A Balanced Review After 10 Years
I've lived in San Francisco for ten years. I thought I would write a balanced review for people looking to move here.
My family is from places like Boise, Atlanta, Charleston, Charlotte, and Dallas. I know the attraction of mid-sized cities with suburbs. I've lived in red state cities too. San Francisco isn't that, but that is no reason to hate on it if that's what you like.
There IS an EXODUS of San Franciscans leaving. Or, maybe better a MASSIVE SWITCH? According to a recent study, 700,000 people have left the Bay Area, and 100,000 have left San Francisco. However, thousands of new people are moving in. After the switch, the pandemic exodus has shed the area of 10% or so of its population. This has been the Bay Area model for years. A small percentage make it rich and live here. The rest come here for a time and subsidize old SF's rents and taxes in exchange for amazing career opportunities.
IF you are moving to San Francisco for your career and the famous lifestyle, here is what you need to know:
San Francisco and the Bay Area are economies built around people not staying. Professionals come through for a time. People come here to get certified in their field, build their network, and leave. The tax structure (prop 13) and rent control, plus its lack of investment in education are built in to make new San Franciscans subsidize old San Franciscans. Because more people vote with their feet than stay, many old problems are not being addressed.
The cost of living is the way its by design and because of political inertia, not because of land constraints. San Francisco and the surrounding cities could solve these problems with higher density housing. Whenever developers try to build middle class housing, rich NIMBYs team up with old San Francisco activists to kill it. The state has tried to pass laws requiring more density, and it has been killed multiple times. The tech industry wants workers to come work at Facebook and Twitter. They just don't want them living next to their multi-million dollar single family homes. Cities have prioritized commercial real estate revenues over residential revenues and amenities.
THAT BEING SAID, I braved the cost of living to come here. My family and I SAVED MORE than we would have in our old mid-sized city. I was in the top tier of my profession working as Director in a high profile company, then an executive at a start-up. We loved the lifestyle during our early years. The bet paid off. Now, however, it doesn't.
So you have a HOT OPPORTUNITY in the BAY AREA? Here's what to expect so you go in eyes wide open:
> You will only save money at big company jobs if you super commute or accept living in a small or shared living space (typically not friendly for families with kids).
Jobs are easy come, easy go in early to mid stage startups. Companies expect to hire and fire easily as business strategies change. Employees can find jobs quickly in their specialty too, which is what makes the Bay Area so great. It all works out UNLESS you move for a job in SF and the next job is in the South Bay. North Bay, East Bay, SF, the Peninsula, and South Bay are four different job markets.
> Public schools will not give your kids the education that you yourself needed to get your job. Public schools, especially in San Francisco, are below grade. Most middle class families send their kids to private schools, but it is hard to be top of the class where your kid is not the richest, and it's hard to get into top colleges when you're an average student graduating from a privileged SF private school.
If you send your kids to public school, the San Francisco school lottery will scatter any financial planning you have. You will always be a few years from the next lottery. Getting a crappy school means either sending your kid to private school ($50k / year - see tradeoffs above) or selling that $1.5 MM apartment you just bought and moving to the suburbs. (Let's hope big companies stay and there's not another property crash.)
> The high end foodie scene is AMAZING. There are diverse food choices from almost any country in the world. The farmer's markets are a wonderful part of every neighborhood. HOWEVER, casual dining and family owned restaurants are not the quality they are in other cities like Atlanta, Seattle, or Washington DC. Restaurant entrepreneurs have to take the rent out of their food quality. You will pay $25+ per plate to get the same food quality you get for $10-15 in any other major city. I miss the casual dining of my old hometown, and they had most of the international food I eat here.
> BASIC SERVICES are suffering to keep staff because of cost of living. You will see it in the daily interactions with teachers, hair stylists, nurses, etc. There is a LOT of turnover, and quality people commute from far away to make ends meet. Our daycare fell apart in the middle of the year over pay and staff treatment. We were paying $35k for 9 months, half day only. Our child was heartbroken.
> HOMELESSNESS is not so bad. It's just like what I've seen in southern cities, except more in public than in shacks and drug houses. Our child learned a great deal of empathy and awareness for what mental illness and drugs can do to a person.
> MARIJUANA use is common, and users don't respect the same etiquette as smokers. Your child will know the smell of marijuana by the time they're in kindergarten.
> PROPERTY CRIME IS OFF THE CHARTS. 15x a comparable big city. I have had 5 bikes stolen from our garage. Most of my friends who regularly bike have had their bikes stolen 2-3 times. People who park regularly in the street have all had their cars broken into. It is known that property crime is not a priority in the city.
IF YOU DO COME, come in eyes wide open. Plan your entry and exit strategy if you are coming for your career and don't like the tradeoffs.
DO VOTE. Don't just vote with your feet. JOIN local political groups that align with your needs. The political establishment has been exploiting transience for too long. You're paying their salaries. Demand more.
SOLUTIONS ARE ON THE WAY. Just know that if activists get the changes they want tomorrow, it will be 10 years before they benefit middle class families.
Ironically, small cities and the work from home revolution are disrupting the Bay Area local governments the same way Bay Area start-ups have disrupted larger companies for years. The tech industry has already adapted, but local politicians are having to re-build, restructure, and reposition their cities to compete.
The Bay Area is not for everyone right now. I loved it, but I'm leaving it. Love her for what she is if you come here, and make her a better place before you leave.
Ross | San Francisco, CA