COVID-19 Spurs Mass Migration Out Of San Francisco

Aman Bansal, Flurry Analyst

When the stay-at-home orders were first introduced in March 2020, few industries were as well equipped for the transition as the technology industry in Silicon Valley. Employees at Google, Apple, Facebook, and hundreds of other tech companies were used to video conferencing and connecting to the office via virtual private networks long before COVID-19 forced other workers to do so.  Fast forward about a year and most technology employees still are working remotely. And with many companies considering more permanent work-from-home policies, many technology workers may soon have the option to forgo expensive rents and mortgages by working from anywhere. For this report, Flurry analyzed the migration pattern of people leaving San Francisco during the COVID-19 pandemic for other parts of the United States. 

Flurry Analytics is used in over 1 million mobile applications, providing insights from 2 billion mobile devices per month. For this analysis, we created a cohort of mobile users who executed the majority of their mobile sessions in San Francisco during January 2020, We then assumed the users of these devices resided in San Francisco. Next, we confirmed we could accurately follow device location at a city-level over the 12-month period to determine how many remained in San Francisco and how many chose to face the pandemic elsewhere. Now, in a major metropolitan city such as San Francisco, it’s normal for a certain number of residents to leave because of employment, family commitments, or other preferences that attract them to other destinations. Based on our analysis, 13% of our cohort left San Francisco in February 2020, which sets the baseline. Let’s begin by reviewing the movement of San Francisco residents over the last 12 months.

Migration Over Time

In the chart above, we show the percentage of San Francisco residents that moved to different parts of the country beginning from March 2020 through January 2021. In March 2020, when California first announced stay-at-home orders, 13% of San Francisco residents left, in line with the February 2020 baseline. This means the initial stay-at-home orders did not immediately drive people away. However, between March and September, the percentage of people who left San Francisco skyrocketed to 29%.

In the early days of the quarantine, the Midwest (4%) and Texas (3%) were the most popular destinations. New York became a more popular destination during the summer months, whereas the Southeast has consistently increased in popularity over time. Other regions within California have also gained in popularity as the pandemic wore on, with people possibly exchanging their city dwelling for a more suburban--yet still Californian--lifestyle. And by January 2021, more than 9% of San Francisco residents left the city, but remained in the state, making the rest of California the most popular destination. And it doesn’t take much research to understand why. As of January 2021, the average home price in San Francisco was $1.4 million, whereas the average home price in California was $625,000. 

By September 2020, 29% of our cohort had left San Francisco. Since September, however, net migration has remained relatively stable, increasing only one percentage point to 30% in January 2021. The rise up through September might be due to several reasons. First, school season starts in September, and most families with children likely wanted to be settled somewhere at the start of the school year. Second, as the weather starts to get colder after September across most of the country, the prospect of leaving San Francisco’s temperate climate might have seemed less enticing. Lastly, it’s possible that those who felt mobile enough to relocate were able to do so during the first six months of the pandemic. 

Let’s next look at the states to which San Francisco residents relocated as of January 2021.

Map of USA Showing Migration

In the chart above, we visualize the migration of the 30% of San Francisco residents to other parts of the country, as of January 2021. As we mentioned earlier, relocating within California is by far the most popular destination for people leaving San Francisco during the pandemic, with 9.2% of San Francisco residents leaving the city but staying within the state. After California, the most popular states are New York (3.5%), New Jersey (1.5%), South Carolina (1.5%), Texas (1.2%), Washington (0.9%) and Florida (0.9%). These states all offer job opportunities, cultural centers, and more affordable housing, with the exception of Manhattan. Texas was a popular destination for Californians fed up with the high taxes and cost of doing business before COVID-19 hit. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk famously left California, fed up with regulations, in favor of Austin and is rumored to be contemplating a relocation of Tesla’s headquarters. And Florida is the only state, other than Alaska, with more coastline than California. 

While many destination states represent some of the country’s more populated states, the distribution across the Midwest is eye-opening. One out of six people who left San Francisco during the pandemic relocated to the Midwest. Known for “friendly people, cheap land and a stress-free lifestyle” this transition from San Francisco’s technology hub to the Midwest represents a significant lifestyle shift that may be welcome to many overly-worked and stressed-out San Franciscans.

What remains to be seen is whether these moves are temporary or permanent. Did San Francisco’s tech community leave to spend the lockdown with family and friends, with intentions to eventually return? Or did they seize an opportunity to find more affordable housing while maintaining a high income due to the high cost of living in San Francisco? And the biggest question may be just how supportive these seemingly generous work-from-anywhere policies actually will be when the United States recovers from COVID-19. Make sure you follow us on the Flurry blog, on Twitter and LinkedIn for the latest mobile industry analyses.