Charts Show Just How Dramatic Bay Area Rents Declined in 2020

San Francisco’s housing rental market saw the most dramatic changes among all U.S. cities last year during the coronavirus pandemic, new data shows.

When the pandemic began in March, moving virtually halted across the country. But as job losses rose and workplaces went remote, people started leaving pricey big metro areas in favor of more affordable cities.

San Jose landed sixth on the list with a 15.2% drop since March and a median two-bedroom rent of $2,035, and Oakland was eighth on the list, declining 14.2% since March and a median two-bedroom price of $1,952. Apartment List estimates the median contract rent across new leases signed in a given market and month.

Rents in principal cities across the U.S., which are usually the largest or have the greatest economic output in the area, fell 9.3% since January, while rents in surrounding suburban cities increased 0.5% since the start of last year. The report reflected a big exception in the Bay Area: Both principal city San Francisco and its neighbor Oakland saw dramatic declines, though Oakland’s was somewhat smaller.

The pandemic also caused vacancies to rise in many large, pricey coastal cities. San Francisco saw a big spike in available apartments, which in turn pushed rental prices down. Apartment List’s local vacancy index more than doubled from 5% before the pandemic to nearly 12% by August.

“In turn, landlords had to drop their prices to attract the renters that were still interested in moving,” said Apartment List research associate Rob Warnock. “This phenomenon took place in many expensive cities throughout the country, but none more dramatic than San Francisco.”

Other cities including San Jose, Seattle, New York and Boston, had similar patterns. But some more affordable cities saw vacancies decline and rents trend upward, including Fresno; Albuquerque; Boise, Idaho; and Gilbert, Ariz.

Seasonal declines are normal this time of year, but Apartment List found the drop nationally in 2020 was slightly steeper than usual. The national rent index declined 0.4% from November to December, compared to 0.2% to 0.3% from the past three years.

“Rent declines in November and December are not unusual,” Warnock said. “Moving requires a lot of time and money, so during the winter months typically people direct those resources to holidays instead of moving. That said, in San Francisco, this season’s rent drops are steeper than previous years since the market was already in free fall going into this slower season.”

In 2019, rents in San Francisco decreased 0.9% in November and December. In 2020, they dropped 3.8% in November and 2.7% in December.