SAN FRANCISCO — The population of half a dozen San Francisco Bay Area counties declined between July 2001 and July 2002 as the dot-com economy shriveled, according to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates to be released today, making the once high-flying region the only part of California to experience such an exodus in at least 30 years.
The figures reveal overall population drops for San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Marin and Alameda counties, painting a grimmer picture than similar data released by the state earlier this year. Because of a difference in the way migration is calculated, California Department of Finance population estimates for the same period showed dramatically slowed growth for the Bay Area but a decline only in San Mateo County.
Still, Bay Area officials and economic analysts said Wednesday that the overall trend is consistent and comes as no surprise as the region staggers through its high-tech hangover.
"Population trends follow job trends," said Stephen Levy, director of the Palo Alto-based Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy. "Since the Bay Area has experienced now two years of very dramatic job losses, it doesn't surprise me that the rate of growth has slowed down. It wouldn't surprise me if next year's figures show even lower growth. Why would anybody be moving to the Bay Area in this recent period?"
The news is just the latest chapter in the story of this economy's hard fall. In late February, state officials released recalculated figures showing that job losses since 2000 for Silicon Valley and San Francisco combined topped 275,000 -- or 13% of all jobs outside of farming. The U.S. Census Bureau's population estimates show just how that has translated into packed suitcases and loaded U-Hauls.
"From things I've heard anecdotally, that sounds about right," said Lee Blitch, president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. "We had the dot-com bust and people hung around for a while hoping to catch on. As it hasn't happened, they've left -- whether they've gone back home ... or someplace else to find a job.
"The cost of housing here is still pretty high," Blitch added, "so if they're going to be unemployed, they'd probably be better off unemployed somewhere else."
Still, Blitch and others pointed to a bright side Wednesday, saying the natural adjustment in the economy is priming the region for a healthier future. Downtown San Francisco office space that once cost $80 per square foot is now available for $30, as a 2% commercial vacancy rate has soared to 20%.
"The good news is: It's never been a better time to come in and get your long-term lease," Blitch said. "We've still got a highly educated work force and a great climate. We're still the city that everybody wants to visit, with great restaurants."
In Santa Clara County, Planning Director Ann Draper called the declines "a healthy adjustment for our economy," adding that for several years rapid population growth had outpaced the growth in housing supply. The population decline estimated by the Census Bureau -- of 0.7% or 12,511 people -- "is not a huge decline," she said. Vacancy rates for residential rentals remain low, and housing sales are still booming, indicating that the county still has plenty of residents to serve.
Still, the population declines in the six Bay Area counties were the first significant ones in many years. In San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, they were the first since at least 1970, according to Census Bureau figures. In Alameda County, which includes the city of Oakland, the drops marked the first since 1980. San Francisco, meanwhile, registered slight population declines in the late 1980s and in 1995. It also had an almost imperceptible drop of one-tenth of a percent, 877 residents, in 2000. Marin County had not experienced a decline in population since 1985.
The Census Bureau develops its population estimates by considering both birth and death rates of the counties, as well as the net effect of both domestic migration -- U.S. residents moving back and forth between localities -- and international migration.
In the case of Santa Clara, the county lost 3.5% of its population to domestic migration. But that was offset by the arrival of immigrants from abroad equaling almost 1.9% of the county's population. In San Francisco, domestic migration cost the county slightly more than 3% of its population, offset by the arrival of international immigrants equivalent to 1.2% of the county's population.
Statewide, the two counties with the greatest increases in population were Los Angeles, which gained 129,357 new residents between July 1, 2001, and July 1, 2002, and Riverside County, which gained 75,646. In percentage terms, Riverside's growth was the second-fastest -- a striking 4.66%, compared with a statewide average of 1.49%.
Only Placer County, which attracted 13,953 new residents, had a greater percentage increase, 5.27%.
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Population musical chairs
Counties in the San Francisco Bay Area lost about 36,129 residents between 2001 and 2002, according to census figures. The population in the state grew by 1.5% during the same time period.
Biggest population losses
*--* County 2002 pop Change % San Francisco 764,049 -11,929 -1.5% San Mateo 703,202 -5,508 -0.8% Santa Clara 1,683,505 -12,511 -0.7% Santa Cruz 253,814 -1,883 -0.7% Marin 247,581 -1,256 -0.5% Modoc 9,289 -21 -0.2% Alameda 1,472,310 -3,021 -0.2%
Biggest population gains
*--* County 2002 pop Change % Placer 278,509 13,953 5.3% Riverside 1,699,112 75,646 4.7% Stanislaus 482,440 16,406 3.5% San Joaquin 615,302 20,344 3.4% Madera 130,265 4,115 3.3% Merced 225,398 6,912 3.2% Yolo 180,856 5,505 3.1% Calaveras 42,978 1,302 3.1%