How San Francisco and California Are Poised To Change

San Francisco’s demographics fluctuate depending on who’s counting and why.

2008 was not a good year, but in hindsight, it was probably the best year for the internet. A year after the first iPhones, it didn’t feel weaponized then, and its anarchic silliness still held potential for liberation. That was when memes meant “drunk dial kitteh is callin u at 2am” in the trademark Impact typeface, when Facebook meant pokes and a genial feed in chronological order. The total lack of accountability for saying and sharing and spreading whatever the fuck you felt like online had yet to produce potentially world-annihilating consequences.

Although it’s built on algorithms and stats, you can’t actually prove that the internet peaked. What we do have are figures that are hard to wrap our minds around, like how YouTube is tasked with purging tens of thousands of hate-filled channels and 500 million horrible comments in a desperate effort to stay ahead of crypto-fascist vloggers and kiddie porn. Even outer space, that repository of humanity’s final phase of optimism, now feels destined to become a haven for petty financial crimes under the authoritarian gravity-boot of today’s tech overlords. And who hasn’t experienced the uncanny eeriness of discussing a topic with a friend only to see relevant Facebook ads start popping up?

The whole thing sucks and we all know it. Viewed through this lens, 2008 — a terrible year when abstruse financial shenanigans nobody understood tanked the economy and we elected Barack Obama to save us — feels impossibly innocent and long ago.  Everything we feel about the trajectory of the internet is relative, contingent, and anecdotal, more Farmer’s Almanac than FiveThirtyEight.

Late-2010s life in San Francisco has a similarly vertiginous feel. For many residents, property owners in particular, the city is booming, yet almost everyone agrees that it’s not what it used to be.  Across the Bay, paying $1000 for an 85-square-foot tiny home near Ashby BART that may or may not have a septic hookup is hideously abnormal — yet a dwelling of that description lit a fire in a closed Bay Area housing Facebook group only last week. San Francisco is experiencing multiple, overlapping crises, and while we perceive they’re related — short answer: Late-capitalism sux — we have difficulties sorting them out. In many cases, there are hard numbers, but the picture they paint is inconclusive and full of contradictions. The city is unimaginably wealthy, yet that wealth is paper.

One percent of San Franciscans are said to be experiencing homelessness, yet the actual figure may be three times as high. A slowdown in California’s population growth rate supposedly portends our imminent demise, yet climate change indicates the state has a carrying capacity — one that may already have been reached. What are we to make of all these stats? Can we trust them?

Are we doing OK, or are we doomed?

The Point In Time counts do a valiant but insufficient job of capturing the size of San Francisco’s homeless population. Photo by Jessica Christian



If you peer about the sidewalks, it’s almost impossible not to go with doomed. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum — law-and-order conservatives, Democratic socialists, neoliberals sensitive to the city’s prestige or business climate, brazen shitposters — you will recoil from the specter of so many unhoused people on the streets of such a rich and ostensibly progressive city.

San Francisco takes care in enumerating its unhoused population, with 2019’s biannual Point-in-Time count (PIT) revealing some 8,011 homeless people plus another 1,773 individuals in hospitals, jails, residential treatment programs, and other institutional facilities that ought not to count as a permanent address. These 9,784 people, most of whom had been living here in San Francisco for years before experiencing homelessness, constitute the city’s lasting shame, and spurred headlines like “One Percent of San Francisans Are Now Homeless.”

But with all due respect to the hundreds of volunteers who physically comb the city at night in late January to compile this statistic, it tends to miss certain subpopulations, like people crashing on relatives’ couches or people who don’t fit the stereotype of what a homeless person looks like. Further, it is but a static figure. The real number — of individuals who experience homelessness at any point during a year, and may do so again — is considerably higher, by nearly a factor of three. That would be roughly 23,000 people, more than the entire city of El Cerrito.

“If you are comparing year to year, you are for the most part comparing apples-to-apples,” says Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “But if you’re trying to get an accurate number of how many people are homeless, it’s an undercount. The federal government suggests a 2.7 multiplier to figure out what the number is across the course of a year. San Francisco uses 2.9, so you can see trends.”

This 2.9 figure came when experts started looking at coordinated-entry systems and other kinds of data about people who entered shelters or supportive-housing programs, Friedenbach says. At the same time, the PIT is mandated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has accelerated a decades-long process of retreat from building and maintaining homes for low-income people. HUD Secretary Ben Carson was in San Francisco only last week, and Friedenbach has plenty to say about the transphobic brain surgeon’s approach to his ministerial portfolio.

“He, very oddly, saw the role of HUD to be facilitators of conversations about homelessness, when in fact HUD is the entity … responsible for homelessness and the entity that could solve homelessness,” Friedenbach says. “That was flooring and incredibly irresponsible.”

She also takes issue with Carson’s contention that shelters lead to homelessnes because people leave their homes to enter shelters, noting that “we need subsidized housing through HUD, which would allow homeless folks to stabilize in permanent housing.”

But the only way that will happen is with sustained federal reinvestment in urban areas, which Washington has retreated from for more than four decades.

“The [housing] budget needs to be restored to pre-1978 levels, adjusted for inflation, so we go back to the commitment we had the last time we addressed homelessness: after the Great Depression,” Friedenbach says.

While tents and other visible indicators of homelessness have begun to appear on the more suburban western half of the city, the distribution of unhoused people remains concentrated where it always has been, largely in supervisorial Districts 6 and 8. But Friedenbach draws connections between the growing numbers of unhoused and the production of ghost units — specifically, the proliferation of “units that are bought by people who don’t stay here, by foreign entities to dump money into someplace safe.”

Apart from these ghost units, there are Airbnb apartments, many of which are tracked by the city’s Office of Short-Term Rentals. But as of Oct. 1, the annual cost of registering a unit will go from $250 to $450, and a hearing this week will likely hear from detractors who believe that increase will drive occasional hosts underground in the hopes that city enforcement targets people who operate full-on chain hotels on the platform, so maybe they themselves simply won’t get caught. Amid all the cranes around town and in Oakland, elected officials would rather focus on the building boom than the fact that ever-growing numbers of our neighbors are boxed out of living in all these shiny new developments.

Is the Bay Area particularly squeezed? It’s hard to say. The nine-county region’s population has grown by almost 9 percent, or more than 600,000 people, since the 2010 census, making it the fastest-growing area of the state for the first time in decades. It’s also home to four of the five California cities with the greatest proportion of people ages 25-34, a positive indicator. Yet that growth is far from evenly distributed. Alameda County alone has added 155,000 new residents since 2010, while Napa grew by barely 3,000 people.

Granted, wildfires may partially explain localized fluctuations, but the population of Marin County has somehow fallen every year since 2015. That’s a result of political decision-making, an animus toward sprawl that has morphed into a hostility toward any growth at all, even in the face of a regional housing emergency.

San Francisco’s growth, too, has been irregular. From a record 805,000 people in 2010, the city grew at a healthy clip — to 876,000 inhabitants in 2016 years later and 884,000 the year after. But those figures were unceremoniously rounded down, to 872,000 and 879,000, respectively, before a rebound to 873,000 in 2018. What gives?

Walter Schwarm, demographer with the Demographic Research Unit of the California Department of Finance, notes that it’s not a matter of people falling through the cracks entirely but of improved methodologies, chiefly with respect to rates of foreign-born residents in the city. It had been assumed that in a given year, eight percent of such individuals were leaving San Francisco, but that figure turned out to be low. With its access to IRS data, the federal government has an advantage over the state when it comes to issuing yearly population estimates, causing subsequent revisions.

“We still produce independent estimates of the cities and counties,” Schwarm says of his department, “although we are currently slightly higher than the Census again. That’s because they’re one year ahead of us in taking out more of these immigrants. We’ll probably see our numbers revised downwards closer to theirs.”

Can San Francisco sustain a population of one million?

“Sure,” Schwarm says. “As far as I know, there’s no obvious resource constraint. I don’t know about the sewage side, but on the water side, San Francisco still has sufficient water.”

From the state’s perspective, one of the biggest demographic challenges the future presents is an aging population. This is broadly true of the entire country, but over the next 10 to 15 years, California will go from having a population that’s significantly younger than the median to one that’s above the median range.

“It’s a challenge for San Francisco as well,” Schwarm says. “It attracts young people, but it also hasn’t lost a lot of elderly individuals who seem to want to stay in the city. So the question is, does the city have the services to accommodate the aging and presumably less healthy and more dependent population?

“This old model of people wanting long-term care homes will have to continue to change,” he adds, “because there isn’t sufficient space in California to build the necessary number of homes” for the same proportion of seniors as were in long-term care facilities 25 years ago.

Not having huge numbers of older people living in such places is “better for everybody involved,” Schwarm says, and it’s part of the reason why Gov. Gavin Newsom has established a Commission on Aging. In a sense, California is the paradigmatic Boomer state. That’s who we attracted from the 1970s to the ’90s, and they aren’t retiring elsewhere in droves.

“The proportion of the population that is Baby Boomers, I think we’re in the Top 5 in the U.S.,” Schwarm says. 

Statewide, population growth has been uneven. Of California’s 58 counties, fully 14 experienced drops in population between 2017 and 2018, while another eight recorded a nominal year-over-year increase but still have fewer people living there than they did in 2010. Most are rural, low-population counties in the Sierra Nevada or in the state’s far north, like Siskiyou, Trinity, Lassen, or Plumas counties — places hit hard by wildfires (and disproportionately affected by PG&E’s preemptive power blackouts).

There is a notable exception in Butte County, where Chico has taken in so many Camp Fire refugees who once lived in and around the nearby town of Paradise that it’s now the fastest-growing city in the state. But elsewhere, the picture looks similar. The population of Santa Cruz County dropped by about 850 people in a year, while further down the coast, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties’ growth slowed to virtually nil.

But the biggest standout is Los Angeles County. With more than 10 million inhabitants, it’s the most populous county in the nation by a mile, and it’s now shrunk for two years running. Fifteen thousand fewer people call it home than did in 2016, and while that’s only a loss of 0.15 percent, it’s surprising given the decade-long economic boom and the century-plus history of Southern California as the land of boundless growth. Looked at by region instead of county, the reversal becomes even more abrupt. Greater Los Angeles gained 170,000 people between 2010-17, then shed 7,000 people by 2018. It’s the trendlines, rather than the absolute numbers, that should surprise us.

Nationwide, life expectancy has begun to notch down — although mostly in rural or postindustrial areas where the opioid epidemic and other diseases of despair have hit hard. Deaths are up and births are down — or, put another way, death comes a little earlier and childbirth comes a lot later. And in many states — California among them — only international migration helps keep the overall population growing. But since births continue to outpace deaths overall, that means a lot of people relocating — in a single year, some 98,000 more people moved out of Los Angeles County than in.

This is a dramatic shift given the last century of almost mind-boggling growth. From 1920 through the present, the five-county mega-region consisting of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties grew almost twentyfold, from 1.2 million people to 21.3 million.

What the hell is happening? California was supposed to surpass the 40 million mark in 2018, but it didn’t. The state grew by a mere 187,000 people, or 0.47 percent, to 39.9 million as of Jan. 1, 2019 — barely half of what it’s typically been this decade and the slowest recorded rate in California’s 169 years as a state. (Assuming that growth rate didn’t drastically diminish further, we’ve likely hit 40 million by now, however.)

This has some people in a panic about California’s prospects, and, indeed, you can read almost whatever you want into that failure to reach the arbitrary 40 million level. Are we too highly taxed? Overregulated by elitist progressives in Sacramento? Held hostage by a conservative-driven property tax revolt dating from 1978? Captured by CEQA-abusing NIMBYs? Culturally hostile to church-going, red-blooded American families? Too full of infantilized millennial hipsters who would rather do pretty much anything than propagate the species? Are we literally just one big goddam dystopia from Oregon to the Mexican border? You can find support for any interpretation, but rarely do we get the full picture. Even on topics where agreement is near-total, inconsistencies jump out. For example, if the cost of living is too high — and in most of California, it certainly is — then why are the less expensive places also losing people? And if we’re so overtaxed, why do the rich continue to flock here?

Still, all of this is part of a larger national trend, not an indication that California is uniquely flailing. This state has still gained 2.3 million people since 2010, behind only Texas and Florida in absolute numbers, whereas Illinois has lost 90,000. New York City, too, has shrunk: The Five Boroughs have 70,000 fewer inhabitants than they did in 2015, but is New York considered to be in free-fall?

Nationwide, more counties are shrinking than growing. Population drains in many of those parts of the country are nothing new, yet California may lose a Congressional seat for the first time in its history — going from 53 districts to 52 — after the 2020 Census and subsequent reapportionment.

The state would consequently lose one electoral vote, too — an unpleasant prospect in such polarized times. A citizens’ commission draws California district boundaries, so how it ends up is out of the hands of self-interested elected officials. In any case, rural, Republican-leaning areas have seen the most significant population losses and are thus likeliest to feel the loss of a district on a redrawn map.

The specter of reduced political clout is part of the state’s outsized and conflicted role in the American cultural imagination. These questions aren’t just about the vanity of a state whose boosters like to boast that it’s the fifth-biggest economy in the world, because California’s success isn’t just important to California. As The New York Times noted, “A single county in the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno, produces and sells more agricultural products than 25 states, and over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts are grown in California.” The state has been a place almost totally unencumbered by the burden of history, where people go to reinvent themselves but which gets destroyed in films over and over and over.

If diverse, progressive California is supposed to be the post-Trump America in microcosm, what does it say about that vision for America’s future if people want to leave?

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