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Report: Renters fleeing SF likely to stay in Bay Area

The most common destination for those browsing apartments outside of SF is San Jose—and vice versa

Palm stress and apartment buildings in San Jose.
San Jose, California.
Photo via Shutterstock

Every few weeks brings new public polling that seems to take ghoulish delight in relating how many people supposedly ponder leaving the Bay Area.

But most of these surveys exclude the context of similar municipalities. It’s one thing to say that 57 percent of those polled are thinking about leaving—as the Bay Are Council reported in May—but how does this compare to every other major city? What if it turns out that half of everyone talks about leaving most places?

Enter Apartment List’s renter migration report.

The online rental platform launched the first of these user traffic summaries Wednesday, recording what percentage of renters in major cities are looking for homes in other cities and where, using the period of January 1 through May 1 of 2019.

Redfin commits a similar exercise every quarter, but Apartment List’s new resource focuses on renters rather than homeowners—i.e., the overwhelming majority of San Franciscans.

Similar to Redfin, these migration reports do not tell us how many people are coming or going—only what percentage of users on its site bothered to browse other communities.

Nevertheless, the data provides an opportunity to compare the habits—and possibly the anxieties—of SF renters against renters around country.

Of Apartment List users in San Francisco, 46.3 percent search for homes “out of metro” during the first five months of the year.

Looking at the rest of California, that same stat is just 37.7 percent for LA, and a meager 23.6 percent for San Diego,

However, it’s (slightly) less than the 46.4 percent of outbound searches from Sacramento, 48.5 percent for Santa Rosa, and 52 percent for San Jose.

Outside of the state, Seattle’s outbound searches are 26.7 percent of traffic on the site. Portland’s searches are 32.9.

New York City residents search in other metros 38.9 percent of the time, Chicagoans 42.6 percent, Houston residents 28.6 percent, Phoenix 24.8 percent, and Philadelphia 32.3.

By this metric, San Francisco seems to create a lot of moving anxiety compared to other notable U.S. cities, but not particularly much compared to most other major cities in California.

However, the numbers alone don’t tell the full story. Economist Chris Salviati writes:

San Francisco has the third highest share of users looking to move outside the metro. At first this may appear to confirm a popular narrative that San Francisco is losing residents to more affordable emerging tech hubs such Denver and Austin, however, a closer look at the data contradicts this interpretation.

Among those users located in the San Francisco metro and searching to move elsewhere [...] 24.4 percent are searching in the San Jose metro, 6.5 percent are searching the Sacramento metro, and 3.9 percent are searching in the Vallejo, CA metro.

The top three browsing destinations outside of SF on Apartment List were San Jose, LA, and Sacramento.

This still leaves a significant number of users looking at homes in places like Portland, Seattle, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver, Dallas, Chicago, Nashville, Miami, and Washington DC.

A marked plurality of searches keep within Northern California and driving distance of SF.

Similarly, those in San Jose are most likely to look for homes in San Francisco, as are users in Sacramento and Santa Rosa.

According to the U.S. Census, San Francisco’s population continued to grow in 2017 and 2018.

But that growth slowed significantly in the most recent round of population estimates. Of the three factors that contribute to growth—birthrate, immigration from out of the country, and migration from other states and metros—local migration contributes the least to SF’s most recent growth spurts.