Metropolis

What Miami Can Give Techies That San Francisco Can’t

Warm weather, low taxes, and a mayor ready to nurse their grievances about Bay Area liberalism.

The Miami skyline.
Going to Miami. Demetrius Theune/Getty Images Plus

As the spring of Zoom settled into the summer of Zoom, and then the fall of Zoom, and then the winter of Zoom, a curious thing happened. A certain segment of the American workforce—the people we used to call “white-collar,” though those shirts probably haven’t left the closet in a while—committed to a life detached from the office. They picked up and moved to a new place. Nowhere has this trend had a greater impact than in the Bay Area, the region whose sky-high housing costs best demonstrated the sacrifices people would make to be in the ZIP code where it happens—even as its firms equipped us all to abandon the constraints of geography.

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In theory, new work-from-home-forever policies at companies like Twitter and Facebook meant technologists could go anywhere, provided they could find video-speed internet. Even Silicon Valley companies indulged in some wanderlust. Palantir is now headed for Denver, while HP and Oracle are setting up in Austin, Texas, alongside Tesla and SpaceX chief Elon Musk. Many techies of more regular means have wound up all over the country and the world.

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But the loudest contingent is moving to Miami.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is all in. After the venture capitalist Delian Asparouhov tweeted in December, “ok guys hear me out, what if we move silicon valley to miami,” the Republican mayor answered back, “How can I help?” They were the four most powerful words he’s ever written, Suarez told National Review. “The tweet got 2.3 million impressions,” Suarez said later. “It was organic, it struck a nerve—lightning in a bottle.”

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Can you feel the energy? Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, fresh off his role spearheading the Office of American Innovation, are taking their talents to South Beach (before building a home on an exclusive Miami-Dade island known as “billionaire’s bunker”). Asparouhov’s Founders Fund colleague Peter Thiel bought the old Real World mansion, and Keith Rabois, another Founders Fund partner and a well-known venture capitalist, dropped $29 million on an oceanfront house in Miami Beach. Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit better known as Mr. Serena Williams, already lives in South Florida. Shutterstock founder Jon Oringer has bought a $30 million house, too.

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Nobody has been louder about Biscayne Bay’s status as the New Silicon Valley than Rabois. “I am like a full service moving agent for Miami,” he told the reporter Eric Newcomer. “I will go house shopping for people.”

Maybe this is just a case of Software Americans rebranding the normal life pattern of moving to the Sun Belt at a certain age as their own invention, just as startups have reintroduced fixtures of life like the bus, the tunnel, and the juice machine.

But it is also a glimpse of a world where economic development, at the city level, is less focused on firms and more focused on people.

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One read of the Miami buzz is that the city has always been the kind of amenity-rich place to attract wealthy people who could live anywhere. The weather’s good, the food’s great, the beach is the beach. And Florida has no income tax. Not rocket science.

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But to truly understand Miami’s appeal you must see it specifically in opposition to San Francisco, a place where a certain tier of technology millionaire has felt persecuted in recent years. While some Silicon Valley titans had gotten interested in local government and philanthropy—Marc Benioff, Mark Zuckerberg—others had grown increasingly frustrated by, for example, the city’s left-wing district attorney declining to prosecute quality-of-life crimes and voters deciding to restrict new office space. Rabois compared his departure to Jews leaving Europe for the newly founded state of Israel after the Holocaust. It’s clear he feels he’s been through a lot.

As the venture capitalist and new Miami resident David Blumberg put it, “Poor governance at the local level in San Francisco and statewide in California has driven us away.”

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Of course one doesn’t need to have moved to Miami to complain about open-air heroin use, car break-ins, unruly skaters, street feces, or the homeowner cartel in San Francisco. California politics was also a core beef of the VC and Cali native Joe Lonsdale, who moved to Austin and cited the Golden State’s problems with public safety, electricity, governance, and housing. Conservatives and libertarians have been crowing about problems in Democrat-controlled California for a decade, though housing prices indicate the state is still very much in demand.

But Miami is different from other destinations because Francis Suarez is making refugee billionaires feel like they matter. Entrepreneurs, he told National Review, are “sick and tired of dealing with governments that don’t appreciate them.”

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Suarez is the rarest thing among big-city mayors: a Republican. Watching him interact with CEOs on Twitter, I was reminded of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who made waves with his efforts to poach firms from high-tax states like New York and Connecticut. Mayors have largely retreated from this openly pro-growth stance since the Amazon HQ2 debacle. The last 10 years of Big Tech in the Bay have hardly made anyone envious elsewhere. And big-city voters have completely abandoned the unhinged Republican Party, as local and national politics converge.

What does big-city Republican policy even look like these days? Watch Miami. In his interview with Newcomer, Rabois gives some insight into what Suarez might be putting on the table. He and his partner are having kids. “I went to public schools; I’d prefer my kids go to public schools. In San Francisco that’s not possible, there’s not a public school that’s reasonable. … I discussed this with the mayor once I got here—not before—and I think we’ll find some public support for building a science-based, engineering-based curriculum into the public schools.” Newcomer’s gloss on their conversation: “There’s definitely an insane level of rich-person hubris that within a month of moving to a new city, you’re asking the mayor to change the public school curriculum for your future children.”

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The school rating website Niche actually gives San Francisco schools a better rating than those in Miami-Dade County, which are not under Suarez’s control in any case. But one must never underestimate the power of innovation.

This is Miami’s appeal. It is easily the most enticing large U.S. city with a Republican mayor (with apologies to the larger GOP-run cities of Omaha, Mesa, Fresno, Colorado Springs, Fort Worth, and Jacksonville).

Last week, Elon Musk told Suarez on Twitter that his Boring Company could build tunnels underneath Miami in order to “solve traffic & be an example to the world.” “Count me in!” the mayor responded. “No brainer … we would love to be the prototype city.” (Never mind that Miami’s porous, limestone substrate isn’t very tunnel-friendly.) Suarez, the Miami Herald’s Connie Ogle writes, is “so excited about these Patagonia-clad escapees you’d think they were the last ream of plywood at Home Depot during a tropical storm watch.”

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Far from a scattering of tech talent to the hills, we are watching the beginning of an experiment in which new, high-profile residents will try to fix in Miami what’s wrong in San Francisco. Suarez says he will make sure coding is taught like a second language. He says he’ll push to liberalize Florida cryptocurrency laws. Miami, then, isn’t an opportunity for everyone to go their own way. It’s not seasteading, at least not until the king tide washes into those Star Island living rooms. It’s a place where big VCs have the ear—on Twitter and over dinner—of political leaders. At last!

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