When Wells Twombly looks out across his sunny Fremont backyard, he can sometimes still see his son and friends as children — standing on the roof of the shed, holding handmade bows and raining down toy arrows on their imaginary foes.
Such memories run rampant through the small, orange house on Colby Street that Twombly, 61, and his wife, Kathleen, 62, are leaving after more than two decades. They’ve lived in the Bay Area nearly their whole lives, and their roots run deep. Her great-grandmother was in San Francisco for the 1906 earthquake, and her great-great-uncle came to the Bay Area during the Gold Rush.
“So I’m not moving lightly. But I am moving,” Kathleen Twombly said as she prepared to head to Portland.
From Santa Rosa to San Jose, more and more residents are making the bittersweet decision to leave the Bay Area, abandoning its near-perfect weather, booming economy and thriving arts, culture and food scenes in favor of less-glamorous destinations like Austin, Boise and Knoxville.
Some are fleeing the Bay Area’s sky-high housing and rent prices, both among the most expensive in the nation. Others are cashing out, selling their homes to get more for their money in a less expensive city. Nearly all of them are fed up with miserable, hours-long commutes on snarled freeways.
More people are leaving the Bay Area than are moving in, according to a 2018 report by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and Silicon Valley Community Foundation. An average of 42 people left San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties each month in 2016, the most recent year for which data was available. That’s a sharp uptick from the year before, when the region gained an average of 1,962 residents per month.
Of the Bay Area residents who are still here, nearly half of those surveyed recently said they plan to move out of the region in the next few years, according to a poll released in June by the Bay Area Council.
As more people leave, local moving companies are struggling to keep up.
“This year, June just turned into something I’ve never seen in the 25 years I’ve been in it,” said Tim DeWitt, a dispatcher at Hayward-based Macy Movers, which has been inundated with clients clamoring to get out of the Bay Area. “Everybody’s leaving.”
The rush is so intense that last month Macy Movers’ parent company, Atlas Van Lines, issued a six-week blackout for out-of-state moves, saying the company had no trucks or drivers available until the middle of July. Until this year, DeWitt had never seen the company issue such a blackout.
A nationwide shortage of truck drivers is exacerbating the problem, leading to recent blackouts in other parts of the country as well, said Chris Mayer, vice president of sales for Macy Movers. But moving companies are especially hard-pressed to facilitate moves out of the Bay Area, he said.
“This has been probably the toughest summer we’ve had since ’06, ’07,” Mayer said.
San Jose-based Silicon Valley Moving Storage is seeing a similar trend, said owner Cheri Childs. Out-of-state moves have increased about 20 percent over the past two years, as more locals are “cashing out and leaving,” she said.
Kathleen and Wells Twombly thought they’d live in the Bay Area forever. They both worked for decades at jobs they loved — she at a Hayward artisan shop that makes decorative pewter items, and he as a historian and educator at Peralta Hacienda Historical Park in Oakland. But as they got older, their friends and family moved away. Their house had appreciated at a staggering rate, and they gradually realized they were destined to retire elsewhere. They expect to sell their house for four times what they paid for it, and use that money to buy a house outright in Portland, where Wells’ family lives.
“So we are hitting the housing market quick, before it crashes again,” Kathleen Twombly said.
Jenelle Harris, 48, realized it was time to leave her Santa Rosa home in January. She looked at a heat map of housing prices on real estate website Trulia and saw that the entire Bay Area was flushed in deep red, the most expensive color.
“I asked myself, after I looked at that, what am I doing? Why am I here?” she said.
Harris was born and raised in California, and had lived in Santa Rosa since 2001. For income she flips houses in Cleveland, because it’s too expensive for her to invest in real estate closer to home.
After her landlord raised her rent, Harris worried the increases would continue — a prospect she couldn’t afford. So she began brainstorming cheaper places to live, methodically eliminating those prone to snow or hurricanes, until just one option remained.
“I picked Austin,” she said, “and that’s where I went.”
Harris had never been to the Texas city, and she knew no one there. But two weeks after moving, she’s convinced she made the right choice. The weather is hotter and the beach is farther away, but Harris pays $1,100 a month for a “luxurious” apartment — compared to $2,300 in Santa Rosa.
“I really can’t be happier,” she said.
Nancy Pullen and David Preuss, both 68, hope to be that happy with their new lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. Sitting in the living room of their Richmond condo amid stacks of cardboard boxes labeled “bedroom,” “office” and “kitchen,” Preuss said he’ll miss the Giants and the A’s. But he was wearing a University of Tennessee shirt on moving day, and said he was ready to swear his new allegiance.
The husband and wife have lived in the Bay Area for almost 40 years, but as they grew older, they realized they couldn’t afford to live out their retirement here. So they sold their condo for $580,000 and paid $279,000 for a three-bedroom house on three-quarters of an acre in Knoxville. They’ll no longer have to make mortgage payments.
The couple will miss the church and community they’re leaving behind. But Pullen and Preuss, who describe themselves as politically moderate, won’t miss the Bay Area’s “super progressive politics.”
For 38-year-old construction superintendent Nate Moore, buying a home near the South Bay and Peninsula job sites where he works was financially out of the question. Moore commuted from Gilroy, where he rented a home with his wife and three children.
In September, the family will move into a two-story, 2,400-square foot house in Plumas Lake — a small town north of Sacramento — that cost $320,000. Moore’s new commute likely will be more than three hours each way, so he’ll be staying with family in San Jose during the week. Moore said he’s worried about spending so much time away from his 15-year-old son, 6-year-old daughter and infant son.
“My daughter, she’s a big-time daddy’s girl, so she’ll miss me, and I’ll miss her a bunch, but that’s what FaceTime is for,” Moore said. “My son is 6 months old, so I’m a little worried about missing out on maybe his first steps or his first word.”
Like many Bay Area transplants, when Renee Skudra moved with her son to North Carolina, she kept her 510 area code — an homage to what she calls “our beloved Berkeley.” The decision to leave in 2016 was heart-wrenching, because it meant leaving behind favorite places like the Cal Shakes theater company, the Berkeley Farmers’ market and the Cheese Board Collective.
“It was time to leave,” said Skudra, who was paying $2,700 to rent a three-bedroom apartment, including utilities, in Albany, two minutes from North Berkeley. “It felt outrageous. And I just started feeling like everything was over-harvested.”
Now they rent a three-bedroom house for $1,100 a month in Greensboro.
To Kathleen Twombly, leaving her home means more than leaving behind favorite restaurants, parks and friends. She’ll miss the very spirit and essence of the Bay Area — what she describes as a fierce individualist nature embodied in everything from the Gold Rush to San Francisco’s gay rights movement.
“I will always be a Bay Area, Californian, Northern Californian in my heart,” Twombly said. “But I will try not to show it too much in Oregon.”