The Real Cause of Gentrification

When cities like Oakland prohibit new apartments and condos in wealthy neighborhoods, low-income areas pay the price.


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Photo by Pat Mazzera

Justin Horner wants to upzone Rockridge to allow more apartments and condos.

But all that building is also generating a backlash. At council and planning commission meetings and on social media, some longtime residents have blamed gentrification and displacement in downtown and other parts of the city on the new housing—and especially on newcomers. In April, the Flight Deck, a multidisciplinary art space in downtown, featured a play, Overnight, focusing on the supposed gentrifying impacts of new a high-rise built on a parking lot.

In reality, experts say there is little evidence that new housing actually causes gentrification and displacement in cities—with the obvious exception of an older building being torn down, the tenants displaced, and a new one serving wealthier residents replacing it. Instead, when new housing goes up on previously unoccupied spaces—like a parking lot—it tends to help lower the overall cost of housing in the area, especially if it’s accompanied by other new housing. Most housing studies, including the 2015 LAO report, have concluded that higher costs are the result of not enough housing—not the addition of new housing. That report estimated that California’s coastal metros need to build an additional 100,000 units annually to stabilize prices.

Nonetheless, there is a widespread belief that new market-rate housing in a traditionally low-income neighborhood can gentrify the immediate surroundings, especially if the city doesn’t have rent control. Local residents fear that landlords will raise rents to match those of the new market-rate housing. Oakland has rent control, so concerns about new housing might be overblown—although it’s worth noting that under state law, rent control in Oakland doesn’t apply to housing constructed after 1983.

Regardless, gentrification and displacement in Oakland started well before the current housing boom. And it was the lack of new homes coupled with the region’s economic upswing that sent prices through the roof. Well-paid millennials simply outbid longtime residents for the existing available housing, causing displacement of city residents. But housing analysts say that if wealthy areas like Rockridge, parts of Temescal, and other neighborhoods allowed new apartment buildings, then many of the newcomers would’ve moved there instead.

“Ultimately, you’re going to have to bust open the single-family zoning just to deal with all the people,” said Karen Chapple, a professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley who has studied housing and gentrification extensively. “We can’t just build all the housing in certain areas and keep others as exclusive as ever.”

Chapple also pointed out that a substantial number of millennials who can’t find housing are not newcomers. “A lot of people who are trying to find housing in the East Bay are people who grew up in the East Bay.” 

Justin Horner calls the beautiful older apartment buildings scattered throughout his neighborhood “illegal Rockridge.” While sitting in the dining room of his Craftsman home, Horner explained that these smaller, early- to mid-century buildings—triplexes, four-plexes, and those of up to about 12 units in size—are “illegal” because local residents convinced the city decades ago to ban the construction of any more of them on neighborhood streets.

“You just can’t build that anymore,” said Horner, who works for the San Francisco planning department, is a member of East Bay Forward, and is a former staffer for ex-Oakland Councilmember Jane Brunner. As a result, he added, “the neighborhood character now is exclusive and unaffordable.” 

There are some new housing complexes going up in the lower Rockridge area at 51st Street and Broadway, and more approved for 51st and Telegraph Avenue. And there is new housing approved or under construction on Telegraph in the Temescal district. Plus, the Oakland City Council recently greenlighted Temescal’s first housing tower, a 25-story high-rise at MacArthur BART (although that tower required a special zoning exemption to win approval).

Pat Mazzera

Apartment buildings like this one are illegal in most areas of Rockridge and Temescal.

But building height limits greatly restrict new housing on College and Claremont avenues. On College, the height limit is 35 feet, which equates to three stories. And it’s 45 feet, or four stories, on much of both Broadway and Telegraph in Temescal. Under state law, housing developers can technically go one story higher than local zoning allows if they include affordable units. But three to five stories is still low for a city of 400,000 people and an area that has two BART stations.

In addition, the vast majority of the area’s streets—Shafter, Lawton, Chabot, etc.—are zoned for single-family homes, which means anything larger than a duplex is illegal. It’s striking to walk or bike through North Oakland and see all the small, attractive apartment buildings that are now strictly forbidden. Horner and other members of East Bay Forward say it’s past time to allow this missing middle housing again in North Oakland—and for the city to relax building heights on major thoroughfares, especially near BART.

The phrase missing middle was coined five years ago by Berkeley architect Daniel Parolek, principal of Opticos Design. Parolek describes missing-middle housing as ranging in size from townhouses and duplexes to apartment and condo complexes of up to 15 units and four stories tall. During the past several years, he has been advocating for cities that used to allow missing-middle housing to once again legalize them to create more vibrant, walkable neighborhoods. “Zoning is a major barrier in most cities,” he said. “There is so much zoned single-family only, it’s ludicrous. We need to get rid of that.” 

North Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb said he’s open to exploring whether to allow taller, denser housing within “two to three blocks” of Rockridge BART. Kalb, a proponent of smart growth—dense housing near major transit—met in March with members of East Bay Forward to hear their proposal. “I think it’s a valid discussion to have,” Kalb said in an interview. “I’m open to looking to see what we can do to get more housing near our key transit hubs.”

But Stuart Flashman of the locally powerful Rockridge Community Planning Council is deeply skeptical about East Bay Forward’s plans. He said he personally opposes changing local zoning to allow market-rate apartments or condos in Rockridge. He said taller buildings along College would make the area feel like a “canyon” because of the shadows they would cast.

However, he indicated that he would support affordable-only housing. “I wouldn’t be averse to putting in a fairly dense, 100-percent-affordable project,” he said, adding that he would want it to include subsidized housing for moderate-income residents as well. “We have a tremendous demand for moderate-income housing.”

But building a fully subsidized housing project in Rockridge could be prohibitively expensive because of the price of land there. Housing experts say it costs up to $500,000 per unit in public subsidies to build affordable housing.

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