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Where did people move during the pandemic? Who left?

The pandemic saw a massive redistribution of people within and across regions in the United States. For many city-dwellers, the pandemic offered an opportunity to settle down, often in suburbs close to the city. In fact, moves out of the densest parts of big cities jumped 17% during the first year of the pandemic. But suburbs weren’t the only places to grow — cities along the sunbelt like Austin, Dallas, Atlanta and Houston also grew dramatically, where families could get a bigger bang for the buck.

The San Francisco and San Jose metro areas collectively lost 147,000 people during the pandemic, joining only LA, San Diego and Miami as large regions to have lost population. Losses in San Francisco proper contributed to 37% of this decrease, losing 6.3% of its population in one year. These losses are largely a product of remote work and the region’s high cost of living, pushing many to settle elsewhere.

From July 2020 to July 2021, the region saw record negative net domestic migration, as nearly 127,000 people left the region. New data for July 2022 show a significant uptick in foreign immigration, as travel restrictions loosened for international newcomers. The region’s natural increase (births minus deaths) also increased slightly, as death rates declined and birth rates increased. But domestic out-migration remains a major problem and contributor to the region’s population loss. If it weren’t for positive foreign immigration and net births, the region would have lost 111,000 people in 2022. Instead, it netted a loss of 68,000 people.

The number of people moving from the Bay Area to another state increased by 33% since 2019, and the number of people moving elsewhere in California increased by 21%. While those who left the region pre-pandemic were still likely to stay in California, remote work opened new avenues for many prospective homebuyers once restricted by geography. Still, top destinations for those who moved away from the region are largely in the Northern California megaregion or California more broadly.  Among those who moved out of the region in 2021, a quarter moved to Los Angeles, Sacramento or Santa Cruz. Another 20% moved to cities in the Central Valley or smaller cities just outside the region.

So, who left?

Largely affluent white-collar workers who could perform their jobs remotely. Households earning over $150k moved away from the Bay Area at a higher rate during the pandemic than they did in 2019, while lower earning households, more likely to work in industries requiring in-person work, moved away at a lower rate. These shifts in mobility largely reflected “flight from density”, as households chose to move from large regions to smaller ones, or from cities to suburbs, as the workplace and the home became one in the same.

Is the region’s population loss over?

Some data indicate that this urban exodus hasn’t lasted. Nationally, the average distance of a home purchase from the closest downtown hit an all time high in December 2020 at 47 miles, and has been steadily decreasing ever sense. New data from LinkedIn indicate that for every 100,000 people on the site, 83 moved (by changing their profile location) to the ‘San Francisco Bay Area’ in the last 12 months, second only to Austin which saw a whopping 148 moves per 100,000 people. New population data released in January 2023 showed that for the third straight year, the nine-county Bay Area lost population from July 2021 to July 2022, bringing the total population down to 7.56 million, a loss of over 200,000 people since the pandemic began. However, San Francisco proper lost 4,300 people, or 0.5 percent of its population from 2021 to 2022, a much smaller loss than the whopping 32,000 people (or 4 percent of its population) it lost from 2020 to 2021.

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