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4 truths and 4 lies: What the latest census data says about perceptions of San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge is shrouded in fog while visitors enjoy the recently-opened Presidio Tunnel Tops Park in San Francisco, California, on Sunday, July 31, 2022. High humidity and overcast skies made for muggy conditions throughout the city. | Don Feria for The Standard

Many myths swirl around about San Francisco: Is it a haven for the tech elite or a last bastion for counterculture aesthetics? Is the pandemic driving rent and mortgage prices down, or is a cheap flat and homeownership still a pipe dream? Is everyone working from home or are commuters hopping back on MUNI again? 

New numbers from the Census Bureau data might just help clarify some of these conflicting visions of San Francisco. 

The Census Bureau released the 2021 data from the American Community Survey (ACS) Wednesday night, revealing local estimates on a wide range of topics—from racial demographics to commuter trends and student enrollment. The ACS data only covers the period from January to December 2021, but it does provide a comprehensive overview of San Francisco’s characteristics during that time. 

Comparing 2021 ACS data and more recent stats from other sources, it is possible to prove—and disprove—some of the biggest “truths” and “lies” about San Francisco.

Truth #1: Lots of people moved out of San Francisco

The common pandemic-era refrain about San Francisco has been that it lost a significant portion of its population in 2020 and 2021. 

ACS data already proved that point. 

Earlier this year, the Census Bureau released preliminary estimates showing San Francisco’s population dropped from over 880,000 to approximately 815,000 between 2019 and 2021, sharpening a population decline that had already started before the pandemic. 

New statistics reinforce the image of an empty city: the total number of households decreased by about 15,000 in this period, dropping to approximately 350,000 in 2021. And the percentage of San Franciscans in the labor force declined from about 72% in 2019 to 68% in 2021. 

Truth #2: SF is an aging city

Another pre-release of ACS data showed that most of the people who moved out of SF were young adults. In fact, two-thirds of those who moved away in 2021 were between 20 and 34 years old.

The logical consequence? The older folks remain, aging the city’s population. ACS data show the share of adults aged 65 to 74 years grew from 8.5% in 2017 to 10% in 2021. All age ranges above 55 years experienced modest growth, too, indicating that even as younger populations remained more transitory, older folks stayed put in the city. 

This statistic reinforces what the San Francisco Human Services Agency says: the population of older adults is the fastest growing age group in San Francisco.

Truth #3: A ton of San Franciscans now work from home

Yes, the ACS data proved San Francisco was the capital of the country’s top work-from-home region in 2021. 

The number of people mainly working from home tripled between 2019 and 2021 in the United States. But for San Francisco, the number of people primarily working from home increased by nearly seven times in the same time period, going from 7% in 2019 to 46% in 2021. 

Compared to the rest of the Bay Area, SF also led the pack: over 200,000 people worked from home in SF, while Oakland and Berkeley reported about 73,000 and 27,000 at-home workers respectively. 

But a 46% share of people working at home leaves another 54% not working from home. In more recent months, return-to-office data shows people are embracing hybrid work schedules and dusting off their desks in SF’s brick-and-mortar offices. Read more analysis of the ACS data on work-from-home here.

Truth #4: Use of public transit took a dive

The total number of people commuting to work decreased by nearly 100,000 people in San Francisco, and only 11% of San Franciscans used public transportation to commute to work in 2021, compared to 36% in 2019. 

Though recent data suggests that the city’s residents are starting to trickle back onto public transport with more people riding BART, its ridership remains stuck below 40% of pre-pandemic levels.

Given that the ACS data shows San Franciscans have more cars per person than ever before, it might make sense that monthly traffic volume on the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge has nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels. Maybe commuters are returning to the office driving new Subarus and Teslas instead of catching BART or MUNI. 

Lie #1: The pandemic caused a baby boom

Nope. The ACS findings show the Big 2020 Baby Bust hit SF—hard. 

As stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines stretched on for months, many (cheekily) predicted a baby boom in 2021. What else were young couples supposed to do with all that free time? 

But the ACS data reinforces what many economists expected would happen: that the pandemic actually hindered baby births, largely due to economic constraints and the uncertainty of the period. 

The number of San Franciscans between 15 and 50 years who gave birth in 2021 dropped significantly from previous years: an estimated 8,600 individuals gave birth in 2019, compared to only 6,800 in 2021. The fertility rate per 1,000 women also declined in SF, going from 40 in 2017 to 33 in 2021, according to the ACS. 

When compared to the rest of California, the Bay Area experienced a slightly larger baby bust. The Bay Area saw an 18% decline in births in early 2021, right when early pandemic babies might have been due, compared to a 15% decline in California.

A group of children play at Helen Diller Playground located in Dolores Park in San Francisco Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

The city’s decline in young adults aged 20-34 might just represent one of the factors driving the baby bust. And a declining birth rate impacts schools: ACS data shows nursery school and preschool enrollment dipped significantly, which will worsen SF Unified School District’s enrollment decline

Lie #2: Only the wealthy saw a change in their share of the SF population

Previous analyses show wealthy San Franciscans did leave the city more than any other group: the percent share of people earning more than $200,000 per year dropped to 31% in 2021, down from 33% in 2019. As they left, they took $7 billion in adjusted gross income with them, according to IRS tax return data.

But the most dramatic change in population share came from low-income San Francisco residents, a group that expanded during the pandemic. 

ACS data released today shows the number of households with incomes under $10,000 per year increased by 2 percentage points, growing from 3.8% in 2019 to 5.8% in 2021. The number of city residents relying on food stamps or SNAP benefits also ballooned during the pandemic: nearly 12% of San Franciscans had Food Stamp/SNAP benefits in 2021, compared to 5.5% just two years prior.  

The new data reveals that San Francisco has earned its reputation as the “poster child” for income inequality—a statistic that has only worsened across the United States, with national income inequality rising 1.2% between 2020 and 2021. 

Lie #3: SF’s middle class shrank during the pandemic

Many say that the city has a “missing middle” problem, in part due to a city housing market that excludes many middle-class families from home ownership and drives away many of the same individuals with high rent prices. 

ACS economic data shows that the middle class in San Francisco was one of the few income groups that did not experience a significant increase or decrease in population share. 

Lie #4: San Francisco is now a cheaper place to live

During the pandemic, the tight housing market loosened and rents even came down a touch.

Unfortunately, ACS housing data show that now, both high rent and expensive mortgages remain the norm in SF. In 2021, the median rent in San Francisco was higher than many other California counties, clocking in at $2,167. California, on the other hand, reported an average median rent of $1,750.  

When considering rent as a share of income, many San Franciscans devote a significant chunk of their income to their apartments and homes. Of the occupied units paying rent in 2021, 34% of renters paid more than 35% of their income on rent. 

Housing values in San Francisco far outstrip other counties, too, with nearly three-fourths of all SF housing units worth $1 million or more. The housing cost distribution does not get much better when looking at lower-priced units: nearly 20% of homes are still worth more than $500,000 in SF.  

Outside of housing, the city’s high prices and living costs secured San Francisco’s spot as the most expensive place to live in 2020—a title the city won for the sixth year in a row, as average prices for goods and services were more than 17% higher than the national average. 

So if the cost of living was ever a bit less during the pandemic in San Francisco, those days are now long gone.