New census data is shining more light on the Bay Area’s pandemic exodus: The region saw the largest drop in median income of any big U.S. metro area as wealthy people moved away — and current residents of all incomes are more likely to relocate soon than in any other major population center.
Household income in the San Francisco metro area fell 4.6% from 2019 to 2021 to $116,005 a year, according to a census report released this month.
The metro area, which includes San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Marin counties, still had the highest median income of any large region. Data for the San Jose metro was not included in the report.
Steve Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto, said the decline was likely in large part due to the trend toward remote work and high-paid Bay Area tech industry workers — picking up and moving out, often to less-expensive areas offering a different lifestyle, like hotspots Sacramento and Boise, Idaho.
Silicon Valley tech giants also closed local offices, and some such as Oracle, Hewlett Packard and Tesla, moved their headquarters out of state. All three companies relocated to Texas during the pandemic.
“Once (tech workers) didn’t have to work here or live here, it makes sense they would move and take their incomes with them,” Levy said.
In 2021, the San Francisco metro area lost more than 116,000 residents, or 2.5% of its population, according to census data. The San Jose area also lost tens of thousands of residents. More people moved away, but a decrease in births, an increase in deaths and fewer people migrating to the region during COVID-19 were also factors.
It’s still unclear exactly what impact wealthy residents leaving could have on the Bay Area economy, housing market or local tax revenues. Cities including Oakland and Hayward reported pandemic budget deficits last year, but San Francisco reported a budget surplus. Housing costs, meanwhile, have risen across most of most of the region the past few years, though rents in some urban centers, including San Francisco and Oakland, have yet to fully recover after cratering during the height of the pandemic.
The new census report on income data didn’t indicate where rich Bay Area residents might have moved. But it did show median incomes soared in many popular pandemic destinations throughout the South and Southwest. Phoenix had the largest increase of any major metro in the country, rising 5.2% to $75,731. San Diego saw a 2.2% boost to $91,003, and median income in Atlanta jumped 2.1% to $77,589.
The biggest losers after San Francisco were: New York (-4.2% to $84,409), Houston (-3.3% to $70,893) and Chicago (-2.2% to $78,166).
A separate recent census survey, meanwhile, provide perhaps the clearest evidence yet that Bay Area residents are more unhappy with their living situation than people in any other major population center.
The survey, taken in 2021, found 7.6% of those in the San Francisco metro area planned to move to a different city in the next year, the highest percentage of any major metro. In the San Jose metro area, which includes Santa Clara and San Benito counties, 5.9% of residents said they intend to move.
The trend was mirrored in a poll earlier this month by the Bay Area News Group and Joint Venture Silicon Valley that found 53% of registered voters in the region say they’re likely to move out of the region in the next few years.
Levy pointed to the region’s high housing costs as a main reason Bay Area residents want out. While some may choose to give up on the region altogether, the cost of housing could “encourage, force and incentivize” those who can’t work remotely to move to less-expensive cities in the Central Valley or elsewhere in Northern California and face long commutes, he said.
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