Fresh Blood: Gen Z in San Francisco

As aging millennials decamp to ‘Zoom towns,’ a rising cohort of professional Zoomers are moving into the city.

Ross Matican grew up in New Jersey and attended a small liberal arts school in the Midwest, but he’s always envisioned himself living in the Bay Area. So when he landed an offer in business journalism in San Francisco during his senior year of college, he didn’t think twice about it — he knew this was where he wanted to be.

“I was really gung ho about making it work,” says Matican, who remained committed to relocating to the West Coast even after the pandemic hit.

As soon as he graduated in June of 2020, Matican moved into the Lower Haight with three strangers. He calls it a “leap of faith.”

“I was scared,” he says, admitting that he wasn’t prepared for much of what awaited him in the 7×7. “But I don’t think I fully appreciated how radically different it would be to live in San Francisco in the middle of a global health pandemic.” The city’s homelessness crisis also caught him off guard, and he felt unsure about how to navigate his role in the city and engage civically during the pandemic.

Matican and his roommates found the place through an extensive series of video tours of apartments and virtual walks around the neighborhood on Google Maps. Rent was “pretty astronomical” — he initially paid $1,750 a month for “a shoebox of a room.” But as rents around the city continued to fall, the new tenants were able to negotiate a better price with their landlord. 

All things considered, Matican still loves San Francisco. He says he’s felt a “free-spiritedness” here that he hadn’t experienced living in D.C., the New York metropolitan area, or the Twin Cities.

“And I feel like it’s the easiest place in the world to be gay,” he adds, “which really matters to me.” 

As 2020 wore on and rents kept falling, Matican got an offer for a better-paying job at a financial technology company — remote, of course. Between the new gig and the lower cost of living, he was able to upgrade to his own studio in Alamo Square, paying “waaaaay less” than he would’ve pre-pandemic. 

“The thought that, at 23, I’d be moving into my own apartment in San Francisco… I never thought that would be a possibility. Not for years and years and years,” he says.

Matican’s story mirrors the experience of many young people who have moved into the city during the pandemic. Buoyed by plummeting rents and high-paying professional jobs that allow employees to work from home, this new generation of San Franciscans may feel rather fortunate. But for many newcomers, there’s an uncertainty underlying this gratitude — a conflicted self-consciousness, like Matican expressed, about moving into a place where growing income inequality, a serious housing crisis, and a ballooning drug epidemic so sharply highlight the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Rock Bottom

After the pandemic put so many of the city’s amenities on an indefinite hiatus, many Millennials and older San Franciscans relocated to nearby cities in search of more space and lower rent. Some left California behind entirely, lured away by the prospect of lower taxes, and smoke-free summer skies. 

According to a recent analysis of mail-forwarding data collected by the United States Postal Service, about 80,371 households left the city between March and November of 2021 — a 77 percent increase from the year before. Most of these people moved to other locations within the Bay Area; the six most popular counties were Alameda, San Mateo, Marin, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, and Sonoma; only about 4 percent left the state.

A closer look at the San Francisco neighborhoods that emptied at the highest rates is revealing. Apartments in SoMa, Potrero Hill, Chinatown, and the Mission — all popular among the city’s tech workers — are now significantly cheaper than they were last winter. The Sunset District saw virtually no change from January 2020 to January 2021, while Rincon Hill’s zip code, right next to the financial district, saw the biggest loss — a 24 percent drop in rents.

Ted Egan, the Chief Economist of the City and County of San Francisco, said in an email that “there is a very powerful statistical relationship between the number of tech workers that lived in a city before the pandemic, and how much that city’s rent has declined in the past year” at the state level.

In February, according to Egan, the rent for a two-bedroom in the city was around $2,300, compared to $3,200 that time last year. Despite this dramatic decrease in rent prices, San Francisco is still the most expensive city in the United States.

This so-called “techsodus” was fueled in part by the policies of Silicon Valley companies. Salesforce — San Francisco’s largest private employer with more than 9,000 employees in the city — announced its decision to move permanently to “flex working” in early February, famously declaring, “the 9-to-5 workday is dead.” Microsoft, Twitter, Pinterest, Dropbox, and Facebook have made similar moves. A survey this summer found that 42 percent of Bay Area tech workers would leave the Bay Area if they had the option to work from home forever.

As that hypothetical comes to increasingly mirror reality — and as more tech workers have left San Francisco for “Zoom towns,” taking their high salaries and tolerance for high rents with them — landlords have had little choice but to adjust their expectations.

New data, however, indicates that the market is likely levelling out. Rents increased 1.2 percent from January to February of 2021, the first month-to-month increase since the start of the pandemic. Economists expect the upward trend to continue.

Trading Places

While people have been abandoning the city en masse, the number of people who moved into the city this year is about the same as last year: around 27,000. Though statistical data on the average age of these newest San Franciscans is unavailable, it stands to reason that plenty are Gen Z professionals taking advantage of this deflated rental market left behind by exiting Millennials and older San Franciscans. These individuals represent the vanguard of a new and uncertain era in the city’s life cycle. 

Calder Birdsey and Sydney Weinberg both graduated college on the East Coast during the pandemic and moved into a three-bedroom apartment in NoPa over the summer with one other roommate. Both are 23 years old — generally considered to be among the oldest members of Gen Z — and both found their way to San Francisco via job offers. One is a UX engineer at Salesforce, the other a software engineer at an artificial intelligence company.

Together they pay $5,400 per month for the apartment, which is about $1,000 less than the asking price was before COVID. It has a backyard, which Weinberg says has been a “pretty big premium” during the shutdown. 

Both Birdsey and Weinberg work remotely, and though they considered working from their families’ homes to save money, moving out and starting a new life in a new city felt like an important part of the postgrad experience. The two East Coasters say they’ve taken the opportunity to explore the beautiful natural world and enjoy the warm weather in the Bay Area during their time here. During their first month in San Francisco, Birdsey says, they were at Ocean Beach or Baker Beach just about every weekend. 

Weinberg’s company has made it clear that in-person work will begin when it can, while Birdsey, who works at Salesforce, now has the opportunity for forever flex work. They both plan to stay in San Francisco for at least a few more years, and aren’t sure about their long-term plans —  “Hey, we’re still young!” Birdsey jokes — though they each expressed some homesickness for the East Coast and a desire to be near their families.

As for the future of the city, Egan says that the market will likely take some time to adjust to many of the large tech companies reducing their office space — like the rental market, the office market has been in deep decline over the past year. At this point, according to Egan, it’s unclear who will replace these companies as new office tenants, but it is clear that changes to demographics in the city will depend on which companies move in. 

Matican says that, despite so many unknowns about what the future of San Francisco will look like, he imagines himself living here long-term. “I keep seeing people on social media, particularly on Twitter among a certain class of people, saying they’re done with the city and are done with the local government,” Matican says. “I just don’t know if that’s the right response.”

When asked what he’s most looking forward to doing in the city once it’s safe to do so, he says he wants to dance in the Castro and take a cooking class with his boyfriend.

Like other young people initiated into San Francisco in this unusual year, Matican has faced challenges meeting people and getting to know the place, but he’s adapted and settled in nonetheless.

“My center of gravity is here,” he says, “I’ve built a network here.”

Clara Liang is a contributing writer. Twitter @clarablakeliang

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