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john a. powell and Lawrence Lanahan in conversation

New UC Berkeley report details history of racialized exclusion in Oakland housing

on November 11, 2019

When Burt Powell bought a house on Manila Avenue, Oakland, in 1923, his neighbors wanted to kill him—because he wasn’t white.

“We worked to watch over him for a period of about three months,” said E. A. Daly, a black newspaper publisher and real estate agent in Oakland. “After then things kind of quieted down.”                     

Powell’s story appears in a new report from the Othering and Belonging Institute, a University of California, Berkeley research center focused on fairness and inclusivity. The report, Roots, Race, & Place, shows how Bay Area communities, including Oakland and Richmond, were built through a history of exclusion and dispossession. This history—which forced people of color out of predominantly white neighborhoods—established massive racialized inequities in terms of who owned land, who had access to financing, and who held political power.

“From the beginning of the 20th Century there was a message from metropolitan regions to black people,” said Lawrence Lanahan, author of the recently published book The Lines Between Us. “And that message was that certain races belong in certain places.”

These policies continue to displace black Oakland residents. While black residents made up nearly half of Oakland’s population in 1980, that figure dropped to 28 percent by 2010. If the decline continues, it could fall to just 16 percent over the next decade, according to the U.S. Census. 

The UC Berkeley report shows how, over the past eight decades, Bay Area neighborhoods used different strategies to close off certain areas to certain residents.

Through a practice known as redlining, the federal government identified predominantly white areas as profitable real estate investments and heavily subsidized them, while simultaneously depriving predominantly black neighborhoods of similar assistance, according to the report. The practice of redlining began with the National Housing Act of 1934. But racial segregation and discrimination against minorities and minority communities pre-dated this policy, the report authors noted.

After the National Housing Act went into effect, local housing authorities, which controlled occupancy decisions and managed public housing, used informal quota systems that limited access to black applicants. In 1943, for example, the Richmond Housing Authority set a quota of four white households for every one black household. The inadequate supply of housing for black families required many to double up or illegally sublet, which, if discovered by the housing authority, was grounds for eviction.
In a talk last month with Lanahan, Othering & Belonging Institute director john a. powell, who spells his name with lower case letters, said that despite this long history, there are solutions that could help create more equal footing.

He told the story of Montgomery County, Maryland, where, for every building with more than 10 units, 15 percent must be affordable and 5 percent must be made available to people on public assistance. The units all must look alike, too, so no one can tell from the street which are low-income units and which aren’t.

“They have been doing this for over 40 years with really positive outcomes in terms of racial and economic integration,” powell said.

Oakland has also taken a step to ensure a more inclusive housing market. 

“The impact fee adopted in 2016 requires developers who want to build in our beautiful city to contribute to affordable housing,” said Gloria Bruce, executive director at East Bay Housing Organizations, an advocacy coalition promoting affordable housing in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

 “If you are building market rate homes, for every apartment building the developer pays an impact fee to the city and the fee goes into a fund for affordable housing,” Bruce said.

Affordable housing has been built for decades in Oakland.  With the current housing crisis, affordable housing helps keep people from leaving Oakland—the next time their landlord raises the rent and their housing becomes impossible to afford.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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