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Are San Franciscans really that unhappy?

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Possibly no more than they’ve always been—but maybe that’s the problem

Silhouette of a woman walking her dog on a pedestrian overpass on a cloudy day; Tall buildings in San Francisco’s financial district are visible in the background. Via Shutterstock

“California is booming—so why are so many Californians unhappy?”

A December New York Times headline posed that question to the world, with Oakland writer Conor Dougherty grappling with how the state—and San Francisco, in particular—can reconcile the high cost of its own success as a gilded decade draws to a close.

“The state has a thriving $3 trillion economy with record low unemployment,” Dougherty writes, but at the same time “a pernicious housing and homeless problem and an increasingly destructive fire season.”

With a surgical eye he picks apart the region’s problems, including the country’s highest wages but also greatest poverty, and the way that Northern California exports poor and working class issues out of places like SF and Oakland and into places like Stockton and Manteca.

The truth is, the Bay Area’s woes are the result of the region’s and the state’s runaway success. Housing costs and income disparity are up largely because of the power of Silicon Valley, making our success stories and our failures less competing influences and more like yin and yang principals.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course—but the Bay Area has generally not been up to the challenge of fixing problems like housing shortages these last ten years, or at least not on a level sufficient to match the scale of the problem.

For all that, Dougherty leaves one question lingering: Are we all really that unhappy?

Locally, the answer is generally yes. Absolutely. In San Francisco there’s a deep well of public opinion showing that people are unhappy about housing, about the homeless crisis, about the condition of the streets, about public transit, and about the future.

But perhaps a better question is whether people here are uniquely unhappy. In which case, things get more complicated.

For example, in November an annual poll by the San Francisco Foundation found that 53 percent of those surveyed in five Bay Area counties believe SF is “on the wrong track,” up significantly from just three years ago.

However, the same poll showed that those asked were surprisingly upbeat about potential solutions; some 68 percent believe elected officials can provide sufficient affordable housing, and almost as many say that both government and the tech industry can create “wealth and financial stability” for the region. (This is in contrast to politically motivated attacks from out of state—and increasingly from the White House—which try to frame SF’s problems as failures of elected leadership.)

A few weeks prior, the San Francisco Controller’s Office released additional data from the city’s annual resident survey detailing how many people think about leaving SF in the near future, with 35 percent of those polled describing themselves as at least “somewhat likely” to leave.

But looking back at 2005, the year San Francisco first started including this question on its survey, one in three residents were “somewhat” or “very likely” to leave, and the pollsters described the recent 35 percent figure as “relatively consistent” with findings over the past 15 years.

You could also argue that San Francisco residents’ gripes are generally in line with what one would expect from the example of similar cities.

In October of 2019, a University of Southern California survey found that Los Angeles County residents were on average less happy than most of the rest of America, with the primary reason being “a single resounding theme that the high cost of living in LA County permeates” their lives—a familiar refrain.

In July 2017, New York City’s Citizen Budget Commission found that most New Yorkers were happy with the city in most ways, but just over 58 percent of those surveyed planned to stay—fewer than the 15-year average for SF, notably—and they gave poor marks to variables like transit safety, traffic, street cleaning, public housing, and homeless services, much like San Franciscans do.

Some other cities are happier in general, of course; in 2018, Austin found that 75 percent of residents were happy with the city overall.

But even in that Texas town, most residents said their city didn’t offer affordable housing, particularly for low- and middle-income households. Austin residents also said that the city wasn’t adequately prepared or zoned for population growth.

City Lab’s 2016 article “The Price of Happiness in Cities” said that people who moved to chronically unhappy cities chiefly did so to take advantage of the lower costs of living. Whereas people living in more expensive cities liked their communities better but were more unhappy about the cost of living.

Maybe the ultimate measure of the city’s disposition is how many people are, in fact, acting on these sentiments and departing. San Francisco’s population boom has slowed to barely a pop in the last three years, most recently adding only 2,742 people between July 2018 and July 2019.

While the population still increases, the region had more people moving to other parts of the country annually than relocating here.

Happiness, as it turns out, is a tricky currency to measure. In recent years, despite public disgruntlement, San Francisco has been succeeding. But that won’t last forever—while boom times come and go, SF’s biggest problems seem almost perennial, and they will still be waiting in the wings when the limelight eventually fades.