City Rising is a multimedia documentary program that traces gentrification and displacement through a lens of historical discriminatory laws and practices. Fearing the loss of their community’s soul, residents are gathering into a movement, not just in California, but across the nation as the rights to property, home, community and the city are taking center stage in a local and global debate. Learn more.
It is slowly dawning on us that the metropolitan future will look very different from the image of the city we inherited from the 20th century. Urban regions defined by working class and poor inner cities, populated by new and long-standing communities of color, surrounded by affluent white suburbs are changing. Over the past few decades, across the nation, poverty has been growing much faster in smaller cities and suburbs, while inner-cities are increasingly home to a concentrated affluent minority.
Spiking inequality is a central feature of this great transformation. Urban real estate continues to draw massive global investment in search of super profits and local governments continue to welcome speculators with open arms. As a result, gentrification and displacement continue to drive working class and lower-income residents out of neighborhoods they were often pushed into decades ago, and disperse them across the regional periphery while wealth and work cluster in the center.
The metro region of the future will probably not be a complete reversal of the classic 20th-century model — itself more diverse than the stereotype suggests — but it will force us to reconsider the ways we think about cities and inequality. What is emerging in the suburbs is a patchwork, with affluent and lower-income communities often in close physical proximity but socially distant. What some observers have initially, and naïvely, identified as a trend towards increased metropolitan diversity is in fact simply a new chapter in the long-running story of American segregation.
The San Francisco Bay Area is at the crossroads of these trends. Though regularly praised for high tech innovation and a seemingly endless capacity to generate wealth, the region is in the grip of a housing crisis without precedent that has driven inequality to extremes. In what should be a success story of market-led regional development, the Bay Area is more a cautionary tale of what happens when a rising tide of wealth crashes against entrenched inequalities race and class. The outcome is not a lifting of all boats but an amplification and reconfiguration of existing disparities. Geographically, socially, and economically, the shifts represent a resegregation of the region.
A recent report by Urban Habitat, Race, Inequality, and the Resegregation of the Bay Area, found that between 2000-2014 suburban jurisdictions in the Bay Area saw far greater increases in poverty that did more urbanized, inner-regional cities and counties. Further, during this period the region saw a dramatic shift in where Black and Latino communities are growing. The Latino population in the region grew overall, but growth was concentrated in the outer edges of the region. The Black population overall declined, with a net loss of 22,000 Black residents over this period across the region, with most of the losses occurring in long-established communities in the regional core.
Black and Latino poverty both increased as well, with higher rates of growth in the outer region generally, though Latino poverty also increased substantially in the heart of Silicon Valley and surrounding jurisdictions. The Asian American/Pacific Islander population also increased overall, but increases in poverty were more dispersed geographically, reflecting, in part, the ethnic and class diversity within this Census category. The outer parts of the region also saw a greater increase in renter-occupied housing units compared with inner-regional jurisdictions.
The increase in communities of color, lower-income residents, and renters in the outer parts of the region, as the inner region becomes more affluent, reflects a racial and socio-economic resorting. But why call this a form of segregation?
In the report, segregation is defined as the unequal allocation of land, resources and political power on the basis of race and ethnicity within a defined place — in this case, the Bay Area. The argument for using the term resegregation here is meant to situate these regional shifts, linked to gentrification and displacement, to the history of exclusionary housing policy and practice in the United States.
This also allows us to respond to some of the rationalizations for what we are seeing. We hear, for example, that people move all the time, and that these largely individual decisions can or should not be seen as significant in the aggregate except as reflections of how markets work and as data for regional policy-making for populations in general. In contrast to this, we want to highlight that there is nothing natural about these trends, that they are far from race or class neutral, and that existing inequalities profoundly shape the development of these new disparities.
Another common explanation of these trends is a revival of old self-segregation arguments: people, in general, will typically choose to live with others like themselves. But what we saw in the previous era of segregation and what we’re seeing again now is not simply different racial and ethnic groups choosing to live apart. Instead, these patterns are driven by very explicit exclusionary policies and practices by more affluent white communities.
In gentrifying communities, for example, we often see an absence of laws that would protect tenants from eviction and displacement through rent increases and local governments that bend over backward to attract and keep more affluent residents. These basic protections are fought today by the same coalitions of homeowners, landlords and real estate interest that brought us segregation in the first place, often using many of the same tactics. At the same time, existing affluent communities use zoning laws and other mechanisms to keep out affordable housing and enforce their preferences for racially homogenous neighborhoods and protect their property values.
The racial animosity driving the policies and practices of segregation is a thread running through U.S. history and played a key role in shaping 20th-century cities. White ethnic immigrants did live in enclaves for a generation or so and eventually moved up and out, as the saying goes. The fact that Black, Latino and Asian communities did not follow the same trajectory does not reflect a different set of values regarding assimilation but is the result of effective barriers to integration erected by white communities when they moved to the suburbs. In fact research suggests that, if anything, Whites stand out for their desire to live among like compared to other groups.
A regional perspective is important for understanding how the process of resegregation is unfolding. More to the point, it allows us to understand the connections between displacement in the regional core and increasing poverty in the regional periphery. There has been increased attention in recent years to displacement and gentrification, but less to where displaced people go, how these places are changing, and the challenges these will face over the coming years and decades as they absorb increasing proportions of low-income residents.
A regional perspective allows us to simultaneously look at where displacement is happening now and to link it to the sequence of events that follow. In this way, we can understand displacement as the leading edge of resegregation and suburban poverty as one of its endpoints. While the race and class dimensions of gentrification are at least debated, there remains a stubborn reluctance by many commentators — and most policymakers — to acknowledge that these changes in urban neighborhoods are fundamental to a new form of segregation. By the same token, there is not nearly enough understanding of how central the fights against gentrification and displacement are to contemporary civil rights activism around housing. Linking these to the regional changes underway makes it much more clear that anti-displacement fights are part of a long history of defending Black and Latino communities.
A regional perspective also brings into focus the reality that resisting gentrification and displacement is part of the struggle for housing rights but doesn’t capture its entire breadth. A comprehensive approach to the housing crisis will need to continue to resist displacement and address growing poverty in increasingly segregated suburbs and smaller cities outside of the regional core. While the specific policies may differ, in both places the emphasis needs to be on housing stability and community-driven development that, together, reverse decades of segregation and resource hoarding by more affluent social groups.
In suburban places where poverty is on the rise, the challenges are substantial. To start, given their proximity to such great wealth and investment, many local governments and private sector boosters are desperate to capture some of the capital flooding into the region and unwilling to make any moves that could be seen as unfriendly to business. In this context, any investment is good investment, and the impact on existing low-income communities is generally an afterthought at best. Despite overwhelming evidence from nearby Silicon Valley, the belief is still strong across the region that attracting wealth will lead to an improvement in the general social welfare.
Also, in many cases, these jurisdictions are comparatively conservative with local governments and a politically powerful homeowner class that are generally unresponsive to the needs of lower-income residents, particularly if they are seen as outsiders. Providing adequate social services (and funding) is always a challenge but here we find a lack of infrastructure and a lack of political will that is only made worse by the racial and ethnic differences that often exist between communities.
While the political power of homeowners is substantial across most communities, in bigger cities, there are typically more renters and more of an established tradition of tenant organizing. It is very different in most suburban communities. But without an organized effort to advance the interests of low-income residents and communities of color, the regional trend towards both geographic and economic inequality is unlikely to shift.
In that sense, what is most needed in the places where poverty is on the rise is strong organizing infrastructure that speaks to the bread and butter needs of these communities today and builds their long-term political power. Given the increasing diversity of suburban communities, even as they remain socially segregated in many cases, will mean that creative, deep relationship building across multiple differences — race, class, faith, immigration status and more — becomes a principle political task. If done well, the result can be powerful new majorities that dramatically shift the political culture of the suburbs and the lives of the people that live there.
If you liked this article, sign up to be informed of further City Rising content, which examines issues of gentrification and displacement across California.