The Real Cause of Gentrification
When cities like Oakland prohibit new apartments and condos in wealthy neighborhoods, low-income areas pay the price.
Victoria Fierce says she and her friends have been called “gentrifiers” and “techie scum.”
Photo by Pat Mazzera
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When Victoria Fierce arrived in the Bay Area three years ago, she decided to look for a place to live in North Oakland’s Rockridge district. She had scored a job at a tech startup in San Francisco and was attracted to Rockridge because it has a BART station and seemed like a transit-oriented, walkable neighborhood. But she quickly realized that apartments are scarce in Rockridge and the nearby Temescal district and that rents are astronomically high.
“When I first move out here,” she said, “I looked at Rockridge, and thought, ‘Wow, this is so great. … I wish I could afford to live here.’”
Fierce relocated to Oakland from Akron, Ohio, and ultimately landed in downtown. Although she loves living here, she says she sometimes doesn’t feel welcome. She and other millennials who moved to Oakland during the tech boom have been blamed for gentrifying traditionally low-income areas of downtown, Uptown, and West Oakland. Some city residents have derided the newcomers, alleging that they’re responsible for soaring rent and housing prices and the displacement of low-income people of color. Fierce, who is transgender, said she and her friends have been called “gentrifiers” and “techie scum” among other names.
But Fierce and her friends don’t scare easily, and they’re fighting back. They formed East Bay Forward, a group that champions new housing in Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, and other urban areas, especially along transit lines. They consider themselves to be urbanists, or YIMBYs (for Yes In My Backyard), and they attend city council and planning commission meetings in support of dense housing developments and high-rises, while publicly calling out the NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard) who oppose them.
Yet while urbanists are cheering on the current housing construction boom in downtown and Uptown Oakland, they’re also sensitive to the impacts of gentrification. They say it’s unfair that nearly all the new housing is concentrated in certain areas of the city, while higher-income neighborhoods like Rockridge have effectively walled themselves off with special rules that ban large apartments buildings and condo complexes.
YIMBYs are pushing to ease these special rules, known as exclusionary zoning, and they’re calling their nascent effort #UpzoneRockridge. They argue that it’s not equitable for a diverse city like Oakland to prohibit dense new housing in predominantly white, upper-income areas. And they point out that opening up Rockridge and portions of Temescal to new housing will help relieve gentrification pressures elsewhere. After all, it’s impossible to gentrify tony neighborhoods, because they’re already gentrified. “The only people who can now afford to move here are rich people,” said Justin Horner, a Rockridge resident and member of East Bay Forward.
But Horner, Fierce, and other YIMBYs realize that many wealthy and influential North Oakland residents will strenuously oppose any plans to upzone their neighborhoods. So East Bay Forward is proposing a more modest approach: It wants the city to greenlight some increases to height and density limits along major streets near Rockridge BART, reduce parking requirements in the area, and lift prohibitions on smaller apartment buildings on surrounding streets.
They say the streets of Rockridge and much of Temescal should once again allow construction of what is known as the “missing middle,” smaller buildings that range in size from three to about 12 units and were once common in North Oakland. In fact, Rockridge and Temescal are sprinkled with such housing. Much of it was built between the 1920s and the ’40s, but then was banned in the ’50s and ’60s when residents started complaining about traffic and the lack of parking.
Any proposal to upzone Rockridge today will surely be met with similar complaints. But there’s a growing sense among YIMBYs that momentum may be on their side. Over the past decade, environmental groups like the Greenbelt Alliance have increasingly argued that cities must build more dense urban housing to curb suburban sprawl and long commutes, protect open space, and help fight climate change. These days, you can’t call yourself an environmentalist and oppose dense urban housing near transit.
Moreover, numerous recent studies have concluded that the high cost of housing in the Bay Area and the displacement of low-income residents are directly related to exclusionary zoning rules and the region’s failure to build enough housing to keep up with population growth.
Meanwhile, Bay Area millennials are fed up with the lack of housing near job centers. A recent poll commissioned by the Bay Area Council, a business-oriented public policy advocacy organization, found that 46 percent of millennials said they want to leave the region, citing the high cost of living and out-of-control housing prices as two of the major reasons. Seventy percent said they would support building more housing in their neighborhoods.
But the baby boomers and Gen Xers who have watched the values of their homes skyrocket in the past few decades—thanks in large part to the persistent housing shortage created by zoning—are much less enthusiastic about changing the rules, even as their own children are priced out of the region. It’s a viewpoint that was shared by their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents: the people who created exclusionary housing rules.
However, the motivation of those previous generations had nothing to do with parking or traffic.
The idea of creating exclusionary housing in Oakland—of blocking certain people from moving into certain neighborhoods—dates back more than a century and was rooted in racism. In the early 1900s, in order to keep out African-, Asian-, and Latin-American residents, developers of Rockridge and the nearby Claremont neighborhood in Berkeley attached racial “covenants” to the deeds of homes, ensuring that they would be white-only areas.
A 1909 advertisement in the San Francisco Call newspaper for Rock Ridge Park (now commonly known as Upper Rockridge) plainly stated a covenant attached to deeds in the neighborhood at the time: “No negroes, no Chinese, no Japanese can build or lease in Rock Ridge Park.”
Oakland historian Dennis Evanosky said such ads were common back then. “They would put ‘No Negroids’ and ‘No Mongoloids’ in the covenants,” he said.
And racial covenants were not exclusive to Oakland and Berkeley. “It was a national phenomenon,” said Richard Rothstein, a senior fellow at the Haas Institute and a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute at UC Berkeley who has studied racist housing policies around the nation.
Over time, racial covenants eventually expired and were no longer used in the East Bay, and the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the enforcement of them in 1948. But cities like Oakland and Berkeley replaced the covenants with exclusionary zoning laws that essentially accomplished the same result.
Exclusionary zoning got its start in the East Bay in the early 1910s in Berkeley. At the time, Duncan McDuffie, cofounder of Mason-McDuffie real estate company and developer of the Claremont neighborhood, just across the border from Rockridge, was upset that the nearby Elmwood district did not have racial covenants like those of his development, according to a 1986 historical report in the Berkeley Planning Journal. McDuffie was particularly outraged that a Chinese laundry had opened on College Avenue. McDuffie, who was perhaps the East Bay’s first influential NIMBY, called the laundry an “incompatible” use and warned that more were coming.