At a recent meeting of the Hope and Justice Committee of St. Mary’s Center, the members allowed a reporter to sit in as they discussed their experiences with gentrification.

Ortencia is 82 and, like all the members of the group, preferred not to give her last name. She pays $600 for her studio apartment in Oakland. She gets a break because she does yard work at her building; the rent would be $850 otherwise.

Ortencia, 82, photographed at St. Mary's Center by Laura McCamy.

Ortencia, 82, photographed at St. Mary’s Center by Laura McCamy.

Veleda was born and raised in Oakland after her grandmother moved the family here from Oklahoma. “This place was littered with big hotels because people was coming here to work in the shipyards” in the 1940s and 1950s, she recalled. “Now we go to Oakland and everybody’s face has changed.”

Today, Veleda lives at the San Pablo Hotel, a senior single room occupancy (SRO) hotel. She struggles to manage her diabetes in a unit that shares a bathroom with another apartment. “I’m sitting here now, 62 years old, seeing how this place is vastly leaving me. Thank God I still have my ability to think and a zest to do things,” she said. “God forbid the day I can’t do that.”

Denise’s family moved to the Bay Area from Louisiana. Her grandmother couldn’t read or write. When Denise became a mother in her teens, her grandparents took her in and she was able to go back to school and get a college degree. She worked for Bank of America in San Francisco and Concord and raised two children as a single mother.

She moved to Oakland because her husband wanted to be here. Now he has passed away and, she said, “I’m left here all alone.” She says there are “bullets flying” around the transitional housing where she currently lives. Still, she wants to make Oakland her home.

Denise, photographed at St. Mary's Center by Laura McCamy

Denise, photographed at St. Mary’s Center by Laura McCamy

For Oakland’s many low-income seniors, aging in place is more dream than reality. This problem is not limited to Oakland, although fast-rising rents and a shortage of affordable housing make the problem more acute. According to a 2014 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), the Oakland-Fremont metropolitan area was the seventh most expensive jurisdiction for housing.

A September 2014 report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University and the AARP Foundation found that by 2024, “the number of households aged 65 and over with incomes less than $15,000 is expected to rise 37 percent, or by 1.8 million households.” The report also found that the supply of affordable homes with universal design features to make them accessible to the many older adults with disabilities falls far short of demand.

From the Alameda County Public Health Department:

“Based on an analysis of migration patterns at the national and local levels, we found that African American households, regardless of income, are more likely to end up in a neighborhood with lower income residents than their current neighborhood. This differs from the pattern of migration for white, Latino, and Asian households, each of which are more likely to move to a neighborhood with residents at the same or higher income level.  Thus, African American seniors, if displaced, are more likely to find themselves in neighborhoods with fewer health-promoting resources and/or lower quality amenities, as average neighborhood income is closely tied to the availability of neighborhood resources.”
-Zoë Levitt, health equity and local policy associate, Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD)

Steve King, senior associate at the Urban Strategies Council (USC), noted the growing mismatch between the cost of housing and the income of Oakland residents. “At every level, the median income earner…cannot afford the median house, either own or rent [in their neighborhood],” he said. “It obviously affects everyone, but people at the bottom tiers [have a harder time].”

The State of Bay Area Blacks Report, prepared by USC, looked at local population trends between 2000 and 2008. The report showed population changes already afoot between the 1990 and 2000 census, as the number of census tracts with a majority black population declined, though some Oakland neighborhoods remain predominantly black. In Oakland, the report found, a declining black population was replaced mostly with an influx of white residents.

“We know Oakland lost 24 percent of its African American population.” But teasing out the reasons, he says, is not so easy. “It’s a complex story.”

The story is somewhat different for black seniors. While the number of Oakland residents over 65 grew by 4 percent from 2000 to 2010, the number of black seniors over 60 increased 12 percent. Using data from the 2000 and 2010 census and from the USC study, it appears that more than half of Oakland’s senior population is African American.

Staying put is not always easy. King noted that, according to USC’s 2012 report, Who Owns Your Neighborhood?, some blocks in East Oakland had 90 percent of homes foreclosed between 2007 and 2011. “When you think about the social fabric of a neighborhood and the social ties that evaporated,” he said, “we know it’s a huge issue.”

Graffitti photo by Laura McCamy

Graffitti photo by Laura McCamy

This isn’t the first time Oakland neighborhoods have experienced radical change. “The word ‘gentrification,’ when I was coming up in Oakland, is a word I didn’t hear a lot,” Veleda, who is African American, said. “If the government wanted your property, they would take your property by public domain.”

Veleda remembers an earlier transition in West Oakland. “We moved into a neighborhood that was occupied by Italians and whites,” she said. “When they moved out, they took everything of value that was beautiful.”

Close neighborhood ties are essential to seniors. Corrine Jan, CEO of the nonprofit Family Bridges, noted that isolation is more detrimental to health than many other medical diagnoses, worse even than smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

The Alameda County Public Health Department pointed out that seniors make up half the transit-dependent population nationwide, so they may fall prey to social isolation if they are forced to move to neighborhoods poorly served by transit. ACPHD’s Levitt said, “According to a survey of 400+ transit-dependent bus riders we conducted in 2012, seniors were most likely among all age groups to feel socially isolated, with more than half reporting no friends or family within walking distance of their homes.”

A 2013 report prepared for the Alameda County Healthy Homes Alliance concluded that, while Oakland as a whole is a very diverse city, “the same cannot be said for many neighborhoods in the city.” The data showed a huge correlation between communities of color, renters and indicators of low income and poor health outcomes.

Seniors often bear the brunt of these demographic changes. In this series, we will explore the challenges of Oakland’s low income seniors to find affordable housing, cope with homelessness, maintain community ties and find the services and support they need to age in place with grace.


 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.

2 Responses

  1. OaklandNative

    Thanks for this story Ms. McCamy. Having known seniors like these growing up, I knew they were being ignored. It’s time we heard from them.

    Questions: Is this the “New Oakland” that we want or need? When I was growing up, we were taught to respect our elders. Many people talk about crime, but gentrification is the crime that these seniors live with. This is disgusting.

    What’s worse is that OaklandLocal did a story on bringing dogs to restaurants. That story got more comments and reactions than this story on seniors. Someone brought her dog to restaurants because it didn’t want to be left home alone. Evidently, this is an Oakland that is more concerned about dogs that “don’t want to be left alone” than our elders.

    A few months ago, a commenters said we needed more upscale restaurants and bars because he didn’t want to go to SF. I argued that there were elders who have needs not addressed by those establishments. He claimed they could come and spend their little bit of money (I think the commenter’s name was Matt). I would like to get his reaction to this article.

    This article shows that Oakland has given up to much of ourselves. It’s time our city officials remember who Oakland is.

  2. Elizabeth

    Thank you so much for putting attention to this issue. I have been working on behalf of seniors in Oakland for the last 10 years, and another issue affecting them (and us) is the medical care that is not set up to provide for low-income, home bound people who are fragile and often times have multiple co-morbidities. I would love to see more attention to this part of the problem. It is crazy to me that all the statistics point to seniors growing in size and need, but we still do not know how to talk about aging, death, disease and how we can integrate more intergenerational support.


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