October 28, 2013

By Sam Tepperman-Gelfant

Skyrocketing rents in core Bay Area neighborhoods are once again forcing long-time residents from their homes. This displacement not only uproots families and disrupts communities, but also often forces low-income people to resettle in cities at the fringes of the region – disconnected from jobs, transit, and essential services.

Some recent news stories highlight both sides of this problem. Taken together they paint an urgent picture of the damage being done to both families and to the Bay Area as a whole by the wave of gentrification and displacement sparked by an overheated housing market in cities and counties all around the Bay.

A pair of articles earlier this month focused on the changing face of Oakland. With the African-American population in the city continuing to decline (Oakland lost one third of its black population between 1990 and 2010), the Chronicle described fears that West Oakland’s rich cultural history will be erased by the influx of new residents. And the East Bay Express documented how large real estate investment firms have profited from the foreclosure crisis and helped drive Oakland home prices up 64 percent over the past year.

Not only is the social fabric of low-income urban neighborhoods being stressed and torn by these forces, but the far flung areas beyond the traditional suburbs (or “exurbs”) where displaced low income families tend to land are reducing their opportunities and locking them in poverty. More and more, research shows that low-income people are moving to places like Vallejo, Antioch, and Fairfield. Indeed, while Oakland and Richmond continue to have the highest percentage of African-American residents in the region, eight out of the top 12 most heavily African-American cities in the region are smaller suburban and exurban communities.

A 2012 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, “The Suburbanization of Poverty in the Bay Area,” documents that the suburbs and exurbs are increasingly areas of poverty and lack of opportunity:

  • Suburban poverty levels rose 16 percent in the Bay Area between 2000 and 2009, compared to a 7 percent increase in urban areas, and “Blacks and Hispanics saw the greatest percentage growth in suburban poverty.”
  • This trend brought with it a decrease in transit access, with the number of low-income people living within one-half mile of a rail station dropping by 1.5 percent between 2000 and 2009, and the number living farther than four miles from a station increasing by 3 percent.

This increase of suburban poverty threatens to destroy the economic integration and mobility that makes the Bay Area strong. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently observed, suburban poverty leaves low-income people “stranded by sprawl” in many metro areas around the country. Interpreting data from the Equality of Opportunity Project led by economists at Harvard and Berkeley, Krugman concludes that “smart growth” increases economic mobility. The researchers found that “[a]reas in which low income individuals were residentially segregated from middle income individuals were also particularly likely to have low rates of upward mobility.”

Krugman touts the Bay Area as a model of comparatively high social mobility due to the relatively high access to transit and jobs that low-income Bay Area residents have historically enjoyed: “in San Francisco a child born into the bottom fifth of the income distribution has an 11 percent chance of making it into the top fifth, but in Atlanta the corresponding number is only 4 percent.”

But the Bay Area’s effort to intensify development near transit may inadvertently undermine the mobility that Krugman praises. The Bay Area’s recently adoptedPlan Bay Area, a 28-year regional plan strives to cram 80% of the region’s anticipated 2.1 million new residents into predominantly low-income neighborhoods near transit. While this development pattern has been heralded by some as “smart growth,” Oakland’s rapid gentrification and the displacement of long term low-income residents to the far-flung exurbs challenges the notion that all development near transit is “smart.”

These trends are also troubling for the environment. As we learned first-hand from our clients in Antioch, many people displaced from the urban core commute long distances in high-polluting cars to return to the urban core to work, worship, and socialize in their old neighborhoods. This makes displacement a losing proposition for the environment as well as a burden on communities and individuals.

In order to be “smart,” growth must be equitable – increasing opportunities for low-income people of color rather than pushing them to the literal fringes of society. And in fact, equitable growth is smart for everyone, as demonstrated by the Equity, Environment and Jobs (EEJ) scenario we presented as part of the Plan Bay Area process.

That’s why Public Advocates and our allies in the 6 Wins Network are fighting forinvestment without displacement in low-income urban communities – grounding development policies in real community needs, protecting tenants, investing in workforce training and development, building and preserving affordable housing, and improving public health.

Without such policies, the Bay Area’s notable economic mobility may soon be a thing of the past.

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