'Good riddance': Tech's flight from San Francisco is a relief to some advocates

David Ingram
Getty Images

When Chirag Bhakta saw a headline recently that said tech workers were fleeing San Francisco, he had a quick reaction: "Good riddance."

Bhakta, a San Francisco native and tenant organizer for affordable housing nonprofit Mission Housing, is well-versed in the seismic impact that the growth of the tech industry has had on the city. As software companies expanded over the past decade, they drew thousands of well-off newcomers who bid up rents and remade the city's economy and culture.

He said the sudden departure of many tech workers and executives — often to less expensive, rural areas where they can telecommute during the coronavirus pandemic — reveals that their relationship with San Francisco was "transactional" all along.

"They used their capital to radically shift the makeup of poor, working-class communities," Bhakta said. "We're left with 'for sale' signs and price points that are still out of reach for most people."

Many urban centers have seen residents move out in large numbers since the start of stay-at-home orders in March, but the shift has been especially dramatic for San Francisco, a city that was already experiencing rapid change because of the tech industry.

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Software engineers, CEOs and venture capitalists have chosen to jump from the Bay Area to places such as DenverMiami and Austin, Texas, citing housing costs, California's relatively high income tax and the Bay Area's general resistance to rapid growth and change.

The scale of the departures is visible in vacant high-end apartments, moth-balled offices and quieter streets in neighborhoods popular with tech workers. And while no one is exactly celebrating, especially as Covid-19 has devastated the incomes of many people, some residents were ready to take a break from the rich.

"The gentrification pressure has been at least momentarily relieved," said John Elberling, executive director of Todco, an affordable housing nonprofit that operates in the South of Market neighborhood alongside the shuttered headquarters of countless tech companies and startups.

Over the years, San Francisco residents tried a variety of tactics to protest the tech industry's effects on the city: blocking corporate buses, halting expensive new condo buildings, proposing tax increases and even threatening to limit office cafeterias.

Affordable housing advocates, local politicians and longtime San Francisco residents hoped the well-off newcomers would contribute more to their new community, or if they didn't, then perhaps leave.

Elberling, who before the pandemic spearheaded new restrictions on skyscrapers in San Francisco, is among those who believe the city was being overrun by people who arrived for one reason.

"The motivation got to this get-rich-quick attitude," he said. "And that isn't what our city is about. You can make a lot of money here, obviously, but that's not the persona of San Francisco."

San Francisco has a history of boom-and-bust cycles, stretching back to the 1849 gold rush and including multiple tech bubbles. But that's not why people stay, Elberling said.

"If all you care about is money, I suggest you go to Texas," he said.

Some have taken that advice. Joe Lonsdale, a venture capitalist at the firm 8VC, wrote in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that California had "fallen into disrepair," with problems ranging from expensive housing and rising property crime to scheduled blackouts needed to prevent wildfires.

"The electricity turns on and off, as in Third World countries," he wrote from his new base in Austin.

Such moves have been described as an "exodus" of tech workers "fleeing" San Francisco — words that Bhakta said amount to a parting insult, as if tech workers had been slaves in Egypt.

"'Exodus' is a weighted term for people escaping oppression. From what I can tell, tech workers weren't being oppressed in San Francisco," he said.

People who resisted the influx of tech during the most recent mega-expansion for the industry said they do not expect a revival of San Francisco's legendary bohemian past, affordable to nearly anyone. Rents may have fallen 20 percent or more from a year ago, but they're still high by national standards, and many artists left the city a long time ago.

Although some companies such as Pinterest have canceled leases, Google is expanding its offices in San Francisco, a sign of the tech industry's attachment to the city despite the local hostility and the predictions of a permanent work-from-home culture.

Eventually, the trend of moving out might reverse.

"When the trend got out there that you could save a lot of money for a year while you could live elsewhere, people started to pick up on the trend and a lot of them did that," said Janan New, executive director of the San Francisco Apartment Association, a trade group for landlords.

But the concerns about tech-fueled gentrification have also been compounded by deeper worries about the impact that tech products are having on elections and democracy. Just because some tech workers have left the area doesn't mean the industry will face less criticism here, even if the protests are no longer over bus fleets.

On Thursday, a committee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on a resolution that would "condemn" the naming of a city hospital after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, who gave $75 million to the hospital in 2015.

And recently, protesters demonstrated outside the couple's San Francisco house over Facebook's role in politics, including its decision not to fact-check political ads.

"No matter where the big tech companies are located, people have really seen that leaving them to regulate themselves has left our society exposed to a rampant amount of disinformation and hatred and conspiracy theories," said Andrea Buffa, an organizer of several Facebook protests.

Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance, a San Francisco nonprofit that is often critical of the power of tech companies, said she wonders whether tech workers will want to return to a place where they've received a mixed welcome.

"The level of tech blowback in San Francisco and the Bay Area was going up in intensity," she said. "I think there'll be sort of a reluctance to come back and face that, because that was reaching a level that was hard to live with — when you are the cause of all social problems, in the eyes of a significant part of the population, at least."