Pushed away from the Bay

April 7, 2014

Michael Chase provides the background for understanding the large out-migration of African Americans from San Francisco and other cities of the Bay Area.

OAKLAND, RICHMOND, East Palo Alto, San Francisco. These Bay Area cities have been renown historically for their African American majorities and/or their status as centers of Black culture and politics.

But long-term demographic changes have transformed the cities of the Bay Area. For more than a decade, the African American populations of these cities have been declining--and the trend is likely to continue, due to soaring housing costs, scarcity of employment opportunities, and real estate development.

The previous transformation of the Bay Area took place most profoundly during the Second World War--between 1940 and 1945, the Black population of the region increased by 600 percent. By 1950, 43,600 Blacks lived in San Francisco, up from 5,000 less than a decade earlier. Prior to the Second World War, Blacks accounted for just 3 percent of Oakland's Black population. By 1950, they comprised 13 percent of the total, and three decades later, Oakland had a Black majority.

Attracted by the prospect of employment in the West Coast shipyards and other government industries, the new arrivals had left behind the brutality of Southern states, where they continued to labor under near slave-like conditions, almost a century after the Civil War.

Anti-eviction protesters gather on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall
Anti-eviction protesters gather on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall (Steve Rhodes)

During the Second World War, shipyards such as Hunters Point in San Francisco, Kaiser in Richmond, Mare Island in Vallejo and Moore Dry Dock in Oakland employed Black Southerners to fill the labor void caused by the Second World War. Oakland also employed Blacks in the auto industry, and both Oakland and Richmond were home to railroad terminals. The Pullman Company based a facility in Richmond, and the company's porters formed the first union led by Blacks, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

After the war, as a result of anti-discrimination policies won through years of agitation, Blacks continued to comprise disproportionate percentages of the government workforce at all levels. But these are exactly the jobs that have been hit the hardest in the period of greater and greater austerity measures following the Great Recession.

This is one immediate factor connected to the decline of the African American population in Bay Area cities. Half of the 10 biggest employers in Oakland were in the public sector.

The industrial jobs that drew African Americans to the Bay Area are long gone. San Francisco's Hunters Point Shipyard was once a major employer, but its closure in the 1990s led to a drastic increase in unemployment--and an ongoing battle over the cleanup of toxic waste that has likely caused the increase illnesses suffered by residents who live nearby.

Former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's African American Out-Migration Task Force was charged with finding remedies for the long-term rise of unemployment and decline in the city's Black population. Its efforts came to naught. In fact, Newsom presided over a period of real estate redevelopment that increased Black migration from San Francisco. African Americans are at present 6 percent of the city's total population--yet they are 56 percent of inmates in San Francisco jails.

Another factor is the kind of jobs that have replaced industrial work. Between 1970 and 2000, low-wage industries have accounted for larger and larger proportions of Black employment, according to Steven Pitts, of the Center of Labor Research and Education at University of California Berkeley. Blacks workers, Pitts writes, have been stuck in:

dead-end jobs inasmuch as they do not link to better jobs either within the firm or at other businesses. Many of their jobs don't provide the on-the-job protection from employers' arbitrary decisions: a protection which comes from the presence of a union. As a result, many workers are forced to work multiple jobs in order to buy essential goods and services. Others are forced to choose between food and prescription drugs, between gasoline and decent child care, or between decent housing and college for their kids. The living standards for these workers and their families suffer as a result.

AT THE same time, the region's cost of living has gone up faster and faster, as a consequence of the rise of the tech industry.

The beating heart of the tech industry is Silicon Valley, centered in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties--as a whole, these counties rank among the highest in the nation in income inequality.

Critics charge the industry with both racial and gender discrimination. African Americans, Latinos and women are much more likely to encounter negative experiences in the workplace than whites, according to Vivek Wadhwa, a prominent Silicon Valley commentator, who notes that Blacks are only 1.5 percent of tech workers in the Valley. "The Silicon Valley elite...rarely get to interact with minorities, so stereotypes get propagated, which only serve to make the problem worse," says Wadhwa.

The experience of the city of East Palo Alto is an instructive one. It is located in San Mateo County, on the edge of the high-tech corridor that stretches from San Jose, north toward San Francisco.

During the 1960s, East Palo Alto was a majority Black city--community leaders once considered renaming it Nairobi after the Kenyan city, in honor of its residents' roots in Africa. But East Palo Alto's African American population suffered the same fate as those in San Francisco and Oakland--the city of around 25,000 people was economic depressed in the 1990s.

From that decade to the present, there has been a sharp decline in the Black population, which today accounts for less than 17 percent. Real estate redevelopment, rising rental costs and lack of employment are the major causes.

In the new century, East Palo Alto has been partially remade. Major retail outlets such as Ikea and Home Depot provide low-wage jobs for the most part. As part of the redevelopment process, around one-quarter of the city was bulldozed--including a section known as "Whiskey Gulch" that was home to Black-owned businesses. Now a Four Seasons luxury hotel occupies this space.

At one time, African Americans were drawn to East Palo Alto because of its inexpensive housing and lack of restrictive covenants against Black renters and homeowners. Now, though, developers are moving for the cheap real estate, creating a wave of gentrification that is driving out African Americans.

WHAT HAS happened in East Palo Alto is reflected in the experience of African Americans in San Francisco, only on a bigger scale and over a longer period of time.

By the 1930s, the Western Addition neighborhood, better known as the Fillmore, was already a Black cultural center. Because of an increase in redlining, Blacks remained concentrated in certain areas of the city, to become the victims of different real estate trends. The Fillmore, once known as the "Harlem of the West," would succumb to redevelopment in the 1950s.

Many of the Fillmore's residents moved to Bayview Hunters Point, in the southeast section of San Francisco, to be near the Hunters Point Shipyard. But the most recent trends have hit hard there.

The Bayview's median household income was estimated at $43,155 in 2009, almost half of the city's overall median, which was just under $80,000 in 2009. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Bayview was $1,875 a month as of last fall--meaning a family at the median household income was paying half of their paychecks for a median one-bedroom apartment, which is far above what's considered affordable housing.

African Americans are being pushed out of Bayview and other parts of San Francisco--quite literally. As Daniel Everett wrote in the San Francisco Bay View:

Studies carried out by the [Eviction Defense Collaborative (EDC), an organization that assists residents facing eviction lawsuits] in 2012 found that, although African Americans make up only 6 percent of the city's population, they constitute 29 percent of EDC's clients. No other racial or ethnic group is so grossly overrepresented in ejectment proceedings...

Of EDC clients for whom post-eviction information was available, only 18 percent were still living in their homes. Eighty-two percent had to leave their homes after an eviction lawsuit, and an estimated 34 percent had to leave San Francisco altogether.

AND NOW, San Francisco rental prices are crossing the Bay to Oakland--which the San Francisco Chronicle now calls a "real estate agent's dream."

West Oakland in particular has attracted young white singles and families. Condominiums and renovated Victorians abound--the gentrified neighborhood barely resembles the center of African American culture it once was, let alone the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. Meanwhile, "Oakland's Uptown district...benefited from artist-related activities," analyst Darren Smith told the Chronicle, "but only took off after an infusion of middle-class and upper-middle-class housing units that brought in more affluent consumers."

The consequence of this, of course, is the displacement of large numbers of working-class residents. As of the end of 2012, rent in an Oakland apartment complex with 50 or more units averaged $1,825 a month--a reflection of an overall jump in average rental prices of 19 percent in a single year.

With a median household income about half as large as for whites, Oakland's African American population has borne the brunt of the "real estate agent's dream." Already by the time the last census was taken in 2010, Oakland had lost a quarter of its Black population--33,000 people--over the previous decade. The out-migration has continued in the years since.

Overall, the real estate market for the Bay Area--and most of all, for San Francisco--has been likened to a "blood sport." In one recent Chronicle article, a real estate agent wondered if it was a bit much to pay $3,000 a month for 600- or 900-square-foot apartment. That's what the market, fueled by the tech boom, can bear--but it's increasingly unbearable for many residents, particularly African Americans.

While Bay Area cities are losing their Black populations, suburbs such as Antioch, Manteca and Tracy have experienced a surge in the number of African American residents, anywhere from 30 percent to 90 percent and more.

Indeed, for more than a decade, residents of San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda Counties have left for Central Valley communities to the east, in search of affordable housing. The prospect of home ownership brought many to Contra Costa County and Stockton still further east. But those who fell prey to brokers peddling sub-prime mortgages took the hit in 2008 and after--Stockton had one of the worst foreclosure rates in the country, affecting one in every 10 homes at the low point of the crisis.

This pattern of African Americans moving to the suburbs and exurbs, while well-off white professionals move to the cities is an ironic reversal of the white flight of the 1950s and 1960s, and a demographic rearrangement that resembles the urban centers of Europe--like Paris and London, with their affluent inner cities, surrounded by working-class suburbs.

But that is the program for San Francisco's business and political leaders. Mayor Ed Lee has made it a priority to encourage Silicon Valley firms to move north and relocate in San Francisco--and bring their employees, who then displace long-time residents by driving rents and the overall cost of living still higher.

Richmond, an East Bay city located north of Oakland, has experienced a 10 percent decline in its Black population in the last decade. But this city is implementing an innovative strategy to combat foreclosures.

The City Council voted to use eminent domain to assist homeowners who are "underwater" on their mortgages. As Jovanka Beckles wrote in the San Francisco Bay View: "Under the plan, mortgages would be reduced to a reasonable level that reflects their current value, which will give underwater homeowners some equity in the home and mortgage payments they can pay."

When the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) did the work of the landlords in threatening legal action against other cities considering the use of eminent domain to help homeowners facing foreclosure, the ACLU responded with a lawsuit. As ACLU attorney Linda Lye told the Chronicle: "Communities like Richmond particularly interested in principal reduction are disproportionately minority. The FHFA should tread carefully and looking at whether its conduct has an extra impact on communities of color. The general concern is that they would be effectively red-lined."

Interest in Richmond's eminent domain strategy has spread to San Francisco, and across the country to cities like Newark, N.J. Meanwhile, African American communities are continuing to challenge foreclosures and evictions at the grassroots. In Bayview, activists are demanding affordable housing and jobs as part of that community's redevelopment. And police harassment and violence have not gone unchallenged as the Black community that is left in the Bay Area fights for its future.

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