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 courtesy of Opticos Design

Daniel Parolek coined the phrase “missing middle.”

During an interview, Flashman also repeatedly pointed to parking as the No. 1 reason to oppose upzoning Rockridge. “If people didn’t have cars, density would be fine,” said Flashman, a land-use attorney who has often represented the Sierra Club in litigation. “The cars are the problem.”

But UC Berkeley’s Chapple and transportation experts note that millennials are much less likely to drive or own cars than previous generations and that fears about parking and traffic in transit-rich areas are rapidly becoming outdated. “The world is changing,” said Chapple, who also serves on the Berkeley Planning Commission. “People are not relying on automobiles in the same way. And we’re starting to have a conversation about reducing the amount of parking we demand and use that space instead for people.”

In recognition of this demographic shift, the Oakland City Council voted last year to relax parking requirements for the first time since the ’60s. The city eliminated parking requirements in downtown and eased them near most transit hubs. The city also “unbundled” parking from housing, meaning that it’s now legal to charge tenants who require parking more rent than is paid by those who do not.

Developers, transit experts, bike advocates, tenants’ groups, and environmentalists praised the city’s parking reforms, noting that requiring less parking not only discourages car use, but also helps reduce the cost of housing, while freeing up space for more housing units. However, transit advocates note that Rockridge still has regressive parking rules. Multifamily housing in the district still requires one parking space per unit.

Oakland is on the cusp of relaxing parking rules for secondary units—also known as granny flats or backyard cottages—in Rockridge and elsewhere to coincide with a new state law, said Ed Manasse, strategic planning manager of the Oakland Bureau of Planning. Under the new regulations, which the council was expected to approve in April, the addition of a secondary dwelling would require no additional parking within one half-mile of a transit stop. “That’s basically everywhere in the city,” Manasse said.

Jennifer West, senior program manager at GreenTRIP, which advocates for environmentally friendly development and is a project of the group TransForm, noted that if Rockridge were to upzone, it could relieve parking concerns by encouraging developments to have a mix of market-rate and affordable units. Research has shown, she said, that low-income residents are more likely to take transit than high-income residents and that low-income residents are less likely to drive than high-income residents. “There is a benefit to the neighborhood to build affordable units,” she said.

Members of East Bay Forward support mixed-income housing projects. And they say more backyard cottages in Rockridge and Temescal would represent a good first step toward reducing some of the demand for housing. But restoring the missing middle in wealthy, transit-rich neighborhoods would help relieve the housing crisis more efficiently. 

Kalb, who is now exploring a run for state Assembly in 2018, said he understands the resistance in Rockridge and the fears about parking but hopes that residents will see the bigger picture. “Not to dismiss people’s concerns … but my concern is that we want families to live near where they work, and Oakland is a logical place,” he said. “And we need to be welcoming to those folks so that they don’t move to Vallejo, Brentwood, and Tracy. Long commutes are a horrible environmental problem.”

So where would Flashman build dense housing in Oakland if not in Rockridge and Temescal?

“There’s a lot more room in downtown,” he said.         


During the past several years, wealthy NIMBYs in Berkeley who oppose new housing have formed a political alliance with left-wing progressives who advocate for more affordable housing and believe market-rate development causes gentrification and displacement. The coalition swept into power last November, winning the mayor’s office and a majority of the city council. Ever since, new housing projects, especially proposals for market-rate development, have been met with fierce opposition.

A similar political alliance formed years ago in San Francisco, but it has yet to coalesce in Oakland. Pro-housing activists are wary that it could, however, if the backlash against newcomers and the housing construction in downtown, Uptown, and West Oakland intensifies.

Advocates like Victoria Fierce, who is now a full-time pro-housing activist, are determined to prove that they’re not “gentrifiers” or “techie scum” or “shills” for developers but, rather, are progressives. Many of them were Bernie Sanders supporters, and they’re staunch advocates for traditional progressive values, such as universal health care, environmental protections, rent control, and services for the homeless.

And through the #UpzoneRockridge campaign, they hope to show other progressives that walling off wealthy, predominantly white areas from new housing is not only inequitable, but it also exacerbates the housing crisis for everyone else. It contributes to housing being absurdly expensive and to forcing more people each year to hand over a larger share of their earnings to landlords. According to the 2015 LAO report, low-income households in California spend, on average, 67 percent of their wages on housing. The median nationwide is 23 percent.

“The people who push housing into other neighborhoods,” Fierce said, “are the real gentrifiers.”


Published online on May 8, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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