Imagine living in the same neighborhood for years or decades. You know your neighbors; some of them are your friends. Imperfect though it may be, this is home.
Then a new type of neighbors start moving in: richer, better educated, whiter. Rents go up. Some of your longtime neighbors are forced to move deep into the eastern suburbs, chasing the last affordable housing in the Bay Area.
The new people don’t say hello to you in the street and call the cops at the slightest disturbance. A community that took years to build begins to fracture under the pressure of development. You wonder when it will be your turn to go. The new paint and manicured lawns that come with the new residents can’t replace the social network that kept you going through both good days and hard times.
Many Oaklanders don’t have to imagine this; they are living it. A new report by Causa Justa::Just Cause (CJJC) in collaboration with the Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD) finds that gentrification is not only changing the character of Oakland, it is literally making residents sick.
“Constantly, as a public health department, we are looking at what community conditions do people need to be healthy,” said Dr. Muntu Davis, ACPHD Director and County Health Officer. The department’s Place Matters team has been developing policy recommendations to support health through social equity in a variety of areas, including housing, since 2009.
The new study, funded with a grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), looks at public health outcomes in ongoing or late stage neighborhoods (see map above), such as North Oakland, middle stage areas, such as West Oakland parts of the San Antonio district, and early stage neighborhoods and those susceptible to gentrification, including most of East Oakland and Chinatown. Neighborhoods where property values were historically high and residents affluent, such as the Oakland Hills, were classified as “not applicable.”
“Gentrification is not the same as development,” Davis said. The report defines gentrification as: “a profit-driven racial and class reconfiguration of urban, working-class and communities of color that have suffered from a history of disinvestment and abandonment.”
Using 1990 numbers as a baseline, ACPHD analysts compared data from 2011. The results are stark. During that period, Oakland’s African-American population fell by 40 percent, from 43 percent of city residents in 1990 to just 26 percent by 2011. At the beginning of the study period, 50 percent of North Oakland homeowners were African-American; after two decades of gentrification, that figure was just 25 percent. A similar drop is reported for West Oakland. While Jerry Brown’s 10k plan led to construction of 6,000 units of new housing in downtown Oakland, only 6 percent of these (400 units) are affordable housing.
According to the report, between 1998 and 2002, during the first dot-com boom, Oakland rents doubled while the rate of “no fault” evictions in the city tripled. In 2011, median rents in rapidly-gentrifying North Oakland were higher than those in “historically affluent” areas such as Rockridge.
“When we look at where we see the areas of most disease in the county,” said Davis, it’s usually in areas lacking healthy infrastructure such as a grocery store, a pharmacy, and housing that is “not so expensive you don’t have income to pay for healthy food, medicine.” The researchers found higher mortality rates for all racial groups in neighborhoods in any stage of the gentrification process. In the final stages of gentrification, however, mortality rates for white residents decrease, while those for African-Americans remain high, perhaps reflecting shifting neighborhood networks that no longer provide support on which historic residents relied.
“Educational attainment and income are two of the most important determinants of a person’s health,” Davis said. “For many of these places, we want development to happen.” But, he added, the problem with gentrification is that “people who have been living there who have been suffering from poor health because of the conditions they are living in aren’t benefiting” from development in their neighborhoods. When families are forced to move, children often have to change schools, disrupting their education and diminishing opportunity. “Shifts in population,” he noted, cause people to lose “the ability to stay in the place that they call home.”
Davis noted that public health issues are not solved by displacement, merely shifted to different parts of the county or the region. “Even if I have an area in West Oakland that may be developing,” he said, and current severely poor health outcomes have improved in five years, that is probably because “you’re looking at a different population.” In fact, displacement can exacerbate health problems, forcing residents to spend more money and time commuting to work and leaving them less to spend on healthcare and food.
“I think the key is, this is about improving the conditions in which everybody finds themselves,” Davis said. “It improves the image and attractiveness of the city.”
The authors of the report are calling for Oakland to adopt development strategies that protect historic communities from displacement. Look for more on that aspect of the report in part two of Oakland Local’s coverage.
Buy or request a copy of the full report here.