The last few months have been filled with photos of U-Haul trucks on social media and stories like this one about rents dropping due to a mass exodus from San Francisco. Setting aside the obvious trend that pandemics and remote-working options tend to make some people flee dense cities, we should probably be taking the long view that the things that have made San Francisco a desirable place for many to be for decades are either not gone or are likely to come back in time. And therefore not all the people fleeing are necessarily gone for good.
Also, as in other great cities, the people who leave just make room for fresh blood, and housing markets sort themselves out barring total earthquake/fire/nuclear Armageddon.
That’s the take that the Chronicle now has following multiple stories there and elsewhere suggesting the opposite. (SFGate also had a so-called “exodus reporter” who says she’s been covering the out-migration of San Franciscans for two years, and she announced in June that she’s leaving herself.) The paper says it put out a call for stories from Bay Area residents fleeing for cheaper or less-dense places, and “more than half” of the 20 people who wrote in suggested that they’d potentially move back here after the pandemic is over.
Is the current exodus exponentially huger than the usual summer outflow? And by what magnitude? That’s hard to say.
“Precise information about population shifts in the Bay Area may not be available until after the release of 2020 census data,” the Chronicle says. “But more than fifty people responded [to our call for move-out stories]… and reports from real estate and moving companies indicate a transformative shift, even if it cannot be measured precisely.”
The reasons people cite for moving are pretty familiar to anyone aged 23 to 45 who’s lived in a city: there’s a new kid to worry about and this isn’t really a city built for kids; there’s an opportunity to work remotely and live with your parents for a while to save on rent (or you’re broke and unemployed and need to move back in); or you’ve just gotten to a point where your tiny apartment isn’t cutting it and the pandemic has pushed you to realize that there are other places you could live and have more space.
The pandemic has also accelerated people’s previously discussed plans to leave — for kid reasons, or others — because if you were leaving at some point anyway, and you’re working remotely anyway, why keep paying SF rent while you wait for the restaurants and bars and theaters and museums to reopen? As 16-year Mission District resident Michelle Lai tells the Chron, “All the things that we love about the city are just gone right now.”
There will always be reasons to love San Francisco and reasons to complain about what it’s become or how it used to be better. This is the nature of a city. People have been declaring New York dead too, and then Jerry Seinfeld wrote an op-ed that said it’s all lies, and people cheered. (And then people told Jerry to fuck off on Twitter too.)
But no, some will say. This time is different. It’s a pandemic. And San Francisco has been sucking for years and it’s full of needles and homeless people and tech bros bah!
What if a (minor) tech exodus and some rent stabilization and a new generation of twenty-something dreamers moves in and makes SF more diverse, kinder, and more vibrant than it’s been in years? Sure maybe your coworker or friend from college has moved back to St. Louis and says the food’s great there too. But San Francisco will still be this gorgeous, problematic, temperamental gem with incredible seafood and cocktails, and those kinds of places are pretty hard to kill.
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