the company's blog June 15.
Based on ZIP codes, the company calculated the share of same-sex male couples households using data from the 2010 census. Those figures where then combined with the median price per foot of listed homes in each ZIP code Trulia had registered on its site over the past year.
The calculations found that Brisbane's 94005 ZIP code registered a pauper-friendly $311 per square foot.
(They also looked at data for same-sex female couples, declaring Oakland's Redwood Heights neighborhood lesbians' best bet for finding inexpensive digs. See related story.)
The Castro's 94114 ZIP code, at $671 per square foot, topped the list of the country's 10 most expensive ZIP codes with the highest concentration of same-sex male households. The 94131 ZIP code covering Noe Valley, Diamond Heights, and Glen Park registered a close second with $564 per square foot.
"No surprise that San Francisco's Castro neighborhood is at the top of the list, but throughout the country there are suburban and small-town neighborhoods with high concentrations of gay people," wrote Kolko. "Even in the big, expensive cities, it's possible to find a gay community without spending a fortune."
But Brisbane, population 4,282, as a viable gayborhood compared to the Castro? Most people would be hard pressed to locate it on a map. And the Australian city of the same name eclipses it in international name recognition.
It is nestled on the eastern slopes of San Bruno Mountain. Blink and you'll miss it driving past on Highway 101.
There is no BART station, though a local bus line does stop on the outskirts of Brisbane's sleepy four-block Main Street. The nearest Caltrain stop is a mile from town.
Its relative obscurity was turned into a moneymaker for the town's library, which sold "Where the hell is Brisbane?" T-shirts one year to raise funds.
The San Mateo County city isn't even listed as a location option on the popular gay hookup site AdamforAdam. (The omission was discovered in trying to seek out gay Brisbane residents to interview for this story.)
None of the handful of gay men on Facebook listed as living in Brisbane agreed to be interviewed by the Bay Area Reporter for this article. The only person who responded wrote that he wasn't sure he could provide comment since he works in San Francisco "and well Brisbane is just a place to lay my head."
The employee at a local hotel then asked, "Does Brisbane really have that many gays?"
The truthful answer to that is no, said longtime Brisbane resident Kevin Fryer, a gay man who serves on the city's Recreation and Parks Commission. He hadn't heard about his hometown being dubbed a cheap place for gay men to live until after being sent the Trulia report by the B.A.R.
After reading it, he said, "I think the study is a little odd. It is not like there are lots of gay men running all over the place," said Fryer, a harpsichord maker who has called Brisbane home since 1997.
Fryer, 56, said he knows a handful of fellow gay and lesbian residents.
"The short answer is yes, I know a fair number," he said, quickly adding, "There is not a gay majority population by any means."
Nonetheless, he and his partner, Sisto Flores, 50, are very fond of Brisbane.
"We really love living there," said Fryer, who launched a chamber concert series in town a while back and serves as its artistic director.
Small town charms
Asked if he thought other gay men would want to live there, Fryer said he had never thought about Brisbane in such a way.
"It is a funny thing to put that framing on it being a great place for gay men. It is a great place to be totally integrated into a culture as a gay person," said Fryer. "You are just totally integrated into the culture at-large."
Another longtime gay Brisbane resident, Tom Lambert, 65, said the community is very gay friendly. He recalled that the city has had several gay council members since the 1990s and knows half a dozen gay and lesbian couples who live in town.
"It is a nice place to live. It feels like you are out in the country half way between the city and the airport," said Lambert, a retired accountant. "Brisbane has always been a well kept secret for obvious reasons. It is a small community and has a lot of community spirit."
He and his husband, Tom Stout, moved to town in 1990. The longtime partners met in 1975 and bought a house in Glen Park in 1978 for $80,000.
When they bought their home in Brisbane it cost $260,000. Lambert estimated the home is now worth about $750,000.
Fryer also had been living in Glen Park when he moved into an apartment in Brisbane "with a broken heart," he said. He chose the city because it was close to his studio in the Bayview.
"At the time I thought I would be there a few years," he recalled.
He ended up staying, and in 2000 became the first homeowner in a new development being built called Altamar at the Ridge. The three-bedroom, two-bath house cost $400,000, and due to the economy, likely would sell for the same today, he said.
"It is probably a good time to buy," said Fryer.
There may not be good public transportation options, but the Castro is just a 20-minute car drive, Lambert noted. The weather is much nicer than the city, he added, and he enjoys being able to access hiking trails for the protected open space from his backyard.
"I would never leave here. I would never move away from here," he said. "I can't imagine a nicer place to live than here."
The town, with its small downtown and homes built into the bowl-shaped hillsides, feels like a warmer, fog-free version of Glen Park. It has some of the charms of city living, say residents, but with less crime and congestion.
Mad House Coffee at the end of Visitacion Avenue, Brisbane's main drag, acts as a community gathering place, while at the other end is a public park home to a weekly farmer's market on Thursday evenings.
There is a dog park near City Hall and, on the other side of the highway, is a marina and bayside hiking trails. A large lagoon keeps the freeway traffic at somewhat of a distance from Brisbane. Many of the homes have gorgeous views of San Francisco's downtown skyline and the bay.
Brisbane's nickname is "City of the Stars," and the celestial bodies adorn the city's street signs. At Christmas time large wooden stars attached to buildings throughout town are lighted at night.
"I love it. It is a small town and you know everybody," said Fryer. "It is a small town where you can make a difference and make things happen."
Maybe an influx of gay residents will finally put Brisbane on the map.
The Trulia report on cheaper alternatives to gayborhoods throughout the country can be found at http://trends.truliablog.com/2012/06/welcome-to-the-gayborhood/.