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Pandemic exodus left Bay Area with largest drop in household income in U.S.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/9/2022 Bryan Pietsch
Pedestrians pass Twitter's San Francisco headquarters on Oct. 6. © David Paul Morris/Bloomberg Pedestrians pass Twitter's San Francisco headquarters on Oct. 6.

The San Francisco Bay area has long been known as the home of Big Tech — and the extreme wealth the industry has created. But during the pandemic, as workers and companies relocated elsewhere, San Francisco experienced the largest drop in median household income among top U.S. metropolitan areas, according to data from the Census Bureau.

The median household income in the metropolitan area that includes San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley fell from $121,551 in 2019 to $116,005 in 2021, according to a census report this month.

The drop of $5,546, or 4.6 percent, was the largest decline by both dollar amount and percentage among the 25 most populous metropolitan areas in the country. The second highest was in the New York City area, which experienced a 4.2 percent — $3,321 — decline in median household income. The D.C. area saw a 1.4 percent drop, from $111,974 in 2019 to $110,355 in 2021.

The largest jump in either direction was in the sprawling Phoenix metropolitan area, where the median household income jumped 5.2 percent, from $71,954 in 2019 to $75,731 in 2021.

The exodus of wealth from San Francisco tracks with the area’s loss of population during the pandemic, which was also the highest in the country, as remote workers fled for less expensive locales like Miami or more remote areas such as Teton County, Wyo., and as some major companies, including Oracle and Charles Schwab, relocated their headquarters to Texas. From 2020 to 2021, San Francisco lost 54,813 people, or 6.3 percent of its population, according to the Census Bureau — the largest proportion of population lost in a major U.S. city during the pandemic.

In pandemic’s first year, large cities shrank as South, West saw gains

San Francisco’s population loss comes as many tech companies, including Twitter, Salesforce and Airbnb, have allowed their employees to go remote full-time. It also comes as the city has struggled with crime, with videos of brazen theft in drugstores and luxury shops becoming fodder for right-wing attacks on liberal policies. San Francisco Mayor London Breed (D) declared a state of emergency in December in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood, long known for rampant drug use and homelessness, saying the situation there “calls for an emergency response.” Chesa Boudin, a lightning rod for critiques against far-left policies on crime, was recalled in June from his position as San Francisco’s district attorney.

Breed’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday evening about the census data.

Although the drop in median household income could cause problems for tax revenue in the future, San Francisco is expecting a budget surplus for fiscal years 2022-2023 and 2023-2024, Breed said in December, after she instructed departments to get “back to basics,” urging them to focus on pandemic recovery and “restoring the vibrancy” of San Francisco. In July, Breed signed a 2022-2023 budget that “prioritizes economic recovery, public safety, workers and families, homelessness and behavioral health needs.” Included is $7.2 million over two years dedicated solely to cleaning the Tenderloin neighborhood.

Still, as the dust of the pandemic is still settling across much of the nation, San Francisco’s downtown has been the slowest to recover among any city in the United States. According to a study by the University of California at Berkeley, downtown activity is at 31 percent of its pre-pandemic levels, the lowest among any large or medium-size U.S. city. That falls short of the 65 percent return in downtown D.C., 78 percent bounce in New York and 155 percent boom in Salt Lake City.

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