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San Francisco – For commuters sitting in traffic on California Highway 101, heading home to tiny apartments that eat up most of their paychecks, a new bright-green billboard offers yet another reason to pack up and leave the Bay Area.

“Own a home. Work in tech. Move to Pittsburgh,” the ad teases.

The billboard was erected by Pittsburgh startup Duolingo – the maker of a popular online language-learning platform and mobile app – to lure tech talent from Silicon Valley. It’s a unique campaign that capitalizes on the Bay Area’s notorious housing shortage, and local residents searching for cheaper homes and a better quality of life.

It appears to be working.

In the week since the billboard went up, a Duolingo recruiter reported receiving at least 50 phone calls from people who mentioned seeing the sign, the company said. Not all of those calls resulted in applications, but at least some disgruntled commuters likely are looking for a way out.

“There’s just significantly less traffic here,” Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn said. “Being able to buy a home and actually walk to work, which is unheard of in Silicon Valley, is actually pretty common here.”

Half of Duolingo’s 110 employees walk or bike to work, von Ahn said, and about the same number own homes.

The median home value in Pittsburgh is $132,400 — compared with $1.3 million in San Francisco, $1.1 million in San Jose and $755,600 in Oakland, according to Zillow.

Those prices, unaffordable even for many Bay Area workers with high-paying jobs, seem to be encouraging residents to leave in numbers higher than the region has seen in 10 years. Last year, for the second year in a row, the number of people leaving the valley nearly equaled those moving in — 44,102 people left between July 2015 and July 2017, and 44,732 moved in, according to the 2018 Silicon Valley Index report published by Joint Venture Silicon Valley.

That’s because no one can afford to live here anymore — not even Google employees or doctors at Stanford, said Joint Venture president and CEO Russell Hancock.

“It used to be the California dream,” he said, “and now it’s turning into this Silicon Valley nightmare.”

About 10 percent of Duolingo’s employees used to live in the Bay Area, according to the company. Von Ahn said that when he asks Bay Area-based applicants why they want to move to Pittsburgh, they usually tell him it’s because they want to buy a house.

While Pittsburgh has a robust tech talent pipeline — it’s home to Carnegie Mellon University, and Uber, Google, Amazon, Apple and Intel have offices there — Duolingo can’t always find local employees to fill open jobs. There are plenty of back-end engineers in Pittsburgh, von Ahn said, but Duolingo needs more app developers.

Silicon Valley recruits are highly prized, he said.

“Many of them have worked for companies that we admire and look up to – companies with very popular apps, the Instagrams and Facebooks of the world,” von Ahn said. “So they have very good training from very well-run companies. They bring a little bit of that culture here, which I think is pretty useful for us.”

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