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Exodus of workers from San Francisco since pandemic could stall recovery for downtown businesses

<i>KPIX</i><br/>The latest Census numbers are out and it's not looking good for the Bay Area. The San Francisco region leads the nation in the number of people fleeing the big city.
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KPIX
The latest Census numbers are out and it's not looking good for the Bay Area. The San Francisco region leads the nation in the number of people fleeing the big city.

By John Amos

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    SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — The latest Census numbers are out and it’s not looking good for the Bay Area. The San Francisco region leads the nation in the number of people fleeing the big city. But it’s who is leaving that could have an impact on all of us.

With blue skies and temperatures in the mid-seventies, Monday was one of those days when you wonder why anyone would want to leave San Francisco. However that’s exactly what’s happening. A new census-data study from the American Community Survey shows, in 2021, the SF Metro area lost 2.5 percent of its population –116,000 people just packed up and left.

It’s happened before, but usually it was low-income people who were priced out of the area.

“Now these moves appear to be higher-income folks, working remotely sometimes, moving to places like Austin or Atlanta or Nashville or Denver–lower cost places,” said Jeff Bellisario.

As Director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, Bellisario monitors regional economic trends and said about half of all workers in the area have a computer-based job. He said the pandemic taught them they could do it anywhere, which could spell trouble for urban downtowns.

“You’re seeing fewer workers today–by the thousands–in San Francisco and Oakland,” he said. “So, any retail, barbershop, gym, florist, that was serving that office economy has really struggled and is going to have a very tough time coming back.”

But Craig McDonnell, an East Bay resident visiting the City, had his doubts.

“I don’t see it,” McDonnell said. “There aren’t less people on the roads, the economy seems to be doing fine, we’re still creating more jobs.”

It may not be obvious, but when affluent people leave, it can affect us all. Last year’s wealth exodus caused the median household income in the Bay Area to drop 4.6 percent.

Dave Vautin with the Association of Bay Area Governments, or ABAG, said the decrease in income tax revenue alone could put the brakes on the state’s efforts to support the homeless or build housing.

“While there were big surpluses in Sacramento that allowed for much needed investments in the past year, that may not continue in the next few years,” he said. “It’s going to mean tougher decisions about how we tackle those priorities with less money.”

Vautin said the City’s struggles with issues like homelessness, drug addiction and blight have caused even those who CAN afford the high rents to question if it’s worth it.

“We’re at the peak in terms of unaffordability, and those other challenges have become more difficult as well,” said Vautin.

A survey, taken in 2021, found that nearly 8 percent of people in the San Francisco Metro area planned to move to a different city in the next year. Both economists agree, San Francisco will never be a cheap place to live, but improving some of its social woes could convince affluent workers to return.

Of course, one summer in Austin or a winter in Denver might change a few minds, as well.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - Regional

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