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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 over 200,000 people during the pandemic. These losses are largely a product of remote work and the region’s high cost of living, pushing many to settle elsewhere. The region saw record negative net domestic migration in 2021, as nearly 127,000 people left the region. Data for 2022 showed 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.

In 2021, the region saw 113,844 out of state moves and 106,201 moves to other parts of California, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey, up 36,000 and 25,000, respectively, since 2019. Despite this, no category fared worse in 2021 than right after the Great Recession in 2010, after which the region experienced 10 years of hyper fast growth. Among those who left the region entirely, top destinations include Los Angeles and Sacramento counties, as well as states like Texas, Washington, and Oregon.

Of the 17% of people that moved out of the Bay Area entirely in 2021 (275,212 people total), 47% moved elsewhere in California, down from over half (51%) in 2010. This is in part due to large increases to more affordable states with emerging tech opportunities like Texas and Washington. Of those that moved elsewhere in California, counties in Southern California have grown in popularity, while nearby counties such as Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Yolo have seen decreasing shares over time.

Most of these trends have been occurring since before the pandemic started, but in terms of demographics, moves out of the region were composed of more highly educated, wealthy people leave than we’ve historically seen – in 2019, 49% of people that moved out of the bay area had a Bachelor’s degree or higher. In 2021, that number jumped to 53%. In terms of income, 63% of people that moved made $50,000 or less. In 2021, that number shrank to 54% as higher earners who were more likely to work remotely left in greater droves. Still, those earning $150,000 or more only comprise 12% of those leaving – so low income earners still constitute the majority of exits.

Are wealthy people actually leaving the Bay Area in droves?

Short answer: no. However, they are leaving the region at a faster rate than they were before the pandemic, or after the Great Recession. The interactive chart below shows data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey in 2010, 2019 and 2021 to the questions “did you live in this house or apartment 1 year ago” and “where did this person live 1 year ago?” We tracked everyone who said they either moved into or moved out of the Bay Area, and tabulated them by income level to calculate overall trends in migration.

We found that in 2021, every income group experienced negative net migration, including what we call ultra-high income residents (earning $350k or more), which saw a net loss of 4,117 people. There has been a lot of buzz about wealthy residents leaving San Francisco and the Bay Area overall. Using data from the IRS, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the city’s declining population and the increase in average incomes of those leaving. However, as the article states, a high average income among people moving away doesn’t necessarily mean most of those migrants are wealthy, postulating that the increase in average incomes could be driven by a small number of very high earners.

While our dataset is a resident survey different from the Chronicle’s, the below chart does confirm a change in migration patterns that have led to a decline in the region’s population of higher income earners. In 2019, 3,340 ultra-high income residents left the region, while 3,626 moved in, for a net increase of 286 residents. In 2021, 7,979 left, and 3,862 moved in, for a net decrease of 4,117. It is critical to note that despite these shifts, net losses are still driven by lower income residents moving out: nearly 75% of the region’s net out-migration is attributable to individuals leaving who earn $100k or less. Therefore, reported increases in average incomes of those who left the region are skewed because of the increase in relatively small numbers of ultra-high income movers.


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