If the New York Times wasn't reveling in the schadenfreude of publishing pieces about how unbearable San Francisco had become in the last couple years, they were taking seemingly great pleasure in reporting on the various missteps of the tech companies that fuel a good portion of the economy here. And while there's no denying there has been an exodus of city residents during the pandemic that is driving down rents, did the Times need to go with the headline "They Can't Leave the Bay Area Fast Enough"?
The latest piece by SF-based NYT columnist Nellie Bowles (formerly of VICE) refers to this current moment as the end of "a tech era," which is arguably true if you assume that it will be followed by yet another tech era. The dot-com bust was, after all, just a blip in the Bay Area's steady progress toward becoming a global technology hub — and many were predicting that the boom that began around 2010 was destined to go bust at some point, although they didn't predict that a pandemic would be the culprit.
Bowles writes of the fleeing of digital nomads and tech workers from the notoriously expensive Bay Area as if it's a permanent state of affairs, this outflow. "They fled to tropical beach towns. They fled to more affordable places like Georgia. They fled to states without income taxes like Texas and Florida." But then she hints at the reasons that such plans may not be for everyone — Austin can be "(very) hot" in the summer, Miami is still a swamp, and Savannah is full of mosquitoes.
And as one 35-year-old founder tells her, "I miss San Francisco. I miss the life I had there. But right now it’s just like: What else can God and the world and government come up with to make the place less livable?" (That guy's been living out of a camper van, so, that might get old at some point soon.)
After all, the media — especially the New York-based media — has been declaring San Francisco "over" for at least two years now. Remember that depressing New Yorker piece from May 2019 about how every tech worker was dying for the chance to leave here because SF had become such a dystopian hell-hole?
These trend stories aren't meant to have much of a shelf-life I suppose, so when the trend reverses and rents start to rise again in SF and elsewhere in the Bay Area, the Times will probably ignore it for a while and then publish another trend piece that pretends that this was, of course, a foregone inevitability. Because rents in arguably the most beautiful and temperate city in the country never trend downward for long — at least in the last three decades.
The editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Business Times, Douglas Freuhling, just wrote an editorial this week titled "There's no denying the exodus anymore." From the perspective of commercial real estate, with companies like Oracle, Tesla, and Pinterest announcing relocations or cancelations of leases, one has to assume that office rents will take a hit for an indefinite period of time — even if this comes after a period in which companies were clamoring for office space in the city and rents were at record levels.
No one has a crystal ball and can say with confidence when the "exodus" ends and the repopulation begins, but it's not like the city is empty — and it's not like home prices have come down by much, if at all. And there's an argument to be made that many of the people leaving — like young couples with kids — were probably going to leave anyway, as non-super-wealthy couples with kids are wont to do when their kids reach school age, because bigger and cheaper houses and better schools abound in other places. A September piece in the Chronicle suggested, at least anecdotally, that more than half the people they spoke to who were seeking greener pastures had hopes or plans to return here when the pandemic is over.
Maybe, when things change, other reporters will be at the New York Times who didn't witness this latest "end of an era" firsthand, and once again they will publish a piece without much of a long view on the city. The paper's San Francisco Bureau Chief Thomas Fuller was already sounding pretty exhausted by covering the wildfire season in August, and that was a good four months before it really ended. Will he have moved on once San Francisco — and likely many other cities across the country — enter a giddy post-pandemic party phase? Probably.
Also, another interesting note: The NYT piece finds that the guy behind two large Facebook groups devoted to the exodus, Terry Gilliam, hasn't actually left the Bay Area himself. Gilliam launched the groups Leaving California (33,500 members) and Life After California (51,400 members), but all the while, he still lives in Fremont.
Photo: Will Truettner