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The scale and urgency of the displacement crisis in Oakland and the broader San Francisco Bay Area cannot be underestimated. While housing investment has long been overdue in parts of Oakland, the extent of displacement today raises questions about who gets to stay and benefit from the ‘new Oakland’. The Oakland displacement crisis is shaped by a range of historic and contemporary dynamics, which have informed our decision to prioritize the legal and advocacy elements of tenure in this pilot project.
The history of Oakland is marked by significant demographic transformation, in which waves of African American inward migration and segregation, white flight and disinvestment, and racialized gentrification and displacement continue to shape the city and its housing landscape. The after-effects of long-outlawed practices of ‘redlining’, through which federal home lending agencies steered investment into neighborhoods on the basis of race, can still be seen in heavily racialized patterns of housing inequality, for example. Research shows that Oakland’s legacy of redlining has produced persistent forms of segregation which are in excess of national averages. 77% of Oakland neighborhoods that were rated “hazardous” in the 1930s remain low-to-moderate income today (Nelson et al, 2019), and 99% of Oakland’s neighborhoods that were rated “best” in the 1930s are middle-to-upper income today (Mitchell and Franco, 2018).
Inward and outward migration have also profoundly shaped the city’s housing landscape. Notably, Oakland received many new Black residents fleeing racial terror and seeking jobs in the defense industry during the second World War (Mock, 2015; Schafran, 2018). From 1940 to 1950, Oakland’s Black population grew by over 500 percent (from about 8,000 to about 48,000), reaching around 84,000 by 1960. New Black residents largely concentrated in flatland industrial areas that were redlined (Montojo, 2017).
As in other cities in the US, large swaths of Oakland grew more disinvested as a mixture of economic, social, and political transformations facilitated the Bay Area’s suburban expansion by relatively whiter, wealthier residents. Oakland’s white population steadily decreased in the 1950s, dropping from 86% of the population to 59% by 1970 (Montojo, 2017). A mixture of explicit racial covenants, de facto forms of segregation, and historic inequalities limited the access of Oakland’s Black residents to the benefits of the prosperity which accrued in the Bay Area over this period, at the same time that Oakland witnessed abandonment and economic decline. Urban renewal projects sought to counter this, yet caused significant disruption to Oakland’s communities of color. While practices like eminent dominant facilitated large-scale infrastructure projects, they also literally and figuratively tore apart many Oakland neighborhoods and, in doing so, consolidated the disinvestment they set out to counter.
Similarly, the expansion of home mortgage credit in more recent years was intended to bring wealth and investment to historically excluded communities, but also laid the foundations for the subprime lending and foreclosure crisis. By 1980, Oakland was majority people of color, and working class flatland neighborhoods had emerged as important centers of African-American homeownership (Montojo, 2017). These neighborhoods became the ground zero for subprime lending and foreclosure in Oakland (Reid et al, 2016; Schafran, 2018). From 2007 to 2013, over 11,000 homes – largely concentrated in these areas, were lost to foreclosure (Lin et al, 2017). By October 2011, investors acquired 42% of all Oakland properties that went through foreclosure since 2007, of which 93% were located in the low-income flatland neighborhoods (King, 2012). Only ten of the top thirty most active investors were Oakland-based. Not only did these communities lose homeowners, they gained investor-owned single-family rentals exempt from rent stabilization under Costa-Hawkins. The foreclosure crisis saw significant control over housing shift from local owners to international private equity firms, from mom-and-pop landlords to global shareholders (Fields et al, 2017). Evidence from Atlanta suggests that post-foreclosure homes may be more likely to have eviction filings as single-family rentals than single-family rentals with no foreclosure history (Raymond et al, 2018).
At the same time that the conditions for the foreclosure crisis were being laid in Oakland’s communities of color, a ‘back to the city’ movement was also gaining steam in the early 2000s. Oakland planners and policymakers sought to attract higher-income newcomers and to grow the municipal tax base, as seen in a prominent strategy to bring 10,000 new residents to the downtown area through the development of market-rate housing and amenities (Lin et al, 2017).
Renter vulnerability to displacement is on the rise as these dynamics converge today. As newcomers arrive to enjoy affordability of Oakland relative to San Francisco, long-term residents face displacement just as their neighborhoods receive much-needed investment. A great deal of this displacement pressure is felt by renters. Oakland was named the fourth hottest rental market in the country in 2015, and has registered a 63% increase in median rents over the past five years — a rate nearly double the increase in nearby San Francisco (Zillow Rent Index, 2018). The median rent in Oakland was nearly $3,000 ($2,996) in February 2018. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimates that an annual income of $86,920 is needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Oakland, which translates to an hourly working wage of $45 per hour — or two minimum wage-earners working a total of twenty-seven hours per day (National Low-Income Housing Coalition, 2017). However, the median income for renters in Oakland remains near $37,000 (American Community Survey, 2016). Indeed, two minimum-wage workers can find affordable rent in just 5% of Bay Area neighborhoods, and only one neighborhood in Alameda County fits this description (Treuhaft et al, 2018).
The divergence between incomes and rents reflects a growing ‘rent gap’ between what many landlords receive from long-time tenants and potential income from new tenants who are willing to pay more (Smith, 1987). This profit opportunity can incentivize landlords to push out long-time renters. In Oakland, the rent gap is estimated to be $1,840. This number represents the difference between December 2016 median rent, and the average median gross rent for tenants who moved in prior to 2015 (as far back as 1979 or earlier).
Indeed, evictions are a serious issue in Oakland and across the region. Between 2005 and 2016, at least 32,402 unlawful detainers were filed in Oakland (Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, 2016). In addition to formal evictions, renters are forced out of homes their ‘soft evictions,’ including rent hikes, landlord harassment, and utility cut-offs. Changing demographic data suggests displacement has disproportionately affected Black and Latino renters. A recent report by Urban Displacement Project and California Housing Partnership (2017) shows that, between 2000 and 2015, Alameda County lost more than 1,900 low-income Black households (a 4% decrease), and that this decrease was concentrated in the flatlands of Oakland and Berkeley. The Longfellow neighborhood in North Oakland, for example lost more low-income Black households than any other in Alameda County: 400 households, or a 30% decrease between 2000 and 2015. The report also notes that many neighborhoods in North Oakland and Berkeley that lost low-income Black residents also saw increases in high-income White households.
Displacement generates significant stress for families, with children changing schools, parents forced to make longer commutes to work, and the overall social cohesion of communities eroded (Jelleyman and Spencer 2008; Desmond and Kimbro, 2015; Cohen and Wardrip, 2011; Morenoff, Sampson, and Raudenbush, 2001; Causa Justa/Just Cause, 2014). In Oakland’s high-cost housing market, displacement often results in a move to an entirely new city. Displacement can also lead to doubling up, which can generate significant negative impacts. For example, overcrowding at home has been shown to be negatively associated with high school graduation rates and educational attainment by the age of 25 (Lopoo and London, 2016). Further research suggests that doubling up is predominantly a harmful experience for families, marked by “negative effects on children, undesirable environments, interpersonal tension, and feelings of impermanence and instability” (Bush and Shinn, 2017).
Finally, cultural displacement may mean that even those who get to stay experience a loss of sense of belonging (Zukin, 2009; Hyra, 2014). Displacement is not just an event, but a process with lasting impacts for residents. For example, evictions are associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and parental stress (Desmond and Kimbro, 2015). In a 2016 study of San Mateo County, one in three displaced households reported some period of homelessness or marginal housing. Many were displaced to neighborhoods with fewer job opportunities, and 33% of households left the county. Those that were able to stay in their old neighborhood were more likely to live in crowded or substandard housing (Marcus and Zuk, 2017). In the words of Matthew Desmond, “eviction functions as a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”
While it is critical to consider the urgency of renter vulnerability, when we only talk about rising costs and other displacement pressures for renters in the private market in Oakland, we risk missing other key parts of the housing picture, including growing displacement pressures facing other tenure types. Displacement leads to the expansion of several informal housing arrangements, which vary in their level of stability and protectedness. The number of Oakland renters living in homes with an average of 1.51 or more occupants per room is up 70% since 2009, which may imply a doubling up crisis in Oakland (Alameda County Public Health Department and Alameda County Healthy Homes Department, 2018). The loss of life in the Ghost Ship fire in 2016 highlighted that the estimated 2,000 residents of live-work spaces in formerly industrial buildings, and others living in other non-conforming spaces in Oakland, face both safety risks and displacement risks as a result of efforts to retrofit such space.
Beyond informal housing, displacement pressures are arguably contributing to a homelessness epidemic in Oakland. By January 2017, 2,761 individuals were experiencing homelessness in Oakland, a 26% increase from 2015 (EveryOne Home, 2017). More than two-thirds of Oakland’s homeless population is Black, compared to 26% of the general population. During the most recent count, 30% reported that they were experiencing homelessness for the first time, and 86% of respondents reported that they were living in Alameda County at the time they most recently became homeless. 62% were residents of Alameda County for over ten years. These data suggest a link between displacement and homelessness in Oakland and Alameda County. 43% of homeless Oaklanders had lived in a home owned or rented by them or their partner prior to becoming homeless, and 30% were doubling up. When asked what would have helped prevent homelessness, 48% of respondents said that rent assistance would have made the difference (EveryOne Home, 2017).
Many Oakland housing advocates are also thinking about how to increase the availability of subsidized housing (or housing subsidy, particularly as Housing Choice Vouchers struggle to maintain landlord participation in the context of a rent gap), as one way to offset this displacement crisis. Strategies for increasing new affordable housing construction are outside the scope of this report, but analysis of protections affirms that affordable housing is a relatively protected tenure type in the context of displacement pressures, with a handful of small potential points of reform. Voucher-holding renters, however, are more vulnerable to displacement pressure, and may need more attention to ensure that they are protected.
Advocates are also thinking about how to preserve long-term affordable housing stock, particularly through ‘third way’ tenures. Community Land Trusts (CLTs) offer a different kind of protection, in which residents can become homeowners and earn equity but are also backed up by a supportive infrastructure in the face of potential financial challenges. Finally, the foreclosure crisis revealed a growing plight among low-income homeowners in Oakland. While the urgency of foreclosure is behind us, low-income homeowners, and seniors and the disabled in particular, face significant challenges in Oakland today, which need to be meaningfully addressed. These include maintenance and code compliance issues, which may become more urgent in gentrifying neighborhoods with changing resident perceptions and expectations. While homeownership can be a ‘dream’ in terms of its potential for intergenerational wealth-building, the foreclosure crisis highlighted how this tenure type is not safe from displacement pressures without thoughtful protection.
The housing tenure landscape in Oakland is diverse, fluid, and dynamic. There are many ways of living, and Oaklanders move between these, especially as costs rise and neighborhoods change. Protections in Oakland are dynamic, too. This rapid change means that Oaklanders, including advocates, housers, and city government, are working to keep pace, and need new and accessible tools to better assess the state of affairs.