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.
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.
For years, developers weren’t building here much at all, because rents and home prices in downtown, Uptown, and West Oakland—areas of the city that have liberal zoning rules and allow tall, dense housing projects—were not high enough to support new construction. Developers just couldn’t generate enough money for housing projects to pencil out.
However, the bans on new housing in wealthy neighborhoods, coupled with the tech boom, eventually drove up prices throughout the region to the point that they’re finally high enough to support new housing in what had been traditionally low-income areas. Oakland currently has about 3,000 units that are approved or under construction, most of it concentrated in downtown, Uptown, and West Oakland, with another 15,000 to 20,000 units of housing in the development pipeline.
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.
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.
Source: The Real Cause of Gentrification