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Exodus of Young Adults Caused San Francisco’s Covid Population Drop
Sunday, August 07, 2022

Exodus of Young Adults Caused San Francisco’s Covid Population Drop

Amy Sorenson, 36, lived in San Francisco for five years before she and her partner decided to move to Houston, Texas in 2021. The switch to remote work—and the allure of saving enough money to one day purchase a home—made the decision easy, said Sorenson.

“One of the things that did prompt the move was that while living in San Francisco there was no chance of us saving enough money to buy a house,” Sorenson said. “Our property that we rent in Texas is three times the size as the one in San Francisco and half the rent.”

Amy Sorenson, left, and Ian Dawson, right, outside of San Francisco City Hall in San Francisco. The couple moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Houston, Texas in 2021. Courtesy Amy Sorenson

Indeed, San Francisco County experienced the second-largest decline in population during the pandemic compared to any other county in the U.S. And newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows people like Sorenson are those who drove that dramatic population decline: young, working-age adults.

Out of the 58,000 people who left the city between 2020 and 2021, more than two-thirds were aged 20 to 34. Before the pandemic, these young adults accounted for 28% of SF’s population but their portion dropped to 25% between April 2020 and July 2021.

A more granular examination of the data shows that very few older people left the city during the first year of the pandemic. 

While the new Census data shows the race/ethnic profile of SF residents overall didn’t change appreciably between April 2020 and July 2021, the young working-age adults who left were more likely to be white.

While whites accounted for 55% of the pre-pandemic 20-34 age group, they accounted for 68% of those who left San Francisco during the first year of the pandemic.

Why did young adults leave San Francisco? For the same reasons that Amy Sorenson describes: A high cost of living, a tight real estate market, and the freedom that working from home provides. 

But there’s anecdotal data that the young folks are trickling back.

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Sorenson said Houston isn’t their forever home—for one thing, it’s very hot, and for another, they miss sidewalks and being able to walk around easily. The duo is considering Denver, New York City, and Los Angeles as possible next cities to live in. San Francisco hasn’t been ruled out, either.

“We may or may not move back to San Francisco at some point, but the idea right now is we’d like to move around and figure out where we’re going to be happy and where we want to settle. We’ve spent time in San Francisco, so we have that experience already and we can always go back.”

Others say that young workers are sick of working remotely and want to come back to a vibrant city where they can spend time with their coworkers and meet new friends.

“People have spent the past couple of years doing remote learning, and nobody wants to continue doing that,” said Grant Lee, CEO of Gamma, a software startup based in San Francisco. “They are itching to be able to come into the office and be able to work on something together.”

  • That 20-34 age group is one that constantly circulates through SF anyway. For the last couple of decades, many of our neighbors here in NOPA have been sets of housemates here after college, maybe on their first real job, or just to experience the city. They almost always move on, maybe not all the way to Texas though. For example, in the mid 90’s, our own larger friend group, (mostly from SoCal) moved to the East Bay just like people do today. For us, that leaves s a total of four of the old gang still in SF. I’d guess that the number who make San Francisco their life-long home is in the low single digits. One of my own kids, a native San Franciscan now in her late 20’s, moved to NY four years ago for career reasons and because San Francisco was “boring.” The other one has come back to live with us while she finishes college, then probably to the East Bay where here friends are now.

  • Exorbitant housing costs — due to 4+ decades of NIMBY-driven, anti-housing policies that continue unabated under this current crop of extremist Supervisors — are inexorably leading to the hollowing out of the middle class; especially for young people.

    The pandemic has sent this process into overdrive and without this essential cohort in the workforce, SF will become a City of the very high and the low and very low economic classes — the latter in servitude to the former, i.e., “nobility” and “serfs”.

    This is how cities — and democracies — die.

  • Yup – my grandparents lived in SF a few years after The War (until they moved to Sacto), my parents spent about year in Pac Heights before moving back to LA, I lived in SF from grad school until a job pulled me down to Mountain View – the cycle continues.

    It’d be interesting if historical inflows and outflows were provided. Is the decline dominated by an uptick in leavers (the implied narrative) or a decline in arrivers.

  • @ Phil_SF

    New York has the Densest population in America; San Francisco is Second.
    Yet, our infection Rate during the first Year of the DEATH ☠️💀 PLAGUE was way, way, way LESS than NY.

    Nobody goes to NYC because they want to live in Brooklyn; MANHATTAN is always the goal ; but can you afford it ?

    …And when you are in Manhattan coming from CALIFORNIA, especially San Francisco, there are 3 Basic Shocks that hit you:

    1) The Nasty Summer Humidity
    2) The Frozen Subzero Arctic Bitter Winter
    3) The absolute FLATNESS of the landscape

    …Oh, and by the way, San Francisco is more than 2 Times as BIG as Manhattan (!!!) Manhattan may be extremely Long, but it is also extremely Narrow : The distance from 19th Avenue to the Pacific Ocean is greater than any width ( West to East ) of Manhattan.

    I would choose San Francisco and/or West Los Angeles ( Westwood: UCLA/ Brentwood/Pacific Palisades/Santa Monica) over Manhattan any day of the year.

    You can ONLY appreciate the Incomparable & inimitable Beauty of CALIFORNIA if you have lived outside of the Golden State for a period of time…

  • Thank you Phil_SF for your comments about NYC! I still think my daughter’s decision to attend college in NYC is well reasoned. Maybe after some arctic winters …she’ll come home

  • I totally agree with you. I had to move back to Chicago for 6 years to help with family after loving in SF for 25 years. And I just returned. My return couldn’t have come faster.

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