by Jeremy Liu

Earlier this year, more than 40 houses in my West Oakland neighborhood had scaffolding put up around them, while moving truck after moving truck lined up to move dozens of families en masse.

Along one particular block of West Street, nearly all the families on both sides of the street left.  After the breathless headlines about rents and housing prices soaring in San Francisco over the past year it was hard not to fear the worst – that the boom across the Bay was starting to be felt in the East Bay housing market and low-income and working class families in our neighborhood were being displaced.

“The real estate market is a cycle” has to be one of the most oft-recited truisms in conversations about cities, real estate development and gentrification. But it really isn’t exactly a “cycle.”

The real estate market is more like a spiral – one that is headed either up or down.

As the market spirals up or down, the participants in the housing market – the sellers, landlords, buyers and renters – can, and often do, change between the pendulum swings of the overly econometric view of the way the world works. When the market spiral leads to a notable demographic change in the residents of a neighborhood based on race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, etc., this is sometimes labeled “White Flight” and sometimes labeled “gentrification.”

The forces that push the market spiral to be either positive or negative are varied; the worst, institutionalized prejudice was called “Redlining,” in which banks and insurance companies undertook a form of systematic economic racism that destroyed family assets of African American, Latino and other minority populations beginning in the 1930s, and has been uncovered in various guises even today. Other examples include: the 1942 Executive Order 9066 that cleared the way for the deportation of Japanese Americans to internment camps resulting in the loss of property and other assets in entire swaths of neighborhoods where Japanese Americans lived and worked.

When I moved back to the Oakland/Bay Area in 2009, after growing up here until 1990, Oakland had survived several booms and busts: the recession of the early 1990s was followed by a modest recovery in the late 1990s was chased by a downturn in the early 2000s that led into the boom of the mid-2000s before nearly everything came crashing down in the late 2000s.

In 2010, I purchased a big and old-but-updated Victorian duplex with 11 bedrooms and four and half bathrooms in the Ralph Bunche neighborhood of West Oakland.  I could afford to buy so much house because the real estate market in West Oakland, along with nearly every other neighborhood of Oakland, had tumbled off a cliff in the prior few years, leaving a foreclosure wake of San Francisco dot-com boom refugees who had crossed the Bay Bridge in the mid-2000s seeking affordable housing choices.

At the time I purchased this Victorian duplex, I was the executive director for EBALDC – East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, a not-for-profit, community development organization that builds, owns and manages affordable housing. As an Oakland-based organization, we were (and remain) committed to neighborhood development that helps families and preserves opportunities for them to live in healthy neighborhoods.

The house was sold to me by a not-for-profit organization that provided hospice child care for low-income and immigrant women in the neighborhood; they had changed their program model and needed to sell their facility, the house, which was home to their child care program and also a residence for their staff.

When I moved in, I initially tried to find another child care provider to rent the downstairs apartment so that it would continue to be used for child care, because I recognized the need that working class families have for affordable and accessible child care. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped to find an operator or an in-home childcare provider to rent the apartment and I eventually rented it out to a family with two small children.

More recently, I’ve been working with a community/backyard gardener to turn our back yard into a demonstration garden for food production, hoping to encourage neighbors to do the same with their really generously sized lots; West Oakland is pretty much a food desert.

These are efforts I made to try to find a way for my presence in a new neighborhood to address the needs of the community already living here – already invested over decades.

In contrast, one of the ways existing communities of a neighborhood experience change is when a new demographic of resident moves into a neighborhood and eventually begins to assert a different and unfortunately, sometimes incompatible, set of demands and expectations on neighborhood spaces be it parks, schools, retail, parking, the streets, etc.

This is frequently what people refer to when they talk about gentrification. These lifestyle-oriented new residents often put their own expectations and needs above those of the community already living in a neighborhood. And this can play out on multiple fronts, as well. Gentrification doesn’t just happen in housing: Commercial and retail spaces can be gentrified in a similar way. Even cultural spaces, such as parks, playgrounds, theaters and sidewalks themselves can be gentrified.

I’m not suggesting that all new residents in a neighborhood are solely lifestyle-oriented or even that focusing on the needs of one’s own lifestyle is, itself, gentrification.  The optimistic view is that newer residents will find common ground and shared interests with long-time residents and community members. However, what is more typical is the disregard for what an existing community needs and wants and this can lead to the prioritization of investments, improvements and changes that reflect a hurtful indifference to long-time residents and community needs.

West Oakland is a gentrification risk for a number of reasons. It is extremely convenient to San Francisco and many other amenities, yet it has poor air quality, few healthy food shopping choices, under-resourced schools and persistent crime. These ills are fairly prevalent, yet unevenly distributed. Those who live in the newer loft-like condo buildings with sealed ventilation, garage parking, 24-hour security and children in private schools have the financial wherewithal to buy their way out of these negative features in exchange for taking advantage of West Oakland’s location benefits.

Many who have lived in West Oakland for decades and generations have not had these same financial resources, so when faced with the prospect of paying more for rent or the offer from a real estate speculator or broker for 2x to 10x what you paid for your house, it just makes sense to move.

My house is on a block in a neighborhood that is predominantly occupied by African American families. Over the past three years, I’ve also noticed homes sell faster, for more money, and to folks who clearly represent a demographic shift in the neighborhood, from African American families to white hipsters.

Neighborhoods are not collections of buildings, but rather they are living, social entities with identities, character and personalities drawn from the people who live, learn, work, play and pray there. The fear I have about gentrification is not just about who has the right to live in a particular neighborhood; it is about the loss of identity as neighborhood identity strongly influences one’s sense of belonging. The feeling of having to move, not having any real choice but to move, the feeling of no longer belonging – these are feelings of loss.

When the families left en masse after all the scaffolding was erected we noticed a marked sense of absence. Where there used to be families hanging out on stoops and kids playing the streets, there were now hipsters walking their dogs, hipsters riding their fixies, and the like. It was as if we’d peered into the future once gentrification had overtaken our neighborhood!

As I settled into living in this neighborhood, I began to observe that the lawns of many houses on my block and the entire block around the corner were mowed on the same day and that the fences of these houses were fixed at the same time. I came to find that these houses, all 42 of them, were home to 89 families, all members of Oak Center Homes – a cooperative apartment management organization created in 1977 as a form of limited-equity cooperative to provide affordable housing for families. These were the same homes that were being improved and that we’d seen families moving out of earlier this year. Because of the structure of this organization, these families are able to participate in the upward spiral of our neighborhood, after investing in it for decades.

Ideally, the mass rehabilitation and upgrading of these homes leads to improved property values for those long-time families who wish to stay in the neighborhood, but with a more gradual increase since these homes will not be sold, which would drive up prices and accelerate speculator interest. Literally because there are a mass of homes improved without sales transactions to be used by appraisers working on behalf of speculators and others, there is a chance that long time residents will be able to afford to remain in their homes.

My neighborhood of West Oakland is named after Ralph Bunche, the American political scientist, academic and diplomat who received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first African American to do so; he was involved in the formation and administration of the United Nations and, in 1963, was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy.

I’m proud to call this place home.


Note: Oakland Local, in partnership with The Bold Italic, is running a series of first-person essays on that most sensitive of topics, gentrification in Oakland.  If you would like to share your views in a first-person 400-600 word essay, please get in touch or send your writing to editor

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One Response

  1. Katie

    The bunch of houses on West Street that (I think) you’re mentioning are part of Oak Center Homes II Inc. I believe these properties are low-income housing for families.


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