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Politics & Policy

Which would-be mayor wants a population boom? You might be surprised

We asked. They answered.

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Source: Illustration by Clark Miller for The Standard; Photos Unsplash

It’s a topic most voters probably don’t think about too often—how many people live in San Francisco? What size will the future population be—and what should it be? Should city leaders be trying to attract families, tech workers, college kids–or all of the above?

We posed the question to all five mayoral contenders as part of our project bringing reader questions on the issues they care most about to candidates in the November election. 

Reader Gregory Szorc asked: Relative to today, what should San Francisco’s population be in five, 15 and 25 years?

The question comes at a particularly important moment for San Francisco. The city’s population has dipped significantly in the last half-decade, falling from a high of 882,000 residents in 2019 to 808,000 San Franciscans in 2022 (though recent figures show a modest rebound). San Francisco, however, isn’t alone. The population in other U.S. cities, like New York and Los Angeles, has also declined.

The trend speaks to a confluence of social and economic factors impacting San Francisco—work-from-home, high housing prices and cost-of-living, declining job prospects in the wake of tech layoffs, crime concerns, faltering schools and myriad other issues people weigh when choosing where to live. These topics have all become major themes in the November race.

On the campaign trail, Mayor London Breed has been the most outspoken of the five candidates calling for more people to move to the city. 

In her State of the City speech in March, Breed called for 30,000 new San Franciscans by 2030, bringing the population up to roughly 840,000. Her plan focuses on students, with proposals swirling around City Hall to remake the city’s beleaguered downtown into a university hub.

The city’s incumbent is facing an uphill battle to convince voters she should keep her job despite their concerns over homelessness, public safety and the post-Covid economic recovery. Breed has campaigned on falling crime figures this year and a push to bring events downtown, like the out-of-the-blue Skrillex concert in front of City Hall last week. 

In the next 15 and 25 years, Breed said she would like to see the 82,000 new housing units mandated by the state’s housing plan finished (due by 2031)—and major infrastructure projects completed, like a sea wall along the Embarcadero and a high-speed rail connection.

“In all these scenarios, I would imagine slight increases in our population,” she wrote in a statement. “But because of the topography and limited land mass of our beautiful city, San Francisco has, and always will be, smaller than other major metropolitan areas.” A follow-up question asking to specify “slight increases” went unanswered by Breed’s campaign.

Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin suggested more people should call San Francisco home by 2030 than Breed calls for in her proposal.

In five years, Peskin believes the city should have 856,000 people. He sees a San Francisco with 916,000 residents by 2039 and 980,000 by 2049. In a statement, he called for building more affordable housing to encourage more healthcare workers, educators, government employees, emergency responders, and service workers to become San Franciscans.

Former supervisor and interim mayor Mark Farrell, who has taken a more conservative tack in his campaign messaging, criticized the mayor for overseeing a population decline and said, “cities that don’t grow or evolve face many more challenges.”

Farrell said he would like to see “steady growth” of the population over the next five, 10 and 25 years in the “tens of thousands” and would focus on bringing more families and children into the city. 

“I want them to be a large part of our growth by making it easier to start and raise a family here,” he wrote. 

Farrell’s family focus would seek to reverse a trend within a trend: According to city data, San Francisco’s child and young adult population declined between 2010 and 2020, even as the total number of residents grew, spurring the oft-heard joke that more dogs than kids call the city home.

The image shows a bustling city street with a steep hill in the background. People are crossing the street, cars and taxis are lined up, and a bus is on the right side.
San Francisco's population has seen a decline over the last half-decade. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Two candidates didn’t offer exact growth targets but instead focused on housing affordability and making San Francisco an immigrant-friendly city.

“San Francisco’s population can and must grow, and it is up to all of us to plan for a sustainable San Francisco of the future where no one gets left behind,” said Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who is currently at the bottom of multiple polls.

Nonprofit leader and Levi’s scion Daniel Lurie said he didn’t see population as an important marker for the city’s well-being.

Success is not measured by how many people live here, but by how many can do so safely and affordably,” said Lurie. “This requires building more housing at all levels, ensuring families can afford to live where they work, providing a world-class education for our children, and fostering a vibrant arts, culture and nightlife scene that attracts young people from across the country.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Board President Aaron Peskin’s population proposal.