Gilbert Gibson, 67 — Bay Area born and bred — is, like so many other seniors, fighting to stay in the apartment where he has lived for 12 years.

A graduate of Berkeley High, Mr. G , as he likes to be called, joined the Black Panther Party in 1967 and served breakfast to children. After a varied career, he became a machine operator at Berkeley’s Pyramid Brewery until a knee injury forced him to retire from his job.

Now that he lives on a limited income, a secure and affordable place to live is vital to Gibson. He pays $450 a month for a small, narrow, rent-controlled apartment – basically a line of rooms that lead one to another. His apartment is on the ground floor of a large house with an ample yard, just steps from Telegraph Avenue’s trendy Temescal District.

Mr. G showing off one of his handmade smokers. Photo by Laura McCamy

Gilbert Gibson showing off one of his handmade smokers. Photo by Laura McCamy

‘Affordable housing’ unaffordable

Gibson’s troubles began four years ago, when the owner of the house, who had lived upstairs, died. One of the heirs took over management of the property, and Gibson feels the new person is trying to force him out, using any excuse to deliver eviction notices. Filing complaints with the Rent Board has become his part-time job. “When you go to a hearing, if you don’t have your paperwork, if you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t have a case,” he said.

If he had to move, Gibson would be hard-pressed to find a place he can afford. “I live on Social Security ever since I hurt my knee,” he said. “Affordability can be $1,300, $1,400 a month. Yet who can afford that?”

He has been on the waiting list for a Section 8 voucher for over seven years. Under Section 8, he would pay 30 percent of his income toward rent; the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would pay the difference.

Waiting lists 3 to 5 years long

Even if Gibson had Section 8, he might have a hard time finding a spot. For seniors who can afford rents of $3,000 a month, there’s plenty of housing available, according to Pamela Hall, an advocate at Oakland’s Housing Assistance Center. Those willing to move to Tracy or Modesto can find a place in senior housing for as little as $1,700.

The story for affordable housing is very different. “There’s no [affordable] senior housing,” Hall said. “The waitlists are long. They’re running from three to five years.”

Some of Hall’s recent cases include a man, age 93, who lost his home to predatory lending. Although she was able to find a new home for him, she’s still seeking housing for a woman who is blind, homeless and living on $867 a month in Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

“I have a lot of contacts, but I don’t have enough,” said Hall, who emphasized that while the Housing Assistance Center employees will always try to help seniors who contact them, there isn’t always a solution. “We are not the miracle workers. From time to time we have great success, but it’s not guaranteed.”

Hall points those looking for affordable housing to Another city staffer counted approximately 5,200 units of senior affordable housing in Oakland. A search for studio apartments  turned up seven options: two in Oakland, and the rest in Hayward, Livermore and Dublin. All were subsidized housing, with rents set at 30 percent of household income. But none actually had current openings – just space on their waitlists.

Landlords less attracted by rent subsidies

With rents continuously on the rise, Section 8 is less attractive to landlords, who may be able to rent apartments for more than HUD’s fair market rent. In Alameda County in 2015, a landlord would get $1,260 per month from Section 8 for a one bedroom apartment and $2,213 for a three bedroom.

A November 2013 report by the Alameda County Healthy Homes Alliance found that a minimum wage worker would need to work more than two full-time jobs to afford the HUD fair market rent of $892 for a studio apartment. That figure is more than the entire benefits check of a senior living on SSI.

SSI, which is a crucial source of income for many low-income seniors, maxes out at a meager $889.40 per month in California for a single person. Congressional Democrats are proposing the SSI Restoration Act to improve the law’s income and asset limits, which haven’t been adequately updated in over 40 years.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), a full-time wage earner would need to make almost $31 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Oakland.

Mural at St. Joseph's Senior Apartments. Photo by Laura McCamy

Mural at St. Joseph’s Senior Apartments. Photo by Laura McCamy

“As rents have increased dramatically in many markets, including Oakland, seniors who are living on fixed incomes can find it challenging to maintain housing stability,” said Cynthia Parker, president and CEO of nonprofit developer BRIDGE Housing. “For low-income seniors, that translates to less money each month to pay for food, transportation and other necessities.”

BRIDGE recently renovated a beautiful brick building on International Boulevard into affordable senior housing. “ When St. Joseph’s Senior Apartments first opened in 2011, we received 535 applications for 83 apartments,” Parker said. “Today, the building is 100 percent occupied and there are 62 people on the waitlist, which is closed.”

Francine Williams.

Francine Williams

‘You’ve got to advocate’

Articulate and energetic, Francine Williams, 60, remains upbeat despite multiple disabilities due to diabetes. She is one of the lucky ones: she has been living in her tidy apartment in an affordable senior building near Broadway’s Auto Row since 2003. “When I found out about the property… the waiting list was open, but they only had an opening for a disabled person with a mobility issue and that was me,” she said. “I think that was the favor of God that opened the door for me.”

“I think my experience is not typical and especially not now,” said Williams. She noted that the waiting list for her building now stretches to two years and is currently closed to new applicants.

Seniors who want a spot in affordable housing need to fill out separate applications for each building and pay a fee for a background check at each one. “You need an advocate to find a house for yourself,” Williams said. “You got a lot of work to do. Then you get told you’re on the wait list.”

A volunteer advocate for East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO), Williams, who has been attending meetings on the Broadway-Valdez District Specific Plan, was furious when a developer said there was an abundance of affordable housing in the area. Although her block includes three affordable senior housing buildings with a total of 700 residents, openings are rare and supply continues to fall short of demand.

Gilbert Gibson creates jewelry out of silverware. Photo by Laura McCamy

Gilbert Gibson creates jewelry out of silverware. Photo by Laura McCamy

Room to create, think, volunteer

Gilbert Gibson keeps busy making jewelry from old silverware and barbecues from cooking oil barrels. “That helps me,” he said. He appreciates having room to think and create. “That’s when I really thank the Lord I have a roof over my head.”

He volunteers with Causa Justa::Just Cause, educating other seniors about resources for hanging onto their housing. “This keeps me mentally awake and aware, and it just helps me a lot,” he said. He sees this struggle as much the same as what the Black Panthers fought for almost 40 years ago.

Francine Williams fills her days with classes at the nearby Oakland YMCA or doctor’s appointments. Sunday is reserved for church. On the three days she has dialysis for her kidney disease, she schedules meetings in the evening, staying active in the community.

She also appreciates her volunteer time. “One of the things that being a part of EBHO has done is hooked me up with other seniors who are advocates,” she said. “We just want to be able to raise our voices when we need to. We will raise them in unison.”

Laura McCamy wrote this article with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by AARP.  This story is part of a series on the effect of gentrification on seniors in Oakland.

About The Author

Laura McCamy, is a freelance writer, editor and researcher, and a contributing production editor at Oakland Local. Her work also appears in Momentum Magazine and the Intuit Small Business Blog. Follow Laura on twitter @lmcwords

6 Responses

  1. OaklandNative

    Thanks again Ms. McCamy.

    Hopefully this group of people will go to City Hall and make sure everyone sees how gentrification is hurting Oakland natives.

    • Jesse Budlong

      I would say more “irresponsible displacement” that lacks a holistic comprehensive vision for multi-generational audiences. Putting down development is myopic without looking at overall trends.

  2. OaklandNative

    By the way, Oakland was so proud to open one of the first cat cafes in the country (See “Oakland cat café comes closer to reality, set to open in September”).

    Pathetic. What kind of place has Oakland turned into?

  3. Jeff

    Back in the day when I first moved out from home I lived in a tiny one bedroom apartment with a roommate. We both made minimum wage which at that time was about $4.00 an hour. Our rent for that apartment, which was about 40 years old at the time and not that great was around $350.00 a month. Even with a roommate I paid well over 30% of my income towards housing. It was no different then then it is now if you are a low wage earner. The difference now is that people EXPECT the government, meaning taxpayers to pay their rents for them in the highest cost of living zip codes in the US and they have no shame in expecting everyone else to foot the bill. There have been at least two times in my adult life when the rent on the apartment I was living in went up to the point I could not afford it. I didn’t want to move, but I did, to a place I COULD AFFORD. I did not sit around and cry and whine and want the government to pay my rent for me. I worked hard, went to school got a degree and improved myself so that I could move up. Today, I’m still paying out around 27% of my income for housing and due to my income status I’m not eligiable for any government handouts. I have to live with the fact that things are the way they are, the super rich will always be and they are not going to let go of their money, but the middle class should be stuck paying the bills for other people. The governments messing around in housing is part of the problem. Most middle class people do not want to live with section 8 people, so most complexes up their rents way past the HUD guidelines so section 8 won’t try to get in, that makes it hard for everyone else to afford rent. If you can’t afford to live in Oakland then you move to a city you can afford to live in. SS benefits follow you whereever you go as does section 8 and all the other government gimme programs. I can’t believe how entitled people are now who expect others who work hard and are barely making it to pay for them too. Do you think anything is going to get better with Republicans in charge? I doubt it, they are working on massive budget cuts right now for the upcoming fiscal years 2016 and 2017, so people need to rely on their own merits and stop expecting Uncle Sam and taxpayers to carry their weight.

    • OaklandNative

      It’s a sad commentary on this “new Oakland” when we abandon our seniors. We’ll all become seniors one day–unless we die.


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