After nearly 10 years of living in San Francisco, I decided to leave at the end of last year. In this post, I explain what motivated my departure and how the city can improve in the future.

San Francisco skyline
View of my former neighborhood from my apartment.


For the majority of my time in SF, I was pretty happy with life there. I had a great apartment in a great location. Although I had a car, I rarely used it because I could easily walk to the train, the city’s main shopping district (Union Square), and the offices of my various employers over the years.

Starting 4-5 years ago, however, things started changing for the worse, and then they accelerated downwards during the pandemic. It’s hard to pin down exactly what happened and when, but I think the core problem for me was that my sense of safety significantly degraded.

Physical safety

My biggest problem with SF was simply not feeling physically safe while walking down the street or sitting in a train. SF has a pretty low violent crime rate, at least by US standards, so I wasn’t worried about getting shot or robbed or anything like that.

Instead, the problem was that SF had (and still has today), thousands of people wandering around who are suffering from untreated substance abuse and/or severe mental illness. The vast majority of these folks were completely harmless, but a small percentage were hostile, threatening, and, in some cases, violent.

In multiple cases over the last few years, I was followed, screamed at, and threatened in broad daylight. Thankfully, nothing physically happened to me, but it’s a really jarring experience to have this happen. Each time I reported these incidents to the police, they never responded. I got the sense that as long as no one was physically harmed, they didn’t really care. Thus, there were no mechanisms in place to control, contain, or treat this behavior.

Over time, I realized that you needed to be hyper-vigilant every time you left the house, constantly evaluating everyone around you and being ready to cross the street or reverse direction at a moment’s notice. Is that person screaming and throwing trash at the side of a bus shelter a danger, or are they going to keep to themselves if I walk quickly past? What about that group that’s selling drugs in the middle of the sidewalk?

It just got really stressful and draining dealing with this after a while. And, the threats seemed to get worse over time.


Closely related to the issue of physical safety is drugs. When I moved to my neighborhood (Mission Street between 7th and 8th), it wasn’t fancy but at least it was pretty clean and quiet. Then, a few years ago, gangs of drug dealers moved in. They first took over the 7th street corner and then, during the pandemic, also expanded to the 8th street side of my block. By the end, I couldn’t leave the house without walking through them.

Most of the time, this activity was peaceful. However, it brought more people to the neighborhood who were loud, destructive, and potentially threatening. The sidewalks became blocked in places, and I often had to walk in the street to get around the dealers, their customers, and the piles of trash they left behind.

Occasionally, violence did flare up. There were two, drug-related murders on my block in the last year, one of which I heard the gunshots for. And, people were constantly overdosing, and often dying. In my final month, I walked by a dead body on the sidewalk being attended to by the coroner’s office.

Traffic safety

The final safety dimension that affected me was my interactions with drivers in the street. As I mentioned above, I had a car but tried to walk or take transit whenever possible. I also biked a lot, particularly if I was going to places that were more than a few miles away.

San Francisco was never the most pedestrian or bike friendly city in the world, but at least you could be reasonably confident that you wouldn’t be hit by a car when going outside. Then, a few years ago, the city made a conscious decision to stop nearly all traffic enforcement 1. As a result, the behavior of some drivers got terrible, to the point of being dangerous. I would routinely see people running red lights, going the wrong way down one way streets, driving on roads closed to private vehicles, and speeding at 60+ in 25mph zones.

In my last year, after nearly two decades of incident-free biking, a driver making an illegal right turn hit me while I was in a bike lane on Market Street. Thankfully, I escaped with only scrapes and bruises, but that was really upsetting for me, and I felt that it was only a matter of time before something worse happened.

Why it’s frustrating

Many cities in the US and in other places around the world have problems with crime, drugs, safety, homelessness, and other issues. But, there are a couple aspects of San Francisco’s situation that make its problems especially frustrating.

First, the city is incredibly wealthy and has a massive budget at its disposal- nearly $14 billion dollars 2 for a population of only slightly more than 800,000 people, which, on a per-capita basis, is one of the highest in the country 3. Despite all this money and despite a budget that has grown much faster than the city’s population over the last few years, SF can’t keep its central areas safe and clean, and doesn’t seem to be providing much help to the thousands of people suffering on its streets.

Second, and even worse, the people in charge including the mayor, the police leadership, and a majority of the Board of Supervisors (the legislative body for SF), really just don’t seem to care one bit about what’s happening. Sure, they will occasionally rant in public and promise to fix things 4, but after a quick surge of activity, the streets just go back to their previous state or get worse. I got the sense that they just enjoyed the prestige and money of their jobs (SF officials are among the highest paid in the country 5), and were coasting until they could find something longer-term.

Why it matters

In the pre-pandemic days, most companies required employees to be in the office at least 4 days a week. Many Bay Area companies, including most of the big tech employers (Google, Facebook, etc.), had large offices in downtown San Francisco, and as a result, many of their employees lived in the city to avoid long commutes.

With the pandemic, much of this disappeared. Companies that previously had office-centric cultures started allowing fully remote work or at least allowed people to come in less frequently than before.

The result is that many tech employees, myself included, are no longer tied to locations within easy commuting distance of an SF office. They can live further away (e.g., in the suburbs) or just totally leave the area, as I did. There is less foot traffic in the central areas of the city, which has hurt retail businesses, who are now shutting down or moving away as well.

People now have the power to vote with their feet, and many have taken advantage of and will continue to take advantage of this power as conditions deteriorate. The city can no longer rest on its laurels and spend from an infinite pile of money as it did in the good old days, it now has to control spending and actively fight to retain businesses and residents. Unfortunately, it hasn’t figured out how to do that yet.

Moving away

After 10 years, I decided that I had had enough of feeling unsafe, of seeing people suffering and dying in the streets, of watching businesses in my neighborhood reduce their hours or shut down completely, and of seeing no significant response from the city leadership. I packed up my stuff, cancelled my lease, and moved back to the East Coast.

I have a lot of great memories of my time in SF, and I feel really sad about what’s happened to the city. Will it ever recover? Maybe with completely new leadership and drastic policy changes it can. But, until that happens, I’m not holding my breath.


Why didn’t you just move to a different part of SF?

I wanted to live in a dense, central area and not in a single family house that’s 4 miles from downtown. Also, my neighborhood was perfectly nice when I moved in, and then got bad. What’s to prevent that from happening to other places in the city as well?

What about homelessness? You didn’t discuss it at all above despite the attention that issue has gotten.

Yes, homelessness is a very serious problem in San Francisco. However, it wasn’t super prevalent in my immediate neighborhood. I also felt that the safety and drug issues were more critical, and that homelessness was more of a symptom than a cause of the city’s problems.

What about property crime?

Property crime in San Francisco is terrible, but it didn’t affect me personally because I lived in a building with multiple security people on-site 24/7. I also kept my car in a secure garage and not on the street. If you’re moving to SF or visiting, I would suggest you do the same.

The sad thing about the city is that many people, particularly those with lower incomes, don’t have this luxury, and it’s a big financial burden when their possessions are stolen from their cars or homes. The city leadership, however, doesn’t really care because burglaries and car break-ins are considered “victimless” crimes.

I drove near (insert some place mentioned above) and it was perfectly fine. Are you exaggerating about how bad it is?

No, I’m not. If anything, I’m understating how terrible things were in my neighborhood and others nearby.

One quirky thing to note about SF is that there can be significant variation in street conditions by both location and time. One block could be perfectly fine, and a block one street over could be a disaster zone. Or, a corner could be quiet now but then get taken over by drug dealing next week.

The city (when it does anything) typically just shuffles people around, does a quick cleanup, and then forgets about the area for a while. The conditions have little to do with the buildings, and more to do with whatever the city is allowing or not allowing on the sidewalks at any particular time and place.

The stats show that SF is doing well. Assaults, burglaries (substitute some other metric here) are down!

First of all, I care more about what I see with my eyes than any statistics. Secondly, when the police take hours to respond to even serious crimes like commercial burglaries 6 or shootings 7, the incentive to report things goes way down.

Other cities in the US are just as bad. Why are you picking on SF?

It’s simply false that SF is “just as bad as everywhere else”. I’ve spent a good amount of time over the last year visiting many other places in the US, including a bunch that the media love to hate on like Seattle, Baltimore, and New York, and I felt significantly safer in all of those places. Also, they don’t have giant, open-air drug markets in their city centers.

Yes, lots of cities in the US have problems. But SF’s are genuine outliers in multiple dimensions.

SF was much worse in the 90’s (substitute some other, long-past decade here). Shouldn’t we be grateful about the progress made over the last few decades?

I don’t think that’s relevant. The SF of today is a very different place from the one of 30+ years ago, with many more resources, technologies, and policy learnings at its disposal. By this same logic, we shouldn’t care about people dying from infectious diseases today because many more died from them in some past epoch (e.g., the early 20th century), which most would argue is a ridiculous assertion.

Wow, this is so depressing. Is San Francisco going to become the next Detroit?

It’s hard to predict the future, but I think the chance of this happening is low. SF’s geography and weather are pretty unique, and the broader metropolitan area is extremely prosperous and continues to grow. However, I have no idea how low it will go before it stabilizes and then, maybe, gets better again.

Why are you complaining without providing solutions?

With all due respect, that’s not my job. I’m not an expert on criminology or substance abuse or urban planning or whatever, nor am I in a position where I control policy. When I lived in SF, I voted and paid taxes with the expectation that the people in charge would try to figure these things out or hire smart people who could. And, they failed miserably.

You’re a terrible, negative person- good riddance!

This kind of sentiment just drives more people and businesses away. Each departure reduces the city’s revenue (personally, I paid tens of thousands of dollars a year in state and local taxes) and activity, which makes the situation there even worse.