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They Say San Francisco Is Over. We’ve Heard That Story Before.

San Francisco Narrative
by Alex Bresler Sep 9, 2020

I haven’t wanted to live in San Francisco since high school. Having grown up on the quiet side of the Golden Gate Bridge, I envied the city kids who bused into my suburban prep school during the week and presumably spent weekends sneaking into city bars while I was stuck halfway up Mount Tamalpais waiting to get my learner’s permit.

Visions of the city’s Victorians soon became fantasies of Brooklyn brownstones, or some freshman dorm on the East Coast. I wound up in Boston by way of India and Paris, where I’d split a gap year, and spent the next decade moving everywhere but San Francisco: back to Marin County across the bridge, a stint in Bali, a couple of apartments in Lisbon. Last summer, I spent a month in Amsterdam as a trial run for an indefinite move I’d planned for March.

Then COVID-19 came.

Now, as an exodus of newly remote workers threatens to upend the city, they’re saying San Francisco might be over, and I’m staring down the barrel of an apartment hunt in the one city I said I’d never move to: the one that’s closest to home.

Shortly after Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced the company’s permanent remote-work policy in May, an anonymous survey conducted by workplace app Blind revealed that two-thirds of the 4,400 tech workers polled would consider leaving the Bay Area if given the opportunity to work remotely. In the months since, companies from Facebook to Slack to Square, Dorsey’s other venture, have similarly pledged to let employees continue working from home post-pandemic.

By late July, 15 percent of the 3,300 respondents polled in a follow-up survey by Blind had already relocated, permanently or otherwise.

Rent prices are dropping accordingly. According to rental platform Zumper, the median price for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is down 14.1 percent from last year at $3,040, marking the lowest prices since the platform began tracking in 2014. Suddenly desperate for tenants, landlords have begun advertising incentives like weeks, even months, of free rent.

It’s a buyer’s market, too. Active listings have jumped nearly 100 percent since the start of the pandemic, says Danielle Lazier, who has practiced real estate in San Francisco for 18 years. Though the increase follows a period of “historically, drastically” low inventory, Lazier and her colleagues are starting to see condos sell for 2017-18 prices.

“I haven’t seen buying conditions this favorable since the Great Recession,” she tells Matador Network.

Some experts are predicting that the recent movement will prove anomalous. For her part, Lazier, who’s lived in San Francisco for more than 20 years, agrees.

“We’re starting to see folks who had a five-year plan to make their big IPO money and then leave, leave,” she says. “But some [tech workers] love it here and have roots here. They’re raising their families here, and they’re part of our community.”

Outsiders have been flooding and fleeing San Francisco since the Gold Rush. Some stay, seduced by the trappings of a much larger metropolis yet charmed by the city’s small-town feel. Others leave after striking proverbial gold.

This is not the first ebb that’s tested San Francisco’s resilience. By 1849, the influx of prospectors had precipitated an impossible cost of living, even by modern standards: A pair of boots could cost as much as a one-bedroom apartment per today’s prices.

Now, San Francisco is facing an uphill battle against COVID-19, which has only exacerbated the city’s affordable housing and homelessness crises. According to Zumper CEO Anthemos Georgiades, even the plummeting rent is expected to plateau around New York City prices, the second-highest in the country. Though San Francisco will likely remain unattainable for many in the foreseeable future, for the first time in years, the window of opportunity for Bay Areans to reclaim and re-diversify their city has been cracked.

It’s too soon to say if the pandemic will catalyze the San Francisco tech-xodus that’s been predicted for years, but the irony of the suggestion has not been lost in the recent moves: Overpriced apartments, congested streets, and issues of inequity are driving out remote workers who were widely blamed for creating those conditions in the first place.

After college, in 2015, I moved back to Marin County and took an editorial job in SoMa, San Francisco’s tech epicenter, at a 10-year-old company trying to pass as a startup. Like everyone working in the city, I developed a habit of complaining about it.

Some days, the commute from my house, which had always been 20 minutes from the city, took two hours. The lot across from my office, where I parked a hand-me-down car for $15 a day, was flanked by a homeless encampment that was broken up weekly yet steadily grew. Once, during happy hour in the historically Latino Mission District, I overheard a couple of 20-something tech transplants lament the gentrification problem in Oakland over $8 beers.

Yet even then, having never signed an ungodly Russian Hill rent check or witnessed the city’s unraveling through a montage of Muni bus windows, I never fully believed the complaints I parroted. Not wanting to live in San Francisco preserved a version of the city I could want to live in: a post-Summer of Love, pre-Twitter San Francisco that, were you to ask the old hippies who fled to West Marin when the MBAs moved in, was over long before I or any tech bros ever got there.

Before that, it was the hippies themselves who ruined San Francisco. Supposedly.

To say that San Francisco is over is to suggest that the city is static, one thing San Francisco has never been. I should know: I’ve watched it change for nearly 30 years.

In all that time, my relationship to the city has been complicated. Abroad, when someone asks where I’m from, I generally say San Francisco, and it generally feels true. When you grow up close enough to a major city that you can bike there for breakfast and be back by lunch, you identify that city as home. Yet in San Francisco, I’ve never truly felt like a San Franciscan.

Soon, that may be changing, too.

It’s taken me six months to admit that my dream of an Amsterdam canal house is on indefinite hold. I’ll likely still end up an expat, at least for a while, but until then, I know one thing is true: If I’m going to live anywhere in the United States, it’s going to be my San Francisco.

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