Boarded-up storefronts. Brazen robberies. Multiplying tent encampments. To outsiders, San Francisco sounds more and more like dystopian Detroit from the sci-fi classic RoboCop, set in the year 2028. Yet here’s the rub: Many San Franciscans who stuck out the pandemic are wealthier than ever. Rather than fleeing the city, they’re doubling down on larger, more updated homes that fit Zoom room lifestyles.
The numbers are startling. Home sales by volume, in every price range, jumped 41 percent in 2021 from pre-pandemic days, according to Compass data. Luxury home buyers were even more voracious, snapping up 85 percent more properties sold for between $3 million and $5 million. Sales of homes above $5 million more than doubled. Single-family homes are selling for almost $1,100 a square foot, compared with about $900 in early 2019.
New San Franciscans tend to be wealthier than those who leave and many who were already affluent before the pandemic are richer now, thanks to a bubbly stock market, according to Compass Chief Market Analyst Patrick Carlisle. Although median home prices surged by almost $200,000 in the past year, the percentage of households for which they are “affordable” has stayed unchanged at 19 percent.
“Who would have guessed that a pandemic, this wild card out of nowhere, with all its strange effects, would lead to one of the most ferocious markets in history?” Carlisle said.
Rich buyers have typically made a commitment to stay either because they have ties to school communities or just prefer city life to the slower pace of the suburbs, said realtor Nina Hatvany, who often handles high-end sales. They’re mostly pulling in two incomes while working at home, so they want room for two offices and a home gym. They also seek private outdoor space where their kids can play and they can entertain guests.
The amenities add up, especially given that “they are tending to purchase fully remodeled homes, which by definition are more expensive,” Hatvany said.
All that upsizing comes against a grim backdrop.
“Who would have guessed that a pandemic, this wild card out of nowhere, with all its strange effects, would lead to one of the most ferocious markets in history?”
An East Coast couple visiting their new grandchild in the Mission had their rental car broken into twice in two days. A family in NoPa, as the North of Panhandle neighborhood is known, didn’t realize their dog had scared away a robber until they found a crowbar he left behind. In response, one neighbor installed a deadbolt in her garage to guard against break-ins – the first since moving in 10 years ago.
Property crimes including burglary, larceny and car theft rose by 11 percent this year to almost 42,000 cases by mid-December, according to SFPD data. That’s down from 54,000 in 2017, however, when the city had the highest per-capita rate of property crimes among the 20 most populous US metros, the FBI says.
Still, perceptions are everything. When stronger fortifications aren’t enough, some residents have turned to private security firms to keep an eye on their expensive homes. The city just passed a law that lets shopkeepers hire off-duty deputies, hoping to prevent retailers from citing theft as a reason to shutter even more stores.
More help can’t come soon enough.
In a coordinated attack just before Thanksgiving, thieves descended on Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Burberry, and Dolce & Gabbana. Within minutes they had hopped into getaway cars and made off with hundreds of thousands of dollars of designer goods. Video images of the brazen smash-and-grab in Union Square, where many stores have already closed during the pandemic, went viral.
Mayor London Breed, a lifelong resident who grew up in public housing, is furious.
It’s time, she told reporters at a recent news conference, to get “less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.”
Breed announced a slew of measures designed to combat shoplifting and the sale of stolen goods, as well a push to police open-air drug sales and use. She even declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood hit hard by theft and drug overdoses.
The liberal city deserves its reputation for compassion, she said. Acknowledging her push for a harder stance on crime will upset people, she added, “I don’t care.”
“We’re not a city where anything goes,” she said. “We are past the point where what we see is even remotely acceptable.”
Even before the mayor’s announcement, some residents in the tony Marina district had hired private security details. One guard told KPIX that his clients in the neighborhood had more than doubled, to 150 from 70, during the pandemic.
“We don’t feel safe in our neighborhood,” Marina resident Katie Lyons told the TV station. “We have an alarm, we have cameras on our property but we want the extra security of someone having eyes on our place.”
Hatvany, the high-end broker, says there’s some truth to the notion that quality-of-life issues are forcing some longtime residents to reconsider city living.
Sellers bemoan what they call an “epidemic of car and home break-ins, package thefts, the visible homeless problem and the number of people on the streets who are obviously mentally ill and can be unpredictable and hence alarming,” she said.
High-visibility crimes such as the events in Union Square are occurring all over the Bay Area, not just in San Francisco, she said. “But they don’t make the city look good for people who might be considering relocating here or who need one last excuse to depart for another state,” she said.
It’s time to get “less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city”
Low-level crime was central to the 2019 district attorney battle won by former Assistant Public Defender Chesa Boudin, whose progressive vision included no prosecution for offences such as public camping, public urination and panhandling. His main rival was longtime criminal prosecutor Nancy Tung.
“Property and low-level crimes shrink the space for everyday people and enlarge them for the people committing them,” Tung told the City Journal before the election. “If we continue down this path, we will see more people leave San Francisco.”
While Tung’s vision of a mass exodus hasn’t come to pass so far, Boudin faces a recall vote in June due to what critics call his inaction on prosecuting crimes.
In the meantime, the wealthy may just keep on buying bigger homes.
The less well-off, who exited when they lost service jobs last year, may not be able to afford rent-controlled apartments that have been reset to market rates, said Carlisle, the Compass analyst. People who managed to cling to homes could also be forced out, now that evictions for nonpayment are back on the table after a pandemic-induced moratorium.
“Will this fuel a further exodus out of the city of lower-income residents?” he said. “I hope not, but fear so.”