SAN FRANCISCO — For commuters sitting in traffic on Highway 101, heading home to tiny apartments that eat up most of their paychecks, a new bright-green billboard offers yet another reason to pack up and leave the Bay Area.
“Own a home. Work in tech. Move to Pittsburgh,” the ad teases.
The billboard was erected last week by Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based startup Duolingo — the maker of a popular online language-learning platform and mobile app — to lure tech talent away from Silicon Valley and into the Steel City. It’s a unique campaign that capitalizes both on the Bay Area’s notorious housing shortage, and the ongoing exodus of local residents searching for cheaper homes and a better quality of life.
And it appears to be working.
In the week since the billboard went up off 101, where the freeway cuts between San Francisco’s Mission and SOMA districts, one Duolingo recruiter reported receiving at least 50 phone calls from people who mentioned seeing the sign, the company said. Not all of those calls resulted in applications, but at least some disgruntled commuters likely are looking for a way out.
“There’s just significantly less traffic here,” Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn said. “Being able to buy a home and actually walk to work, which is unheard of in Silicon Valley, is actually pretty common here.”
Half of Duolingo’s 110 employees walk or bike to work, von Ahn said, and about the same number own a home.
The median home value in Pittsburgh is $132,400 — compared to $1.3 million in San Francisco, $1.1 million in San Jose and $755,600 in Oakland, according to Zillow.
Those out-of-sight prices, unaffordable even for many Bay Area workers with high-paying jobs, seem to be playing a role in encouraging residents to leave in numbers higher than the region has seen in 10 years. Last year, for the second year in a row, the droves of people leaving the valley nearly equaled those moving in — 44,102 people left between July 2015 and July 2017, and 44,732 moved in, according to the 2018 Silicon Valley Index report published by Joint Venture Silicon Valley.
That’s because no one can afford to live here anymore — not even Google employees or doctors at Stanford, said Joint Venture president and CEO Russell Hancock.
“It used to be the California dream,” he said, “and now it’s turning into this Silicon Valley nightmare.”
About 10 percent of Duolingo’s employees used to live in the Bay Area, according to the company. Von Ahn says when he asks Bay Area-based applicants why they want to relocate to Pittsburgh, they usually tell him it’s because they want to buy a house.
The Duolingo team decided to capitalize on that by ramping up its Bay Area recruiting effort. While Pittsburgh has a robust tech talent pipeline — it’s home to Carnegie Mellon University, and Uber, Google, Amazon, Apple and Intel have offices there — Duolingo can’t always find local employees to fill the roles it has open. There are plenty of back-end engineers in Pittsburgh, von Ahn said, but Duolingo needs more app developers.
Silicon Valley recruits are highly prized, he said.
“Many of them have worked for companies that we admire and look up to — companies with very popular apps, the Instagrams and Facebooks of the world,” von Ahn said. “So they have very good training from very well-run companies. They bring a little bit of that culture here, which I think is pretty useful for us.”
Kevin Wang moved to Pittsburgh from Berkeley for an engineering job at Duolingo six months ago and never looked back — except maybe to miss the East Bay’s gorgeous weather. Wang, 30, paid $1,100 to rent a room in a four-bedroom condo while attending grad school at UC Berkeley. When he graduated, he took a job at Uber and moved into his mother’s house in Walnut Creek, while sometime’s crashing at a friend’s house in Berkeley. His commute to Uber’s San Francisco office typically took 40 minutes on BART, and Wang said he’d never be able to buy a home there without his parents’ help.
So Wang, who had lived in the East Bay since middle school, decided to head to Pittsburgh. Shortly after he arrived, Wang and his wife bought a three-bedroom home for less than $600,000. Now he bikes the mile from his house to the Duolingo office.
“I like it,” Wang said of Pittsburgh. “I think it has everything I was experiencing in Berkeley. It has plenty of good restaurants, reasonably bike-able streets…It has good parks, and a decent music scene as well.”