The Forces Driving Gentrification in Oakland 

The East Bay has seen a widening gap between rich and poor and the displacement of people who are low-income and of color. But it doesn't have to be this way.

  • Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn

Unless you've lived in the East Bay for a long time, it may be hard to understand the rapid shift that's taken place here in recent years: the explosion in the number of homeless people, the insane rent increases, the influx of wealthy young people — and the businesses catering to them.

Having grown up in the East Bay, I remember shopping with my mom in downtown Oakland in the '80s. The neighborhood always felt deserted, with empty storefronts and few people walking around. Now, it's filled with bars and restaurants and cranes constructing new housing. To many, this might feel like a welcomed change from the years of neglect. But these changes have coincided with evictions and the displacement of people from their homes and businesses — particularly those who are low-income and people of color. Many are forced to move far away or, worse, live on the streets. To those who aren't cashing in on the new tech economy, the Bay Area can feel like a hostile place.

This hasn't happened out of nowhere. Nor is it inevitable. Rather, it's the result of decades of deliberate actions: disinvestment, redlining, predatory lending, a lack of affordable housing construction and preservation, as well as too few tenant protections. These actions, coupled with the tech-fueled economic boom, are rapidly remaking neighborhoods into places where socioeconomic diversity is decreasing.

But trying to talk about "gentrification" often leads to polarizing debates. To shed some light on the complexity and wide-ranging implications of the topic, we decided to examine the issue. The goal? To get people to understand why this is something that impacts all of us — and to offer some solutions in the process.

But first, we need to understand what gentrification is.

What is gentrification?

There is no universally agreed upon definition of gentrification. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines it innocuously as "the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste."

But if you ask the researchers at UC Berkeley's Urban Displacement Project, there's much more to gentrification than aesthetic changes: "a process of neighborhood change that includes economic change in a historically disinvested neighborhood — by means of real estate investment and new higher-income residents moving in — as well as demographic change — not only in terms of income level, but also in terms of changes in the education level or racial make-up of residents."

This definition, which accounts for historical disinvestment and demographic changes, paints a fuller picture of the forces at work that transform a neighborhood. Anna Cash, the associate director of the Urban Displacement Project, said the researchers came to their definition by reviewing existing research on gentrification. While acknowledging that the topic is complex, Cash said it's important to understand how past policies and practices make certain communities susceptible to change.

A lack of common understanding about gentrification would seem to make it difficult to talk about the issue. "The term is 50 years old and we still debate what it means," said Tony Roshan Samara, program director of land use and housing at Urban Habitat. He notes that the term has its roots in England, where working-class whites were displaced by higher-income whites. The economic implications remain today, but in the U.S., there's also a clear racial dynamic, Samara said.

Thus, while many people may identify new hipster boutiques as an example of gentrification, displacement is the more significant and harmful characteristic. "Some people talk about gentrification as investment ... but if lower-income people aren't displaced, then it's not gentrification," Samara said.

In other words, when we talk about the harms of gentrification, we're really talking about displacement. To that end, displacement also needs to be defined. Cash notes that the concept should be expanded to include "anytime anyone is forced to move against their will."

In the East Bay, that can look like a range of things. "It's not just eviction but a lot of other ways," Cash said, noting extreme rent increases and landlords pressuring tenants to move by, say, ignoring requests for maintenance. "That leads to exclusionary displacement," she continued, "so neighborhoods are designed as exclusionary to low-income people because rents are so high, people are excluded from moving in."

How did the East Bay begin to gentrify?

Although gentrification in the East Bay may seem like a recent occurrence, its roots go back much further. The Urban Displacement Project notes that there are several historic examples of institutionalized racism that created the conditions for gentrification, including redlining — a system of real estate investment that began in the 1930s and resulted in people of color being denied access to home loans. Cash said their research found that 83 percent of today's gentrifying areas in the East Bay were once rated as "hazardous" or "definitely declining" by the federal Home Owners' Loan Corporation — euphemisms referring to non-white neighborhoods where the financial system refused to extend credit to homebuyers.

Realtors sometimes rename these formerly redlined neighborhoods to make them more appealing to new residents. As Azucena Rasilla and Darwin BondGraham report, sometimes historic names are brought back while others are entirely made up.

Urban renewal projects, such as highway expansions that cut through neighborhoods, also paved the way for public and private disinvestment. In West Oakland, the BART tracks on 7th Street, which destroyed the area's Black business district, are one example.


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