Renting spacious homes in Miami. Avoiding a state income tax in Austin. Escaping high rent and crime and filth on the streets of San Francisco.
A highly publicized flight of tech companies, executives and workers has painted a one-sided media narrative that virtual work has made San Francisco unappealing for tech.
The New York Times reinforced the narrative earlier this month in a litany of criticisms from tech workers and executives lambasting the city and contending that the industry is better off elsewhere. And it culminated this week with a report on a survey of 83 companies showing 63 percent planned to downsize in San Francisco. (It’s never clear from the report how firm those plans are or if the survey documenting the threats of 83 companies is just a way for SF.citi to lobby for more housing and an end to new taxes.)
But there’s little doubt that at least some tech workers have moved on.
“To be clear-eyed about it, San Francisco is the worst it’s ever been this year,” said Jon Cowperthwait, a software marketer renting in the Mission, reflecting on how the pandemic-stricken economy has worsened the mental health, homelessness and housing crises. “But … it never made me want to leave town because it’s a problem in our town. It’s our problem.”
Alas, he and many others in tech still believe that for them, the city is worth its cost. Interviews with about two dozen tech workers and executives living in or next to San Francisco detailed a host of reasons they’re staying, with the vast majority expecting the flight to be temporary.
Staying for them means being near their social circles, the city’s cultural diversity and living in a tolerant community. Most added, that the city’s unique climate, geography and blend of outdoor opportunities gave additional reasons to stay.
Vacancies are also opportunities, and some are arriving as others leave.
Anatoly Corp, founder of the software company BestMap, moved in toward the end of last year to capitalize on San Francisco’s falling rents. He doesn’t expect to be the only one.
Most of the more than a dozen people interviewed expect at least a partial return to the office. Those leaving, they predicted, will return or be replaced by new workers, especially as falling rents make the city more accessible. Numerous said they’ve negotiated discounts with their landlords in return for longer leases.
Sachin Agarwal, founder of the tech civic education company Grow SF, said he looks forward to people in tech moving in who’ve wanted to but couldn’t afford it before.
“Imagine if all your neighbors actually are happy here and love living here and care and give back and support local businesses,” Agarwal said.
Others, such as Imran Alavi, CEO of the digital solutions company Proleadsoft, pointed to the Bay Area tech offices that remain, including those of Google and Airbnb, as indicators that the industry is here to stay. Alavi plans to reopen his San Francisco offices once it’s deemed safe.
And the research institutions — Stanford and UC Berkeley — that have been central to the Bay Area’s tech development are not taking off to Austin or Miami.
Additionally, Bay Area tech giants Salesforce, New Relic, Anaplan and Splunk have seen job listings grow since June, according to a recent report by tech analysts at SMBC Nikko Securities America distilled by the San Francisco Business Times.
“It will not go 100 percent back to where it was, but it will go pretty close,” Alavi predicted of the local tech scene. “Even if companies do move, they’ll still have a significant presence here … and there are so many smaller companies that you don’t even think about — they’re in San Francisco.”
Meanwhile, Corp, Agarwal, Alavi and many others interviewed said separately that they felt the overall narrative of a tech exodus was overstated. Of those in tech Corp knows personally in the Bay Area, he estimates 10-15 percent have left permanently; for Alavi, the figure is under 5 percent; and for Agarwal, it’s around 1 percent.
For what it’s worth, most interviewees tended to offer estimates similar to Corp’s 10 to 15 percent. The younger are always more mobile, coming and going, so it’s hard to calculate the actual impact.
But, to entertain the possibility, if 15 percent of the tech-age population (25 to 34) did exit without being replaced, it would nearly undo the demographic’s past decade of growth, according to Census data.
The 25 to 34 demographic grew 17.8 percent — at 1.8 times the rate of the city’s total population — from 2009 to 2019, according to Census data. A 15 percent-flight of that group would mean a 3.5 percent drop in the total population. That drop is even less significant when you realize that San Francisco’s population would still be 7.7 percent higher than it was in 2002 — the year after the first dotcom bust.
For many marginalized communities, few cities have familiar faces or safe spaces like San Francisco, and that, say many in tech, keeps them here.
It’s the people: The city’s social climate of acceptance for different communities has made it a rare place of safety and comfort for LGBTQ+ residents in tech. Those with minority backgrounds in particular spoke fondly of the city’s diverse ethnic backgrounds as a reason for staying.
And the vast majority interviewed, especially those who are parents and longer-term residents, said they felt their hesitation to leave heightened because of their networks of friends, professional colleagues and sometimes, partners.
Many come here to work in tech, but David García-Díaz, a queer man living with his partner in lower Nob Hill, uses his job at Survey Monkey as a means of affording rent in San Francisco, he said.
“I came to San Francisco because this is the place I wanted to be — the community I was seeking to be a part of was here,” García-Díaz said.
The political climate is also favorable, he said.
San Francisco’s domestic partnership ordinance, for example, opened up his partner’s access to health care through his tech job. Care providers are sensitive to their unique health needs and disabilities, he said.
“As a person of color, as a disabled individual, I’ve had rights here much longer than even those same rights existing in other places now,” García-Díaz said. “It’s the way things have been here for a long time.”
Western Addition resident Tariq Ismael, an engineer at Apple, said the city’s diversity and accepting attitudes contributed to his growth.
As a child of Indian heritage, Ismael felt as if he belonged nowhere growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood of Belmont, California. Elementary and middle school introduced him to racism; when 9/11 happened, such encounters became never-ending, he said.
The attitudes here made him feel more comfortable in his own skin.
And his own exposure to other communities, especially those facing different prejudices, allowed him to better understand and create safer spaces for others he hadn’t interacted with before, such as gender-fluid residents, he said.
“San Francisco attracts people who had challenges growing up or didn’t really feel like they fit in anywhere,” Ismael said. “I certainly felt like that when I was growing up too. I think it’s just a really important facet of the city.”
But most valuable of all to Ismael, a member of the San Francisco-based techno collective Direct to Earth, are his friends, brought together by dance music.
Like many others, Ismael said he couldn’t see himself leaving them behind.
It’s similar for Joe DiMento, head of enterprise at the software company Coda, who rents in the city with his family primarily to live near friends and colleagues.
“Most people aren’t nomadic, you know,” DiMento said, “They develop roots in their community.”
He’s also attracted to the city’s eclecticism.
He recalled talking to his 7-year-old about Central America on the way to Saint Mary’s Playground in Bernal Heights when they passed a stretch of Salvadoran restaurants.
“It was just an awesome thing, to be able to go a mile from my house on foot and see this completely different community,” DiMento said. “And then, we have views of the bay, and you bike anywhere in the city, you can see the whole region.”
A Unique Landscape
Tech workers as much as everyone else are finding relief from virtual work — and an additional reason to stay — in San Francisco’s unique climate and geography.
“There’s endless — endless — stuff to explore here,” said Agarwal, the CEO of Grow SF. “And I think the more you experience those things, the city feels a little bit more like it’s yours, and you’re part of it,”
Cowperthwait, the software marketer based in the Mission, recalled his days of serious running when he would cross the Golden Gate Bridge with friends to a waterfront view of Angel Island at the seafood restaurant The Trident in Sausalito.
While those may be days past, he’ll still walk — in almost a straight line — from his home on 21st Street to the top of Twin Peaks.
“Some people save up money and make maybe a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to see it, and I could do it whenever I want,” he said.