Review of San Francisco, California

Balanced Review from 10 Year Resident
Star Rating - 4/16/2021
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 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.

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 by design and 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 your 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.

- Schools will not give you the education you 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 in a privileged 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, YIMBY Action, and the local political groups for the middle class economy. 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
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1 Replies

We've lived here for twelve years and this is indeed an excellent, balanced review. I'll add that the access to nature is incredible--there's easy access to an incredible amount of phenomenal hiking and biking, and even in the city proper access to nature is astounding. We live a block from Golden Gate Park and regularly see owls, coyotes, heron, hawks, and much more. Property crime is rampant, but if you're lucky enough to have access to a garage you can avoid much of it. I've had two bikes stolen in twelve years, but in both instances I was careless. Speaking of biking, there is amazing infrastructure for it--I've biked to work the whole time I've lived here (well, pre-pandemic) and found it safe and delightful. Downtown is downright depressing though. Drug use and homelessness is concentrated in a few areas, especially the tenderloin, which is a gruesome place. On the other hand some of the farther out neighborhoods--we live in the Outer Richmond--are family-friendly gems. For families, the school situation is nerve wracking. There's a lottery system, which ou can slightly game, but in the end it's a lottery. We got lucky--we were assigned a solid K-8 school, and my daughter just got into the one remaining public competitive school (the School of the Arts), so we've kind of dodged bullets so far. There is a public revolt against the SFUSD, with half the board having recently been recalled, and this leaves me hopeful--I think we'll see more of this kind of "we've had enough" sentiment, especially in housing and general levels of red tape. We need to build more. We considered joining the pandemic exodus, but opted to stay and enjoy it for what it is, and work to improve the many areas that need it. We're lucky in many ways we can do that. But it's possible to make it work here, even through the public schools, and without being astronomically wealthy.
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