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SF might finally have gained more new homes than people in 2019

The catch: Only because population growth slowed to a crawl

San Francisco homes on a hillside, with the masts of ships at the Marina in the foreground. Via Shutterstock

San Francisco might finally be adding new homes faster than new residents—ut don’t break out the champagne and housing bonds just yet, because even if this turns out to be true it has less to do with new housing construction and more to do with the fact that the city’s population growth is now a fraction of what it used to be.

Last week, the California Department of Finance released end-of-year estimates about population growth across the state. Between July 2018 and July 2019, California’s population swelled by an estimated 141,300 people, while San Francisco was up 2,742, bringing the citywide total to 889,360.

While that’s a significant net gain for the city, it’s a fraction of the 6,885 from the previous year, which was itself down from 8,070 between 2016 and 2017.

Across the state, the department cited “higher domestic out-migration, lower immigration to California, and fewer births” as reasons for dwindling gains.

Technically this decline is probably a reason for anxiety about the city’s future, as it might reflect residential dissatisfaction and presage potential trouble for Bay Area companies looking to fill job openings.

But in practice most San Franciscans will probably nurse not-so secret relief at the news. Still, the question remains, where are we going to put all of these people?

Per the city’s own annual housing inventory, in 2018 SF gained about 2,600 new homes, but the inventory for 2019 won’t be out for months yet.

The San Francisco Planning Department projected a net gain of about 4,700 new homes in San Francisco for 2019, and at the beginning of the year the city estimated that more than 9,700 homes were under construction already (although many of those would not be completed this year).

If true that would all amount to a banner year for SF construction and, more importantly, mean that new homes would finally be on track to outpace new residents.

In practical terms, of course, such a milestone wouldn’t actually relieve housing pressures all that much. Since 2010 SF’s population has grown by more than 80,000 people, while the US Census estimates that the housing stock is up less than 29,000. The average SF household is about 2.26 persons.

And it’s not like living in SF was cheap even before the huge growth in the last couple of years, so it would take many years like this one to start letting the air out of the crisis. Still, if the hurdles keep getting lower every year then it’s all the more likely the city can keep clearing them.