Dolores Park on May 21, 2020. Photo by Michael Toren.

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 that 63 percent plan 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.”

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 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 interviewees 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 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 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 to 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.  

The People

“San Francisco attracts people who had challenges growing up or didn’t really feel like they fit in anywhere. I certainly felt like that when I was growing up too. I think it’s just a really important facet of the city.”

Tariq Ismael

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 who works for SurveyMonkey, sees being in tech as a means to afford renting in San Francisco.

“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,” said García-Díaz, who lives with his partner in Lower Nob Hill. 

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 founder 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.

David Mamaril Horowitz

David’s one of those San Francisco natives who gets excited whenever City College is mentioned. He has journalism degrees from there and San Francisco State University, graduating from the latter in...

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29 Comments

  1. Wait till the Texas transplants experience a summer in Austin, which is VERY hot and basically unlivable.

    1. I’m sure new Austin transplants will be overjoyed to discover that they can drive to the Big Thicket National Park in the same amount of time it used to take them to drive to Yosemite when they lived in SF.

    2. And what with their air conditioned spacious estates and Teslas to whisk them everywhere, what difference will the hot summers make?

  2. I will sorely miss the tech bros and their entitlement. Their great contribution that made SF into such an exciting and welcoming city for all will be on everyone’s life for years to come.
    They ought to write a long list so that we don’t forget.

  3. Tech has helped SF flourish there are neighborhoods that used to be dumps and wastelands but thanks to the Tech boom it gave opportunities for so many from mom and pop businesses to big businesses. This city and its leaders despite what they say love and need tech companies and its employees. You will always be appreciated and welcomed in SF!!

    1. What a condescending comment. “Dumps and wastelands”?

      This is exactly the tech bro entitlement that’s generally despised by everyone else in this city.

    2. Coming from a lame tech nerd himself who has no idea of what SF use to represent right Chad ?Those so called “dumps” that you talk about but dont mention the fact that these were once diverse neighborhoods with culture and hard working people of low income or middle class. A lame pale white nerd like you would call them dumps right billy bob .. You must be from the south where its legal to fuck your sister.. Fuck you and tech glad your all moving .. The rest will get robbed and shot like your fellow bitch boy that worked at twitter and got shot on 14th .. Haha that was a great day in SF history.. Watch out Conner

    3. SF was a great city long before tech workers flocked and turned out the city forcing middle class/people of color out of their homesteads. Laughable that you believe you made it better. Your people don’t contribute anything of substance to the city other than an air of rich snobbery. That’s not what this city is about; and you will never be apart of it as long as you try. The city had immense wealth before the ‘new-age’ charlatans arrived.

  4. “‘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,’”. +1

  5. Property management firms, like mine in SF, acknowledge drops in asking rents of around 20%, but the rents have already stabilized and there is growing rental activity. Lockdowns turned SF into a pretty dismal place, but people are already sensing a return to the more fun and vibrant times that are the charm of this amazing place on Earth. It has never been boring, and the beautiful vistas, good weather and wonderful diversity will guarantee it will remain a destination for travelers and those seeking an exciting place to live.

    1. Lawless, bankrupt, taken over by homeless, with a DA that unleashes crime rather than combat it. By all means, come ye’all, have fun.

  6. What San Francisco lacks, and has needed since the dotcom boom, is balance. Allowing the city to be dominated, by one or two industries, has brought us to economic collapse when they fail. If we continue down this path, we just may come to be the next Detroit.

  7. Very dispiriting article. The tech invasion has caused so much damage to this city. It would be wonderful if the remainder of the techies moved on, and the wannabe replacements looked to live elsewhere.

  8. ” people feel like they can fit in” yes if your a techie from another state thats displaced the population of SF natives already here… ” different ethnic backgrounds” where in San Francisco? Where Latins and african Americans are getting pushed out to the valley or Antioch? Everyone interviewed in this story is a joke and typical techie that gives no fuck about the cultures or lives they affect in a once ” diverse” city.. Why dont you publish the realities of how harmful this piece a shit industry really is.. Real San Franciscans dont want you here!!

  9. I don’t know. San Francisco is the only place I’ve lived where I haven’t been able to find a niche.

  10. Interesting and hopeful…I think. But what does “alas” mean in this sentence? “Alas, he and many others in tech still believe that for them, the city is worth its cost.” What you wrote after this seems to be not “alas” but a good sign that those who will stay are doing it for good reason–community, diversity, as you say, “people”.

    1. That was my mistake, Anita. I used the incorrect word. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  11. Luv all the hate I see here.

    G’bye techies. See ya and all your $$$.

    Now, lets get back to railroading, meat packing, and working the docks, while we house all the off-season fruit pickers from the Valley of Hearts Delight. er, or somethin’.

  12. It’s so narrow sighted and self-important of the tech companies that left to blame SF for high rents when it’s been exactly them that drove the rents up and pushed out artists, teachers, nurses, and diversity. Let them be gone! Bye bye! So long! Have a great time in Texas and Florida!

    1. Lame analysis – sure, tech drove them there but the rents wouldn’t have gone crazy if the pearl-clutching NIMBYs didn’t want to fossilize the city to drive their home values sky high. I love SF but I and many other young people don’t want to pay the mortgages of the house-rich, knowing we’ll never be able to afford it there long term. It’s sad.

    2. Exactly. Those states are perfect for them! They have had an overall negative impact in San Francisco. The City does not need to be dominated by tech to be successful, affluent and attractive.

  13. Hey everyone
    Being African American I am very sensitive to statements about ” those people”, techies. Good and bad walk hand in hand and I for one enjoyed the energy they brought to the City. The majority of techies were paying half their salaries towards rents and or living in groups. The fallacy they are all rich is just that, and they to were share croppers. What San Francisco does not need are haters, no matter what their persuasion .

  14. Davey, could you be more
    Clueless & cliche spewing ?
    Diversity ??
    Less than 5% of Sf is black..
    But if you have never lived in
    TRUELY diverse city – sf’s bubble
    Of tone deaf & coddled geeks will
    Suffice.

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