Bret Stephens claims San Francisco is a city in decline — here’s why he’s wrong

Tech workers’ exodus offset by immigrants’ arrivals


The number of people living in San Francisco increased from mid-2019 to mid-2020. And the number of people migrating out of San Francisco to other states increased, too. This is the contradictory story of arrivals and departures in The City. Does this mean that San Francisco is in decline? That’s what the pundits have been claiming.

First, let’s look at the numbers.

According to a California Department of Finance (CDOF) report, from July 1, 2019 to July 1, 2020, the state’s population increased by over 20,000 people, representing a growth of 0.05 percent. The City’s share of that increase amounted to 2,777 people during that same time frame. To give this some perspective, San Francisco ranks 12th in the state for size, 13th for the actual increase in its population count, and 18th in terms of the percentage change in population.

The CDOF report stated that San Francisco is one of only five urban coastal counties — the others being Alameda, Contra Costa, San Diego and Santa Clara — that “gained population, but at a slower pace compared to the same time last year.”

Natural increase, births minus deaths, fell slightly last year. There were 243 fewer births and one more death in 2020 compared to the 2017-18 time frame.

In a nutshell, while more people left California than moved in, more people made The City their home than departed for greener pastures in the world; but more people departed to other cities in the United States than came to live in San Francisco. In other words, there was more immigration in and domestic migration out. Significantly, domestic migration from San Francisco to other cities was a whopping 5,899, more than doubling from two years ago.

Tech advocacy group has followed the movement of tech workers in San Francisco since the pandemic hit. (Screenshot)

Tech advocacy group has followed the movement of tech workers in San Francisco since the pandemic hit. (Screenshot)

Many pundits believe this is proof that San Francisco is in decline.

Bret Stephens of the New York Times implies that the domestic exodus is because of The City’s deplorable Democratic leadership and the lack of safety of our city streets.

(Nationwide, there was a more than 15 percent rise in homicides, according to crime analyst Jeff Asher. San Francisco had 48 homicides last year compared to 41 the year before, though police data shows that overall crime in The City was down in 2020, compared to 2019. )

Derek Thompson, a staff writer at The Atlantic, concludes that “These migration trends could spell long-term trouble for cities such as San Francisco and New York, where municipal services rely on property taxes, sales taxes and urban-transit revenue.”

San Francisco’s chief economist Ted Egan told the Planning Commission in October that there was a 43 percent drop in sales tax revenue from April to June of 2020 compared to the same period last year, and there was a 90 percent drop in sales for downtown businesses. Well duh. Most brick and mortar businesses have been seeing a steep drop in sales for obvious reasons.

And tech journalist Nellie Bowles reported that a 29-year-old startup investor Keyan Karimi moved to Atlanta to live in his parents’ house. “Seeing the inequality of billionaires in San Francisco’s wealthy Pacific Heights neighborhood and the homeless camps down the hill ground on him,” Bowles explained.

In fact the San Francisco tech industry, as a whole, seems to be in churn. With the new normal of working remotely, employees and business owners are finding their productivity manageable in remote locations. No longer is there a need to be tethered to the morning commute.

And so folks are moving to Austin, Nevada, Sacramento or Seattle where the cost of living is lower. One of my own close contacts, a San Francisco entrepreneur with three children, has relocated to be close to his wife’s family in Atlanta.

But interestingly, the immigration influx into The City has stayed relatively the same, offsetting the exodus. There was a net gain (minus the numbers of residents who left for other countries) of 6,203 new immigrants who moved in to San Francisco last year.

The City has always been a thriving, bustling city attracting hordes of diverse talent. It used to be a place where imagination and creativity came to roost. As Herb Caen once put it: “One day if I go to heaven … I’ll look around and say ‘It ain’t bad. But it ain’t San Francisco.’”

The tech industry, while bringing an infusion of capital and creativity, also changed the soul of The City. And San Francisco has been straining under the pressure.

In fact, as Thompson explains, by failing to build enough housing and particularly affordable housing, cities like San Francisco “have become mere playgrounds for the wealthy — especially the childless wealthy.” We have lamented this very occurrence in many an editorial.

The CDOF report points to two significantly optimistic signs for the years ahead.

The first is that the tech industry has started the process of reducing its footprint. In the last few decades, The City’s growth has not been commensurate to its capacity, and this might just be the tectonic shift that The City needs. There will be a period when elected officials will struggle to balance their budgets. But then most heavily populated urban cities in the country will be going through that same exercise.

Tech advocacy group reports on the impact of tech workers leaving The City. (Screenshot)

Tech advocacy group reports on the impact of tech workers leaving The City. (Screenshot)

And the second indicator is that immigrants still flock to San Francisco. If immigrants — bringing with them a strong work ethic and a hunger for advancement — are the new normal, then there is hope yet.

Mayor London Breed in her Jan. 28 State of The City remarks this year had this to say to the pessimists: “To those who are writing obituaries to San Francisco, we read all these before. We proved them all wrong before. And we’ll do it again.”

Jaya Padmanabhan is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Write to her at Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan.

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