People are fleeing the Bay Area. But they might not be gone for long

Shortly after Erica Johnston and her husband learned they were expecting a child, their best friends moved from San Francisco to Austin, Texas.

Johnston and her husband began to wonder if they should follow suit. Rent would be half the price for a larger place. They could be closer to friends. The Texas city would be a more affordable place to raise a child.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and, six months later, raging wildfires brought unsafe air quality. “The last few weeks, especially with the fires, we can’t even take our daughter on walks,” Johnston said.

The combination of crises made their decision for them. With no real reason to remain in San Francisco and remote work encouraged by Johnston’s employer, Airbnb, they decided to move to Austin, too.

“It’s such a strange time for San Francisco,” she said. “There’s no sense in me paying the rent.”

Just like Johnston, most other Bay Area escapees have left because the coronavirus pandemic, shelter-in-place rules and wildfires have amped up the region’s space constraints and high cost of living, while minimizing many of the cultural and career reasons that motivate people to bear with the downsides.

Some of those leaving are young college graduates moving home to live with their parents to save money, or college students studying from home. Some young workers in tech or other corporate jobs in the region, mostly under 35, have decided to move with friends to places like Los Angeles, Montana or even New Hampshire, embracing the flexibility of remote work.

And a final large group are parents like Johnston, many of them also working in the tech industry, who have relocated within California or across the country for more space and a lower cost of living.

But this exodus may not be a permanent one. Of the more than 20 people who shared anecdotes for this story, more than half said they are considering returning to the Bay Area when the pandemic ends, although they do not know when that may be or what that will look like.

Precise information about population shifts in the Bay Area may not be available until after the release of 2020 census data. But more than fifty people responded to queries from The Chronicle to share their stories about moving, and reports from real estate and moving companies indicate a transformative shift, even if it cannot be measured precisely.

The number of people seeking price estimates to move out of the Bay Area was 46% higher this year than in June 2019 for Unigroup, which owns moving companies United Van Lines and Mayflower. Other moving companies, including U-Haul and Winter Moving and Storage, have also reported increased demand for trucks and moving services in the region.

The effect appears most dramatic in San Francisco proper. Rents have dropped between 14% and 15% year over year for one- and two-bedroom units in the city, and homes listed for sale have skyrocketed 96% in San Francisco, dramatically higher than every other metropolitan area but New York, according to data from Zillow, the real-estate site. (It is not clear how much of that is due to people moving out of the region or within it; Realtors had reported high demand this summer from people moving from San Francisco and Silicon Valley to the North and East Bay.)

San Francisco’s “demand score,” or the relative interest in San Francisco sale listings compared to other markets on, has dropped 83 points since January, from 89 to 6 on a 100-point scale. The level of interest is by far the lowest it has been since at least September 2016. Average listing prices, which peaked at $2.75 million in January, have since fallen to $1.9 million — about where they were in 2017 and 2018, but significantly below 2019’s levels.

Nationally, 20% of Americans say they have relocated or know someone who relocated since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a June Pew Research Center poll. The effects of this moving trend on the housing maket are most pronounced in the San Francisco area, Zillow researchers said.

Here are some portraits of those choosing to move that emerged from The Chronicle’s reporting.

Back home with the parents: The first wave of the exodus began when Bay Are colleges and universities canceled in-person classes, and a significant number of students moved back in with their parents.

University of San Francisco fourth-year student Tori Hunt lived in a third-floor walk-up apartment in the Inner Richmond during the school year, but she moved in with family in Roseville after USF went remote.

“I would love to come back and be there, but paying $1,700-plus a month if I don’t absolutely have to feels unnecessary,” she said. Because most colleges are remote this year, most of those students will not return for the foreseeable future.

Cross-country adventures: Recent graduates and young, newly remote workers who are mostly renters make up another portion of Bay Area escapees. More than 52% of people ages 20-29 are now living with their parents, the highest rate since the Great Depression, according to a Sept. 4 Pew Research survey. Around 10% of adults nationwide between the ages of 20 and 29 say they moved because of the coronavirus pandemic, the most of any age group, according to a June Pew Research poll.

Many are moving in with friends from college and planning rural adventures far from San Francisco.

Nikita Ramoji, a 22-year-old recent graduate working in tech, plans to leave the Bay Area this month to live with friends for as long as her company continues to allow remote work. She and her friends are deciding between places in Oregon, Nevada, Washington and Utah to move to for an indefinite period of time — at least through the end of the year.

“I would definitely prefer for the pandemic to end and to be able to live the life I would have otherwise, but given the reality I’m trying to make the best of it in a safe way,” Ramoji said.

It’s not just tech workers making these temporary moves. Charley Locke, a story producer for Pop-Up Magazine, and her boyfriend left their Oakland apartment at the end of August. They plan to move across the country to Massachusetts in October for the foreseeable future, in part to be closer to her boyfriend’s family.

“Living in a small apartment has been really tough over the last six months,” she said, describing her frustration with little moments, like finding space by sitting on a chair between the wall and the bed.

“I always imagined myself building a life in the Bay Area, but it feels increasingly untenable to do that,” she said, adding: “In some ways, the pandemic is prompting an internal reckoning.”

Saving money — and sanity: Some young workers have also made more permanent moves. The high rent and cramped spaces drove out San Francisco tech recruiter Lucy Wu, who has gone from living in a 400-square-foot apartment to a 1,400-square-foot one near Pasadena in Southern California.

The additional space has worked wonders for her mental health, she said. “Everything that was appealing about the city was gone, so it was an easy decision to move out,” she added.

Countless others have left the Bay Area for mental health reasons as well. When LinkedIn employee Sahil Handa learned he could work remotely, he put most of his possessions in storage and booked a one-way ticket to Hawaii.

“Probably one of the best decisions I took, and honestly, I’m not missing San Francisco too much, especially not the tech bros, high rents and the weather,” he said.

Uprooting the family: Families with children have also left the region over the last few months, and though they too are motivated by space and cost constraints, many said they are accelerating already-discussed plans to leave anywhere from one to five years into the future.

So why move now? Historically low interest rates caused by the pandemic-induced economic crisis have made home ownership a more affordable financial proposition for most families. And those that have lingered because they love San Francisco’s arts and food scenes now see only the problems.

“All the things that we love about the city are just gone right now,” said Michelle Lai, a 16-year resident of the Mission District who moved south to a house in Capitola (Santa Cruz County) in mid-July.

She and her husband had discussed moving out of San Francisco with their young son for some time, but “everything just accelerated” because of the pandemic and the possibility for remote work, she said.

“It really just put our plans in fast forward,” said Johnston, the Airbnb worker relocating to Texas.

And while she and her husband’s planned move to Austin is technically for just one year for now, “this is probably going to be permanent,” she added.

That’s a common thread for those leaving the Bay Area: embracing the ambiguity of life during the pandemic and accepting that the temporary may blur into the permanent.

Anna Kramer is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @anna_c_kramer

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