People are leaving S.F., but not for Austin or Miami. USPS data shows where they wentadmin
San Francisco residents abandoned the city in droves during the first eight months of the pandemic, but they generally did not venture very far, according to new data from the United States Postal Service.
The postal service analysis of change-of-address requests during an eight-month period between March and November shows that while the influx of new residents coming into the city remained constant between 2019 and 2020, the number of households leaving skyrocketed by more than 77%, or roughly 35,000 households — from 45,263 in 2019 to 80,371 in 2020.
But the postal service report doesn’t support the conventional narrative that the bulk of those leaving the city are decamping for cheaper, more business-friendly states like Texas and Florida. Instead, the majority of those escaping the city during the pandemic relocated to other Bay Area counties. The top six destinations were all Bay Area counties: Alameda, San Mateo, Marin, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and Sonoma.
Rounding out the top 10 were Los Angeles, San Diego, Napa and Riverside.
The only out-of-state destinations among the top 20 were Travis County in Texas, home of Austin, where 239 households relocated, Denver County (238 households) and Multnomah County (Portland, 175 households). In contrast, 8,131 households relocated to Alameda County and 6,637 households went to San Mateo County. Just 71 households moved to New York City and 78 to Washington, D.C., according to the postal service.
In total, the postal service received 138,717 change-of-address requests from San Francisco households between March and November, of which 57,915 — about 41% — were moves within the city.
San Francisco’s chief economist, Ted Egan, said that while the out-migration patterns are alarming — only Manhattan has had as large an increase in people leaving the city during the pandemic — the fact that many are not going very far could represent “a silver lining” as the economy recovers post-pandemic.
“You are not going to have to worry about getting them to move back from Boise,” he said. “It looks more like normal pre-COVID migration flows. People are settling into nearby Bay Area suburbs. They are going to Sacramento and L.A. Travis County, which is Austin, Texas, is way down the list. Portland is way down the list. New York is way down the list.”
Many San Francisco residents are also taking advantage of lower rents to relocate within the city, Egan said. Nearly 20,000 more San Franciscan households moved within the city during the March-November period of 2020 (58,346) than did so in the same period in 2019 (38,484).
The pattern suggests that San Francisco rent prices could continue to fall as rental and home prices rise in the suburbs. Even if the city’s apartment occupancy goes up, San Francisco could be less dense, as more people can afford to live alone or with one roommate rather than doubling or tripling up.
“It is as if everybody is saying, ‘Forget that overpriced place, I’m going to move across the street and save a grand a month,’” Egan said.
For Piper LaGrelius, a mother of four and an arts specialist in the Palo Alto school district, it was the San Francisco Unified School District’s lack of focus on reopening schools that drove a recent decision to relocate from Noe Valley to Lafayette in the East Bay. San Francisco public schools have been closed since last March and a final reopening plan has not been announced. The family has a fifth-grader, a second-grader and twins in preschool.
“There are a lot of reasons to go but the driver is we wanted to be in a community that is centered around families and schools,” she said. “(In Lafayette) the conversations at the school board are all about how do we get creative and open the schools as fast as possible. That has not been the priority at the San Francisco school board.”
LaGrelius is sad because she loved living in the city, but it seemed like the right move. “COVID has forced a lot of people to reevaluate. It’s not just about the pandemic. It’s given us time and space to evaluate our priorities and figure out what we need to be successful as a family.”
But while many city residents left for the outer Bay Area counties, the region also lost population during the pandemic, according to the postal service data. In March to November of 2019, nearly 61,000 more change of address requests were made out of the nine counties than into them. In the same period in 2020, 111,350 more requests were made out of the nine counties than into them.
Enrico Moretti, an economist at UC Berkeley, said the out-migration is being driven by a combination of the high cost of living and perceived quality-of-life challenges.
“There are cities that compete on price and cities that compete on quality,” he said. “When you look at the Bay Area, it doesn’t compete on price, and when you look at the quality of our public schools and how we manage public spaces — homelessness and crime — it’s not on par with what people pay to live here.”
After a few months of subletting, Cindy Huynh and a roommate left their Polk Street apartment and put their stuff in storage. Huynh, a public relations specialist working remotely, has been living with her mom in Battle Creek, Mich., since the middle of last year. She and her roommate had been paying $3,400 a month.
“That was way more than I was willing to pay for a room I wasn’t coming back to at night,” Huynh said.
She has enjoyed saving money and her mom’s homemade pho, but still plans to return to the city. She misses the restaurants, her friends, and the California sunshine. And she envisions one day returning, even though her employer has indicated remote work will continue into 2022.
“I’m still pretty bullish about moving back to San Francisco,” she said.
Chronicle staff writer Susie Neilson contributed to this report.
J.K. Dineen is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected]