SAN FRANCISCO — Even on a foggy San Francisco morning, the view from Scott Simmons’ 25th-floor apartment stretches from downtown to Golden Gate Park. The home of the 42-year-old tech worker is also spacious for a one-bedroom, featuring hardwood floors, new appliances and granite countertops.
A year ago, when he was sharing a two-bedroom place with his brother, Simmons couldn’t have imagined living in an apartment like this one. But last fall, when Simmons heard about big rent declines during the COVID-19 pandemic, he discovered he could get way more for his money in the heart of San Francisco than in the neighborhood where he was doubling up in Oakland.
“It’s bananas,” Simmons said. “I never thought I was going to be someone who was going to have a nice view. It’s a luxury.”
Since March, when government stay-at-home orders began emptying downtowns of workers and shoppers, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco has dropped nearly 30%, the largest decrease in the country. The tech capital has hundreds of thousands of employees well positioned to work remotely, and they have. Outside the city.
The pandemic’s toll on San Francisco has created a scenario long unthinkable in the Bay Area. For some renters — mostly middle- and upper-income earners — it’s now more affordable to live in the famously expensive city than in its bluer-collar neighbor, Oakland.
“If you would have told 15-year-old me that 15, 16 years down the road that Oakland was going to become more expensive it would have been literally shocking,” said Amar Saini, 32, an Oakland native who moved into a 12-story apartment building near the Bay Bridge this month to save money. “I just don’t believe it.”
San Francisco, even as rents decrease, remains the nation’s costliest big city. A one-bedroom apartment still typically rents for almost $2,000 a month, putting it far out of reach for many residents. But the steep drop in prices has surprised real estate watchers for both its depth and scale. Even landlords in tony neighborhoods like Pacific Heights and Russian Hill, who once were charging $4,000 a month for one-bedroom apartments, are lowering their prices and offering incentives like months of free rent to get tenants in the door.
The rent declines are a direct result of the pandemic. More than half the city’s employees are able to work remotely, according to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, and tech firms like Twitter and Salesforce — the city’s largest private employer with more than 9,000 workers — have said employees can stay away from the office even after the pandemic ends.
Additionally, the pandemic has closed restaurants, bars and museums, while putting a premium on locales that offer people more space to work or their kids to attend school virtually. For San Francisco, a dense city that long has had some of the nation’s highest rents, all the changes have taken away many of the amenities that make city life vibrant. Data from the U.S. Postal Service show that 56,000 more people requested address changes out of San Francisco in 2020 than those moving in.
“Every man, woman and their dog is saying there’s no point living in downtown San Francisco if you’re not going into work,” said Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University who is studying remote work during the pandemic.