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Understanding Rising Inequality and Displacement in Oakland

Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA in 2015. | Thomas Hawk/Flickr/Creative Commons
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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.

"Inequality is redrawing the geography of the Bay Area." – Urban Habitat, <i>Race, Inequality, and the Resegregation of the Bay Area,</i>

Throughout its history, the City of Oakland has been drawn and redrawn at the hand of inequality, with each evolution marked by major demographic and spatial transformations. Today, Oakland is amidst another transformation — a struggle over gentrification and displacement — that is born of its history of inequality. Susie Cagle, a writer at Next City, explains:

These demographic and economic shifts in cities aren’t the result of organic social and cultural trends; the changes are wrought by decades of investment and public policy choices, and inextricably bound to histories of racism, exclusionary land use policies and exploitative banking processes that left certain communities vulnerable to a steamroller of new investment.

This history has placed Oakland at the center of a “perfect storm.” Oakland’s economy has grown alongside the major economic engines across the Bay, including Silicon Valley, where nearly 300,000 jobs have been created since 2010. As San Francisco and Silicon Valley have become unaffordable even for professionals earning six-figure salaries, capital has migrated to the Oakland via new residents — over 40,000 since 2007 — as well as jobs and development. The city has thus simultaneously become the “top turnaround town” and a “top-five city for entrepreneurs,” as well as a center for inequality in the United States.

Regional economic growth has created many high paying jobs, but it has also generated a demand for lower-wage workers who play a critical role in powering the economy. With the high cost of living (where a family of four earning $80,400 is effectively low-income), an affordable place to live in Oakland simply does not exist for many of these low-income households and workers.

The City of Oakland recently estimated that it would need to secure 34,000 affordable homes — by both protecting existing affordable homes and building new ones — to address its housing crisis. While the city is on track to meet this goal, it will take approximately eight years to meet its targets. The shortage of affordable housing has caused rents to skyrocket — with average rents increasing from $1,855 in 2012 to $2,813 in 2016. Meanwhile, thousands of residents face the threat of displacement, which stands to redefine the city’s demographics and built environment.

Not all Oaklanders experience the threat of housing instability equally. Certain communities — tenants and/or non-property owners, low-income households and communities of color — are impacted far more than others. For example, although Black/African American renters comprise 35 percent of the city’s renter population, they make up 45 percent of severely cost-burdened households. This translates to 11,645 African American households whose housing costs consume at least 50 percent of their income. Corresponding demographic changes are stark; just between 2000 and 2014, Oakland saw an absolute loss of 43,777 Black residents — equivalent to 31 percent of its Black population.

Furthermore, not all Oakland neighborhoods experience the threat of gentrification and displacement equally. The vast majority of Oakland’s “flatlands” neighborhoods are disproportionately impacted. According to the UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project, nearly all neighborhoods at risk of displacement are located in the flatlands — where people of color are the majority and nearly 111,000 residents are low-income. With racial inequality tied so closely to geography, over 87 percent of Oakland’s residents of color live in neighborhoods that are either at risk of, undergoing, or have already undergone displacement or gentrification.

oaklandurbandisplacement
Gentrification and Displacement Risk in Oakland. | UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project​

Displacement and Gentrification as a Continuation of History

The crisis of displacement and inequality follows a long history driven by broader changes in the national economy, job markets and private capital over time. Historian Robert Self describes Oakland’s history as part of a “national dialectic,” that has been shaped and reshaped by drastic nationwide population shifts throughout American history. While a complete history is critical to understanding how Oakland has evolved toward the current wave of gentrification and displacement, three key moments — industrialization in the 1910s-1950s, Urban Renewal and suburbanization in the 1950s-1970s, and finally, the housing market crash and foreclosure crisis in 2007-2011 — deeply inform the dynamics of today. 

The rapid growth of Oakland’s Black/African American population dates back to the Great Migration of African Americans out of southern states to Oakland and other cities, which was bookended by the two World Wars. Many found work in Oakland’s manufacturing sector, reflecting broader trends of “racialized urbanization” and industrialization. From 1940 to 1950, Oakland’s Black population grew by over 500 percent (from 8,462 to 47,562) and by 1960, it reached 83,618. While census figures are limited, data shows that other communities of color, including Latinos as well as Asians and Pacific Islanders, also grew steadily over this period. The community-based organization Causa Justa :: Just Cause describes how the economic push and pull forces, together with institutionalized discrimination, defined the city’s spatial order: 

Immigrant and Black/African American workers came to the Bay Area … to provide critical labor to these various economic enterprises at the heart of the wealth and development of the region. [They] concentrated geographically around the cities’ industrial zones, in neighborhoods that would become progressively segregated by zoning and redlining, environmental neglect associated with industry and public disinvestment.
New or greatly enlarged industrial establishments of Oakland and East Bay cities, circa 1917. | Oakland Chamber of Commerce/Publicity Bureau
New or greatly enlarged industrial establishments of Oakland and East Bay cities, circa 1917. | Oakland Chamber of Commerce/Publicity Bureau

After the war, the US experienced another economic transformation — deindustrialization, which destabilized Oakland’s economy and working class. At the same time, the country saw a mass exodus of White residents — along with capital and jobs — from urban centers, drawn by the rise of suburbs. Oakland’s White population steadily declined, falling from 86 percent of all residents in 1950 to 59 percent by 1970 — equivalent to a loss of 115,285 residents and much of the city’s tax base. In response, officials sought to prevent decline by remaking the city through what has become known as Urban Renewal. As part of the process, many African American families lost their homes through eminent domain, which the government used to take over properties and clear the way for new infrastructure intended to serve the public good. Instead, many of these projects devastated Oakland’s low-income communities of color, further perpetuating racial segregation and inequality.

By 1980, the majority of Oaklanders were people of color; the city was 47 percent Black/African American, 8.3 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 9.5 percent Hispanic/Latino and 0.8 percent Native American — compared to 38.6 percent White. Also by then, racial inequalities clearly manifested in both population outcomes and the city’s built environment. In terms of family income, the average among Whites was $27,535, compared to $16,908 among Blacks/African Americans, $18,550 among Hispanics/Latinos, $17,365 among Native Americans and $23,666 among Asians or Pacific Islanders. Communities of color also faced higher unemployment rates; for example, unemployment among the Black and Latino populations reached 12.8 percent and 11.7 percent, respectively, compared to 5.6 percent among the White population. 

Laotian Americans inside the residence of a monk in 1981. Possibly located in Oakland, CA. | UC Irvine/Southeast Asian Archive
Laotian Americans inside the residence of a monk in 1981. Possibly located in Oakland, CA. | UC Irvine/Southeast Asian Archive
Men and women talking at a backyard garden party in Oakland, circa 1970s. | Oakland Public Library Digital Collections
Men and women talking at a backyard garden party in Oakland, circa 1970s. | Oakland Public Library Digital Collections

Growing Inequality

The racial wealth gap continued to widen throughout the following decades, and when the national subprime mortgage market collapsed in 2007, the impact of this inequity reached new extremes. Oakland was among the hardest hit cities, with over 35,000 homes lost between 2007 and 2012. These foreclosures were concentrated in lower-income flatlands neighborhoods that had been targeted by predatory lenders, resulting in thousands of families of color losing their homes. Without any affordable options in Oakland, many of these families moved to far-off suburbs, requiring them to commute extremely long distances to their jobs in the inner Bay Area. In response to the foreclosures, investors (mostly from outside of Oakland) flooded the city, acquiring an estimated 42 percent of all foreclosed properties and subsequently turning major profits following the housing market recovery.

Under this new economic configuration and continued growth throughout the Bay Area, Oakland’s population has changed. Between 2000 and 2015, the racial income gap grew even further, with the median household income of White households increasing (from approximately $82,000 to $89,000), while decreasing among all non-White households (including a decrease from approximately $44,000 to $37,000 among Black households, and $55,000 to $47,000 among Latino households). In aggregate terms, White households’ earnings equal 50 percent of all income generated throughout the city. As rents have increased, thousands of tenants have faced evictions. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project estimates that between 2010 and 2015, Oakland landlords filed over 17,300 unlawful detainer evictions. Incidents like the 2016 Ghostship Fire have revealed the unsafe housing situations that the crisis has created. 

Responses to Gentrification and Displacement

As residents, organizations and community groups mobilize in response to displacement, city officials and institutions are also launching strategies to address inequity amidst economic growth. Mayor Libby Schaaf refers to the city’s efforts as “Techquity,” which she defines as “using the power of government to have a very intentional conversation with our tech business community about being diverse, inclusive and more mission-driven.” Through the continued work of the Oakland Housing Cabinet, the city is working to implement policies outlined in its Roadmap Toward Equity, and with a new Department of Race and Equity, the Planning Department has set out to develop a Social Equity Strategy for its Downtown Specific Plan. The path forward remains uncertain, as changing course will require more than the political will and resources of the City of Oakland; as part of a national dialectic, the city’s future is also inherently tied to decisions made at the state and national level. 

East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), Causa Justa :: Just Cause, Oakland United Coalition, UNITE HERE! and more activists demonstrating against the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in 2015. | Annette Bernhardt/Flickr/Creative Commons
East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), Causa Justa :: Just Cause, Oakland United Coalition, UNITE HERE! and more activists demonstrating against the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in 2015. | Annette Bernhardt/Flickr/Creative Commons

Preview and Top Images: Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA in 2015. | Thomas Hawk/Flickr/Creative Commons

If you liked this article, sign up to be informed of further City Rising content, which examines issues of gentrification and displacement across California.

Sources

Urban Habitat (2016). Race, Inequality, and the Resegregation of the Bay Area.

Cagle, Susie (2014). “Oakland Wants You to Stop Calling It the ‘Next Brooklyn.’” Next City.

City of Oakland & Enterprise Community Partners (2016). Oakland at Home: Recommendations for Implementing A Roadmap Toward Equity From the Oakland Housing Cabinet.

California Department of Finance (2017). January Population and Housing Population Estimates.

Wile, Rob (2017) “These are the 10 Cities Where Inequality is Increasing the Fastest.” Time.

UC Davis Center for Regional Change (2016).

City of Oakland & Enterprise Community Partners (2017), Oakland at Home Update: A Progress Report on Implementing A Roadmap Toward Equity From the Oakland Housing Cabinet.

Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (2016). Counterpoints: Stories and Data for Resisting Displacement.

City of Oakland & Enterprise Community Partners (2016). Oakland at Home: Recommendations for Implementing A Roadmap Toward Equity From the Oakland Housing Cabinet.

Urban Habitat (2016). Race, Inequality, and the Resegregation of the Bay Area.

Zuk, Miriam, & Chapple, Karen (2015). Urban Displacement Project.

Self, Robert O. (2005) American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland.

Causa Justa :: Just Cause. (2016) Development without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area.

Association of Bay Area Governments and Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Bay Area Census.

Arnold, E. K. (2012). “Foreclosure Crisis Meets Occupy Effect.” Race, Poverty & the Environment.

Urban Strategies Council (2012). Who Owns Your Neighborhood: The Role of Investors in Post-Foreclosure Oakland.

Social Explorer. 2000 Decennial Census Table SE:T58. Median Household Income by Race (In 2015 Inflation Adjusted Dollars), and 2010-2015 American Community Survey Table SE:T94. Median Household Income By Race In 2015 Dollars.

Social Explorer. 2010-2015 American Community Survey Table SE:T69. Aggregate Household Income (In 2015 Inflation Adjusted Dollars) by Race.

Shueh, Jason (2016). "Seeking ‘Techquity’: Preparing for Industry While Preserving Diversity.” Gov Tech.

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