Opinion: Leaving San Francisco? Think Detroit

Mark S. Lee
The view of the Detroit skyline is absolutely stunning from this penthouse condo at the top of the Westin Book Cadillac hotel building.

“Go west, young man!”

“There's gold in those hills.”

These catchphrases date to the “gold rush” days and also captures the recent allure of the tech industry and, in particular, to San Francisco.

This dream and subsequent reality, at times, encouraged many to pick up their roots and move west and is a key driving factor for costs increasing significantly.  And now, many are beginning to leave because they can no longer afford to live there.

According to recent reports, San Francisco home prices average $1.4 million, making it the most expensive city in the West and one of the most expensive in the country. Now, add $5 per gallon gas prices, skyrocketing costs for private schools and higher-than-average restaurant pricing options, and many are choosing to leave “The City.”

To wit and according to Redfin, a real estate brokerage firm, more than 28,190 residents moved away from San Francisco during the second quarter of 2019, which is nearly doubled 2017's rate.

Seattle and Austin, Texas, are two cities benefiting from this "spillover effect" of new residents and talent from San Francisco.

Why not Detroit?  Let’s throw our city into the mix.

With its emergence as a technology hub, lower housing, land and transportation costs, Detroit is primed to attract new residents wanting an affordable lifestyle. This region has some of the finest universities and cultural institutions in the country and its spirit is driven by dedication, determination and hard work.

And this diverse and vast metropolitan area of 5 million people continues to innovate. With its strong entrepreneurial ecosystem, and now a “hipness” factor, Detroit is a great place to come.

However, we still have challenges. 

There’s an opportunity for state and regional leadership to develop and implement solutions, like the following:

  • Fixing the Roads:  Move beyond the budget impasse and develop bipartisanship funding solutions to “fix the damn roads.”  There’s an incremental cost to driving vehicles here beyond routine maintenance costs. Until addressed, I believe this will hamper residents from wanting to move here.
  • Education:  Take a hard look at per-pupil funding and allocate resources focused on providing high-quality K-12 education, and evaluate budget cuts so that students can still afford to go to college.
  • Cost-of-living:  According to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Michigan has the fourth lowest cost of living in the country, and is 11% below the national average. Develop a strategic and targeted approach focused on developing delivering key messages to those looking to leave California. 
  • Technology Innovation: Detroit is an emerging technology innovation leader. Let people know and how they can come here and make a difference, starting with mobility and potential impact on autonomous vehicles.
  • Entrepreneurship:  Detroit’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is strong. With over 62,000 small businesses (2012 U.S. Census), demonstrate how and why this region is a place to start and grow a business.

Now is the time to stop talking and start focusing on practical solutions as to why people should move here. 

It’s time to tell Detroit’s story and why it will be a good time to move back to the venerable Motor City — a place where ex-Californians can innovate, make a difference and afford to live, work and raise a family.

Let’s make it happen.

Mark S. Lee is president & CEO of The LEE Group, a Plymouth-based, strategic consulting firm.