Jared Joiner reluctantly moved from Oakland to a tiny studio apartment in San Francisco in 2018. He needed to be closer to his Redwood City job, but he had no idea that in two years the apartment itself would become his office.
Working from the cramped unit during the pandemic felt constricting: “I would wake up and get out of bed, move 3 feet to my desk, then later move 9 feet in the other direction to the couch,” he said. He’d left most of his friends in Oakland, where before the coronavirus crisis he’d often go spend entire weekends. That was no longer an option.
As soon as Joiner began suspecting that he and his colleagues at the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative wouldn’t be returning to the office anytime soon, he went looking for a bigger place to rent in Oakland. He strapped on a mask and saw 11 units in one May weekend, soon signing a lease for a quiet one-bedroom in West Oakland with a backyard and a grill. It felt right, he said.
“If I could live wherever I wanted, it would be Oakland,” said Joiner, who came to the Bay Area from Boston five years ago. “When I moved to Oakland I finally felt like I was home. As a Black man, there was just more diversity. It felt like more people looked like me.”
Housing data analysts think Joiner could be part of a greater exodus out of San Francisco and into cheaper and more spacious homes in neighboring cities during the pandemic. Data from the real-estate listing site Zumper found that Oakland was one of the very few cities in the Bay Area where one-bedroom rents were higher this June than they were a year prior. In San Francisco and some expensive South Bay cities, rents dropped by double-digit percentage points compared to the previous year. In July, Oakland rents dropped a bit for one-bedrooms too, but still rose for two-bedrooms.
“There has been a migration away from the Bay Area overall, and a micro-trend of people leaving San Francisco and moving to neighboring areas like Oakland and even Sacramento,” said Zumper’s Crystal Chen, who compiles the rent statistics. She suspects the relatively high demand for Oakland housing is keeping rents up. (However, San Francisco is still the most expensive city for housing nationally.)
A different sort of report from Zumper further suggests that the move across the bay is growing more popular. The company’s “migration report” tracks what city a renter is searching from and which cities they’re looking to rent in, using IP addresses. During the pandemic, San Francisco has consistently been one of the top five cities where people are searching for Oakland apartments, whereas it didn’t make the list in January, February, or March. Open apartment listings have risen in the city too.
What’s less clear is whether these “micro-trends” will leave a lasting mark on the cities people are leaving and moving to.
Will a higher-income group settle permanently in the East Bay or leave the region altogether, now that the nightlife and work-life that brought them to San Francisco is gone indefinitely? And what about the people who already live in Oakland? Once emergency eviction protections approved by the City Council and Alameda County expire, and with rents still on the rise, will they, in turn, end up leaving for good? The pandemic could end up accelerating the gentrification that has already pushed many lower-income people out of Oakland over the past two decades.
Choosing—or needing—to move to Oakland
Like Joiner, Amy Galles moved to Oakland after her work went remote because of the pandemic.
Living in a nine-person house in San Francisco’s Mission District felt like a lucky break at the start of the pandemic. “Isolation” and “quarantine” are less scary concepts when you have a built-in community at home. But “after a few months of arguing about standards of safety and not being able to see my partners,” Galles felt a bit trapped.
She and her housemates all had different risk factors and ideas about how to best protect the household during the pandemic. As someone with multiple romantic partners, Galles couldn’t justify exposing everyone she lived with to infection from her dates, or vice versa.
Unlike Joiner, Galles didn’t have her sights set on Oakland. Now an engineer at Change.org, she’d spent little time in the East Bay since moving to San Francisco in 2018 from Virginia. But one of her partners lived in Albany, and after they took a three-week quarantine vacation together, he suggested Galles move in with him and his wife in the East Bay. The group found a nice spot in northwest Oakland’s Golden Gate neighborhood in July.
“I was like, how can we afford this? Oh—East Bay,” said Galles.
She’s been enjoying exploring her new area: “The part of Oakland that I’m in now is much warmer in personality,” she said. While many of her San Francisco neighbors were new to the city too, or kept to themselves, in Oakland her neighborhood still has friendly long-timers.
Even so, “if we have another bubble burst and rents go down, I’d probably jump on the chance to live in San Francisco again,” said Galles, who misses the city’s dance spots, parks, and fabric stores.
When the crisis started, Galles’ workplace said it would reopen in September. Now that seems unlikely, especially as major tech companies like Google and Facebook have said they’ll stay remote for another year. Still others, like Airbnb, have laid off workers, creating hundreds of unemployed city dwellers who might be inclined to move someplace cheaper.
Some of these newly mobile workers are returning to their hometowns or sheltering-in-place somewhere tropical, but most don’t actually go very far.
“What’s interesting about migration is people usually make short moves,” said Tim Thomas, research director with UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project. “People aren’t making large, long moves on average—that’s up to the 25-to-30-year-old to do.”
That age group often gets blamed for the state of the Bay Area’s housing market over the past several years, since young people came to San Francisco in hordes for tech jobs. But Thomas said they may be likeliest to have to leave the city too: “Those are folks that are trying to move into the city and establish careers, so they don’t yet have a high income, and they can move to their parents’ house during the pandemic.”
But what about young people who don’t have that option?
Daniella Caluza, 20, was living in student housing at Stanford when the university announced students had five days to pack up and leave.
“It was the middle of finals, and everyone was kind of freaking out,” she said. “I needed a place to live and felt a sense of urgency, like, what do I do, what do I do, what do I do? There was frustration, anger, panic.”
Caluza, who’s from Stockton, moved back home for a couple days, but her relationship with her family is “a little strained.” She had a few friends from school in similar positions, but none of them had the things landlords typically ask for: credit histories, or proof of income that didn’t come in the form of a financial aid report. They’d never had apartments of their own.
The group of four eventually found an affordable short-term rental in South San Francisco, but the owner didn’t renew their lease, so they made another “hectic move” to a place at the southern edge of Oakland, near the zoo and the San Leandro border. It’s a three-bedroom for $3,200, and two of the students share a room.
Walking in the Oakland hills has been rejuvenating, and Caluza could see herself ending up in the area after college. But “I wonder about my place in general in the Bay Area as a Stanford student. I want to make an intentionally ethical decision about where I want to live,” she said—not choose a new neighborhood out of desperation.
Other Oaklanders are worried they’ll get pushed out
Nobody knows yet what the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic will be on the Bay Area’s housing situation but researchers with UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project are trying to find out. The initiative, which studies gentrification globally, has previously mapped displacement risk across the Bay Area, looking at where people are most likely to lose their homes because of rising rents and other pressures. Now, they’re developing a COVID-19 “housing precarity risk model,” that tracks which neighborhoods in the Bay Area and elsewhere are likely to be transformed because of risks of displacement, eviction, unemployment, and coronavirus infection.
“We do have hypotheses,” said Thomas, the research director. “A lot of it is the alarm we’ve read in the news: POC neighborhoods are going to be hit really hard, areas with a high proportion of service workers, areas with people in the 25-35 age range. It’s always been the case, throughout all research on inequality, that vulnerable people pay more or lose more than anybody else.”
But he and other analysts think rents could continue to drop around the region, including in Oakland, even as new people move in.
“While I dont think San Francisco or Oakland rents are ever going to be down to $1,200 [on average]—there’s going to be a floor—I think they’re going to decline,” said Zumper’s Chen.
In the long run, more people could make those rare longer moves out of the region too, said Thomas, as industries like tech allow full-time remote work, and with the climate crisis pushing people away from sinking coastlines.
More immediately, Thomas said, is the moratorium question. Will strong renter protections stem displacement for now or permanently?
“Oakland has probably the best eviction moratorium in the nation, in my eyes,” he said. “In other places, or when the moratorium is lifted, we’re going to see a run to the courthouse. But it’s possible that landlords wanting to evict won’t be able to find a new replacement tenant.”
Local tenant attorneys say they’re fearing mass evictions when the protections expire. Residents are already in precarious positions.
“We get calls on our hotline from folks worried about staying housed, being harassed by their landlords, or concerns about being out of work and behind on the rent,” said Rose Arrieta, communications lead at Causa Justa/Just Cause, a tenant rights organization in Oakland and San Francisco.
But landlords have previously told The Oaklandside that Alameda County’s eviction moratorium—newly extended until 60 days after the state of emergency ends—will prevent them from evicting anyone for months if not years. Because some tenants have fallen months behind on rent this could lead to some landlords missing mortgage payments or struggling to pay property taxes. Ultimately, some landlords say housing stock could end up in the hands of corporate investors with deeper pockets.
This tension, displacement, and influx of newcomers is not just a pandemic phenomenon. For years, longtime Oaklanders saw plenty of spillover from San Francisco as exorbitant rents there have sent residents searching for refuge in the East Bay.
When Thomas himself moved to the Bay Area in 2019, he found himself competing with a nurse from the city for an apartment by the UC Berkeley campus. She said she simply couldn’t get a room in San Francisco. By contrast, Joiner said it felt easy to get a viewing appointment at Oakland apartments during the pandemic. The place where he settled was even willing to hold it for him for a month. (Braving crowded stores to buy furniture for a twice-as-big apartment during the pandemic proved harder.)
Joiner and Galles share a vision for the Bay Area when it emerges from the pandemic, but they hold different levels of optimism.
As Galles watches her industry colleagues who moved here only because of work start to pack up, she wonders if “the people who love San Francisco are going to hold out and get it back.”
“Even though I’m probably one of the people making it harder for people to pay rent in Oakland, my hope is that, if people hightail it out of here, it’s going to make San Francisco and Oakland more queer, more of what it was before,” she said.
Joiner, who was drawn back to Oakland by the activism of groups like the Black Organizing Project and the Anti Police-Terror Project, isn’t so sure.
“I guess one worry or risk I see is that folks will be attracted to the warmth, space, Lake Merritt, and affordable rents,” he said, “without getting involved in supporting the work and efforts of folks who have been here making Oakland a wonderful community in the first place.”