Review of San Francisco, California

A Balanced Review After 10 Years
Star Rating - 4/28/2021
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
Reply to this Comment

5 Replies

I agree with almost all of these comments, but not the one about public schools. There are many great public schools in San Francisco and the high schools in particular are very good. Six public high schools rank in the top 20% of the state, according to many sources including Niche. Lowell and The School of The Arts are particularly noteworthy, as the former is an exceedingly good public school with high admissions into top colleges and universities and the latter has an audition and portfolio admissions process which allow for a selective student body that creates an excellent artistic and academic environment. Lowell High School is ranked seventh within the State of California academically according to US News and World Report. Lowell has recently changed its admissions standards though, so this might change their ranking. Elementary schools are all over the place with some of the best and worst in The State, just like most big cities in California. Overall, the schools are the best in any big city in California. There is a "lottery" where you pick your favorites and the school districts gives you a school based on a number of factors. This is an attempt to desegregate the schools and was required by a legal judgement. If you make an effort you can send your kid to a good elementary school in San Francisco that is close to your house. Your odds are better if you live on the West side of San Francisco where there are more Asians and more good schools. My kids went to Starr King, a Mandarin immersion school. Middle schools are definitely a mixed bag, but unlike the Elementary schools, you know your middle school so can plan in advance. One thing that is often unmentioned is that Whites are under represented in public schools by *alot* especially after elementary school. Many parents of white chrildren either move to disproportionately white suburbs or private schools. As a results, Asians are over represented and have higher overall test scores, leading to an overall over performing school district. Regional universities and colleges are among the best in the world, with Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCSF, Santa Clara, USF, SF State, San Jose State, Cal State East Bay and many others. he San Francisco Bay Area population is near the top in the Nation for overall education level with approximately 41 percent of residents aged 25 years and over having a bachelor's degree or higher.
James | San Francisco, CA | Report Abuse

Take all of this with a big grain of salt. I'm not saying these people aren't being truthful about their experiences or anything that they say. What I going to say is that, even though San Francisco (both city & county, which have exactly the same boundaries) is just 7 miles square, a person's experience of this city will be VASTLY different depending where they live in it, their age, and what they want from it. I say this as a "native." I have lived on the NW side -- the "Richmond district" since 1979, just out of college. I was an unmarried woman until I was 58 (I was a runway model in h.s., Masters degree, tall, thin, worked for leading int'l corps all my life in advertising and marketing). Golden Gate Park, larger than NYC's Central Park, is a few doors away, I am 2 miles from Ocean Beach (not the Bay, but the open Pacific). A mile away is the Presidio -- the only urban National Park in the U.S. (our city's former Army Base -- gorgeous). My neighborhood is quiet, "middle-class." While I had relationships of many years with a couple of men, I also lived alone for much of my life -- and went out to clubs, concerts, bars, restaurants, running in GGPark alone (and NEVER armed) all my life and never felt scared -- mind you, I am 5'10' fit, and am not an idiot (didn't wear heels I couldn't run in, didn't take a purse and didn't dress like I was looking for "attention from strangers" that I didn't want). I have loved living here -- and yes, I have been happy to live in summers where the high temp was 58 degrees in summer. I could drive 5 miles and be in 68 degrees and spectacular open areas...and it was not uncommon at all to be running on the beach in a tshirt and shorts on Thanksgiving Day (no cold summer fog in winter = no freezing wind off the summer still days of 60 degrees!) It is TRUE that the city has gone wayyy downhill. The fabulous views that made this city so magical are now ruined by far too many ugly (and now empty) highrises. TOO many people have crowded in. We don't have water for them ( in a good year -- and this is a drought -- AGAIN), we get just 21" of rain a year. Our sewage system if 100 years old. Our streets can't be widened and before Covid they were IMPOSSIBLE during rush hour. By that I mean you could spend 15 minutes going 3 blocks south of Market. Because our city exploded due to the Gold Rush that began at the very end of 1849, when "the world came rushing in" -- we have been a tolerant city (unless you were chinese or American Indian -- we took the scalps of the latter and refused to let the male chinese marry, lest they "breed"...but I digress!) Anyway, we were a great city for Jews, the "beat" artists, people with different ideas and ways, from hippies to gay people. We shrugged and said 'to each his/her own" and went about our business. But that attitude, despite the great things about it -- is proving our undoing...I cannot see how my beloved city is going to move forward at this point. Their solution to everything is "more housing -- and subsidized housing." Well, you know...I am 64. I am about to retire. I worked my ASS off as a single woman to finally buy a place 17 years ago...and my taxes on my 1600 s.f. unit are over $8k a year (and that's with CA state tax frozen). My husband and I go out for happy hour for 2 drinks and an appetizer and it costs us $40 or more (and I'm in a middle-class neighborhood. People are stunned by the costs here -- they have no clue. I just looked up today's gas prices. Here in the Bay area, it's $4.59 -- in TX? $2.82. I can get a $100 ticket for parking in my own driveway -- and leaving 2 square of pavement on the sidewalk clear for people to pass. I cannot go to the north without paying $8 toll over the GGBridge (it's 2 miles from my house to the other side). I can't go east without paying $6. Parking meter is $6/hr -- unless you're anywhere that could possible considered a "tourist area" -- oh, and they operate on SUNDAYS now, too! If you're parked at an expired one? $84. If you're downtown, make that $94... it just goes on and on and on... People who are horrified by prices on restaurant menus? By the time you add tax and tip you'll need to add another 30% to what you see printed. SF is also a city of RENTERS. And these renters have RENT CONTROL. That means that there is NO incentive for landlords to fix things -- they can only make money if /when the tenants MOVE OUT. Renters vote through every single bond measure (and there are often ten per election) because they pretty much don't pay for them. What they DO is say that the property owners should pay for everything -- becuase they're certain they're all "rich." Like me -- 64 and barely holding on, hoping to retire with my 75-yr old husband. Or the man who loves across the street who is in his 70s and lives in the bottom flat and rents the top one out to tenants who have been living there for nearly THIRTY Years with almost no rent increase. In a building that's 96 years old, made of lathe-and-plaster -- ANY idea what it costs to maintain these buildings? So I'm out of here. My parents were from here and I have LOVED this city with all my heart. But I can't afford to retire here. And this has been THE worst summer I've ever seen...we depend on March-most of May being lovely before we get the fog for most of 3 months...and then our "hot" weather mid-sept thru late Oct. Well, it's Sept 27 and we have had FIVE days with more than 2 hours of (thin, cool) sunshine since MARCH. I am growing moss -- and as a native, I'm pretty moss-resistant! My husband and I have been downtown 2x in the 1.5 years since covid arrived. The last time, my husband (who was born and raised in NYC, lived in Boston for many years, then here) said to please just go home and not stop where we had planned...said downtown SF was such a "dystopian nightmare" that it was making him really anxious and he just wanted OUT right now. For this, I am paying these prices? And how are they going to go DOWN, when the VAST amounts of money this city made from business taxes and conventions has vanished completely? Just the Oracle World conference used to have EVERY hotel and retaurant in this city booked for a week. Ellison said the icty was too scary and dirty for attendees to want to come anymore. (And sadly, he was right. I used to walk to work past Moscone Convention Ctr each day and my heart broke for the poor tourists...) I will never replace San Francisco. It is unique. When we move I will mourn it for the rest of my life -- as one might mourn a child that has died. No place was more beautiful, more sparkling, more thrilling, more glorious. It was like holding a hummingbird in your hand. Incomparably, heart-breakingly lovely and rare. But humans have a way of ruining everything they love. And they have no ruined San Francisco -- even fro a native who cannot -- literally cannot -- imagine living anywhere else. But I'm just going to have to learn. Because what I loved just -- it's gone. Over. Doesn't exist anymore. Is not going to come back, ever. San Francisco had about 475,000 residents when I moved here as a newly minted college grad in 1979. Today, it has 875,000. Growth of about 90% in my 40 years here. It's been the death of everything almost all that made it so beautiful, so liveable, so magical a city.
steve | San Francisco, CA | Report Abuse

Thanks for the comment James, and glad your family had a great experience. I was a big supporter of public schools while I was there. There is no doubt that there are some excellent schools in San Francisco, but to me, it seems like more of a golden ticket system a la Willy Wonka. There are a few great resources, and all of them are oversubscribed and gated by a random lottery system. It's easy to point to some shining examples of great schools like Clarendon or Lowell, but our selective bias gets in the way of seeing that the system underserves a majority of the population while still more just leave. The lottery system was designed to desegregate the schools, but studies have shown it had the opposite effect because there is no bus system for elementary school students. In a nutshell, Latinx residents in the Mission go to Alvarado instead of Alamo because there is no way to get their kids to Alamo and work two jobs. Vice versa for Asian families in Clement & western SF. For middle class families, it means your planning horizon is always short. Will they get into the right elementary school, the right middle school, right high school? Will I be able to manage the commute while we work two jobs? Middle schools are a mixed bag. There are no guarantees. My child and several others we know were dropped from our feeder school. Lowell is a great school, but many people don't realize it is at the southern edge of San Francisco and is a super commute for the average high school student with a heavy course load and athletics. I disagree about the high school ratings. After Lowell and School of the Arts in SF, the ratings and the * actual academic offerings * drop off considerably compared to the average high school in other cities. It is important to note that Lowell and SOTA are now gated by the lottery system too, so there are no guarantees at all that your child will go to them. There are other top rated high schools in the Bay Area. Tam High School, Saratoga High School, and Palo Alto High School are all great, but you pay the tuition of a private school twice over in your home mortgage. With that, you will get a trade off in socio economic diversity. I would add that having made the move, my child has immediately noticed that his school in our new city teaches math at a way higher level than his old school. They have the same "Niche" rating. Those ratings are a little self referential to the local city and easily manipulated. It pays to talk to real students in other cities and look at the actual academic offerings. My family friends and I have always been committed to improving the system, so I'm not trying to be a downer. I'm just trying to do my part for the friends I left behind so Bay Area leadership does more to address the hard problems.
Ross | San Francisco, CA | Report Abuse
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