Alma Blackwell was born and raised in West Oakland but after years of intense gentrification followed by waves of displacement, she barely recognizes her old neighborhood.
“There’s almost no one left,” Blackwell said of her former neighbors and friends, many of whom were forced out by skyrocketing rents.
“We see rent increases but folks’ wages aren’t increasing, and we see folks having to work two or three jobs to make ends meet,” said Blackwell, who three years ago moved to Oakland’s Allendale neighborhood.
While the superficial signs of Bay Area gentrification are seemingly everywhere, a look beyond the inconvenient piles of e-scooters littering sidewalks and the proliferation of high-end coffee shops reveals the real consequences of gentrification and displacement that are blowing apart low-income neighborhoods of color.
“Even families who have been living in Oakland or San Francisco for many decades, their social networks are disrupted, from even going to the same doctor for years or their schools or having friends in the neighborhood,” Blackwell said. “People are going to areas they aren’t familiar with and having to rebuild that social network.”
And even the cities they’re moving to don’t have the infrastructure to handle the many people that have been displaced, said Blackwell, the Oakland housing rights organizer for Causa Justa/Just Cause, which, in part, works to help people of color fight evictions.
According to the Bay Area Equity Atlas, a website that tracks the metrics of inequality around the region, 54 percent of low-income households of color are either in neighborhoods that are currently gentrifying or that are at risk of gentrification.
That number is even higher for some communities, with 66 percent of the Bay Area’s low-income African American households either experiencing gentrification or facing the risk of gentrification.
“We see our people leaving, the long-time residents with generations of roots in the Bayview-Hunters Point, the flatlands of Oakland,” said Camilo Sol Zamora, acting deputy director of Causa Justa/Just Cause. “It’s a disruption of generations of families.”
Also, 55 percent of the region’s low-income Latino households are facing the same pressures, as are 48 percent of low-income Asian or Pacific Islander households and 50 percent of the Bay Area’s low-income Native American households, according to the atlas, a partnership between PolicyLink, the San Francisco Foundation and the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity.
“People define gentrification differently. It’s talked about so much and it means different things to different people,” said Anna Cash, associate director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project.
A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia lays out some of the complexities around gentrification, including some benefits such as a reduction in poverty rates, among other things. “This gentrification process reverses decades of urban decline and could bring broad new benefits to cities through a growing tax base, increased socioeconomic integration, and improved amenities,” according to the report.
Cash said her organization sees gentrification as a process of change in neighborhoods that have historically been passed over by civic investments and that are often populated by low-income people of color.
Typically, higher income residents move in, but demographic differences might also include race and levels of education attainment, Cash said.
“It’s often associated with the displacement of existing residents,” Cash said. “It can lead to people being pushed out of their homes; or even with long-term residents who have the ability to stay, it can, for them, lead to a loss of a sense of community.”
Cash said that as rents rise, many low-income households of color move out of their neighborhoods, often to outlying regions with fewer social services and other resources.
“It’s indicative of the resegregation of the region, and highlights the need to act now to mitigate displacement,” Cash said.
Data from the Urban Displacement Project shows that between 2000 and 2015, housing costs rose while traditionally African American neighborhoods in Richmond, San Francisco, Oakland and Berkley lost thousands of low-income black households.
“Increases in low-income black households during the same period were concentrated in cities and neighborhoods with lower housing prices and fewer resources – such as Antioch and Pittsburg in East Contra Costa County, as well as parts of Hayward and the unincorporated communities of Ashland and Cherryland in Alameda County,” according to a report by the Urban Displacement Project.
This has led to “new concentrations of segregation and poverty in the region,” according to the report.
For example, while the median monthly rent in Pittsburg was $2,198 in 2017 compared to $3,492 for the nine-county Bay Area as a whole, 100 percent of Pittsburg’s population lived in neighborhoods with few social services and other resources, compared to 29 percent of all Bay Area residents, according to data from the Bay Area Equity Atlas.
And as people move farther from the Bay Area’s western cities, the ripple effects of displacement are being felt far beyond the nine-county region, spreading to places like Yolo, Sacramento and San Joaquin counties.
“The wave is expanding and that’s important for policymakers to pay attention to,” Cash said. “Gentrification and displacement continue to be a crisis and at this point the crisis touches the entire mega-region.”
More housing in general is one solution; but in neighborhoods like the Mission District in San Francisco or Uptown in Oakland that face massive displacement pressures, advocates often organize against market-rate development since it can lead to higher rents and neighborhood changes that cater to higher-end services, notes Sarah Treuhaft, managing director at PolicyLink, a national research and advocacy group working to advance racial and economic equity.
Because gentrification and displacement are driven in part by the high cost of market-rate housing and the lack of affordable housing, activists and elected officials often focus on the “three P’s” of anti-displacement policy: legal protections for tenants, the preservation of existing affordable housing stock, and the production of new housing, particularly affordable housing.
“Part of the reason that, for example, housing has become so expensive, is because we don’t build it,” said state Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat whose district includes Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond and San Leandro.
“I think now what we need to face is how do we get more housing and how do we get it quickly and how do we do our best to stop this displacement of our low-income residents,” Skinner said.
In February, Skinner introduced Senate Bill 330, dubbed “The Housing Crisis Act of 2020,” which aims to lower bureaucratic barriers to housing construction and protect existing affordable units.
The bill essentially speeds the approval process for housing projects that meet local zoning rules.
It would also prohibit the demolition of existing affordable housing unless the project includes more affordable units than existed in the original building.
Also, under SB 330, affordable housing tenants would receive relocation benefits if the structure were demolished and would also have the first right of refusal – at their existing rent levels – for any of the new units once they were built.
“I don’t have a problem with increasing density in a lot of places, because we need more housing,” Skinner said. “But the approach I’m taking is… in our cities’ zoning ordinances, general plans and housing elements, there is conceivably enough housing, it just hasn’t been built.”
The state Senate passed the bill in May and sent it to the Assembly, where it awaits a hearing in front of the Appropriations Committee.
“There’s an existential question of what we want this region to be,” said Cash. “Right now it’s at a point where we need to ask if it’s important to us to preserve diversity and (see to it) that everybody has a fair shot at opportunity and mobility.”
Causa Justa/Just Cause’s Sol Zamora said it’s important that people get involved in their local political environments in order to keep reminding elected officials that gentrification and displacement are trends that need swift solutions.
“Gentrification is not inevitable,” Sol Zamora said. “It’s a man-made system.”