For a long time, Bernal Heights was the best kept secret in San Francisco real estate.
Short commutes into downtown, relatively affordable homes, and panoramic hilltop views made it a desirable place for artists, musicians, and tech workers to settle down.
But the residential enclave located south of the city’s Mission District and Noe Valley has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, causing home prices to appreciate 111% over the past six years. The median sales price for a two-bedroom abode is $US1.58 million.
In 2014, real-estate site Redfin named the north slope of Bernal Heights, an area that’s densely packed with million-dollar homes, the hottest neighbourhood in America based on increases in search traffic to local listings.
I spent an afternoon in Bernal Height’s northern end to see what the buzz is about.
Bernal Heights has a small town feel while still being in a central part of San Francisco.
It sits south of the city’s downtown and is bisected by Cortland Avenue, a main shopping strip populated by small markets, cafes, restaurants, and hair and nail salons.
I started my day north of Cortland at Café St. Jorge, a Portuguese-inspired coffee shop and restaurant where I found young people catching up with friends and working on laptops.
Critics say Cafe St. Jorge makes one of the best toasts in San Francisco. My colossal slice of wheat toast was topped with smashed avocado, lemon juice, chilli flakes, and sea salt.
It cost $US6 and was very Instagram-worthy, in addition to tasting great.
Source: SF Eater
The area where Café St. Jorge sits has gentrified over the past few decades. In the 1980s at the height of the crack epidemic, drug dealers and bike gangs ruled these streets.
Crime has fallen significantly, though Bernal Heights experiences more incidents of assault along Mission Street (the border between Bernal Heights’s north slope and the Mission District) than the San Francisco average, according to real-estate site Walkscore.
In the last six years or so, Bernal Heights has become a hot-spot for new tech money looking to buy in San Francisco. The homes are relatively affordable compared to those in nearby Noe Valley, where the median sales price is $US1.94 million.
The homes varied in size and style. Last year, houses for sale spent a median number of 16 days on the market and sold for 13% above asking.
During my visit, the most expensive home for sale was a remodeled four-bedroom built in 1903. The owners were asking $US2.35 million.
If rustic charm is more your thing, this 756-square-foot cottage hit the market for $US779,000. It’s one of San Francisco’s last remaining “earthquake shacks,” built after the 1906 fires ravaged the city.
I stumbled into an open house and met Michael Minson, a real estate agent who has lived and work in Bernal Heights for years.
He said he sells primarily to people working in tech and financial services, who come for the charming small-town feel and spectacular views.
The house that Minson was showing, listed at $US1.3 million, belonged to a “tech family” who upgraded to a bigger property near Precita Park, also located in Bernal Heights.
“Bernal Heights isn’t really on the way to anything. People go around it,” Minson said. He said the people who do buy in the neighbourhood want to be part of the community.
Bernal Heights is becoming a destination on its own, especially the stretch closest to the Mission. One of its gems, Precita Park, spans three blocks and offers locals a place to picnic, toss a Frisbee, or catch an outdoor movie.
Source: Bernal Height Outdoor Cinema
Across from the park is what one local calls “the best corner store ever.” Harvest Hills Market feels like a pint-sized Whole Foods. It specialises in natural and organic foods.
While many corner stores put sugary gum and candy by the cash register, Harvest Hills places fresh oranges, nectarines, and bushels of basil, lettuce, and kale at the check-out.
Bernal Heights Park, located in the north end, draws visitors from around the city and beyond. A closed-off road winds up a large rocky hill. It’s a strenuous walk.
But the views from the top are unmatched. On a clear day, visitors can see the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, downtown, and the hills of the East Bay.
At the summit, I met Zola Hjelm, a recent college grad who said she has lived in Bernal Heights her whole life. Her parents bought a house before the dot-com bubble and real-estate prices soared. Even if they didn’t offer her free rent, “I would choose to stay here,” Hjelm said.
Hjelm said she finds comfort in the neighbourhood’s “homey” feel, and escapes the daily grind in Bernal Heights’ historic — but shrinking — community of artists and musicians.
In April 2017, the city evicted eight artists living in a commercially zoned warehouse in Bernal Heights. The cost of living has become prohibitive for some longtime residents.
Minson, the real estate agent, described Bernal Hill’s housing boom as a pair of “golden handcuffs” for some residents.
People who have been here long before the tech industry arrived like seeing their property values rise, but few can afford to buy new homes, according to Minson.
I left the hill via one of the staircases found on all sides of Bernal Hill. They wind through people’s backyards and are surrounded by tall grasses and wildflowers.
After climbing hills all afternoon, I was in need of a drink.
I spotted a sign for $US5 margaritas at El Rio, a queer bar on the border of Bernal Heights and the Mission District. An eclectic bunch of old-timers and millennials mingled inside.
Bernie Hirschbein, a retired chemist, started renting in Bernal Heights in the late ’80s. Seeing how the real estate prices were rising in ritzy neighbourhoods to the north, he bought a home before it was too late.
“It didn’t seem affordable then,” Hirschbein said with a chuckle.
Hirschbein said he comes everyday to El Rio, founded in 1978, to join a regular game of pool. The bar also hosts karaoke nights, community benefits, and afternoon parties on the patio.
B. Mea, 86, is another fixture of El Rio. She said she has come to shoot pool and drink soda water every day since the ’80s. She lives in rent-controlled, low-income housing nearby.
She doesn’t know how so many tourists wind up at El Rio — or in Bernal Heights, for that matter. “I’m sure they get it on the internet,” Mea said.
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