Race, Poverty, and the Environment
The City of Oakland, California, is sometimes compared to a good model car that, for strange reasons, never seems to be able to give uninterrupted service or get up to full speed on the highway. Strategically located and blessed with an interesting, industrious, creative, and diverse population, a wonderful climate, spectacular views, and the perfect blend of city, marsh and woodland hills, Oakland ought to be one of America’s jewels. It is not. Instead, it is often described as a city of missed opportunities and wasted resources. Nothing exemplifies that description more than Oakland’s treatment of the structure originally known as its Civic Auditorium (renamed the Kaiser Convention Center in 1984).
After years of bungled management, Oakland closed the 98-year-old cultural treasure in 2005—at the same time it was pouring redevelopment money into rehabilitating and reopening another entertainment venue, the Fox Oakland Theater in the rapidly gentrifying Uptown District. Then the city dithered for years over what to do with the Civic Auditotium before entering into a purchase-leaseback agreement with the Redevelopment Agency (RDA) in 2011, just in time for the statewide dissolution of the RDAs. In January 2012, the Auditorium became the target of the Occupy Oakland movement which staged a failed attempt to occupy the building and convert it into a social services center.
The foreclosure crisis has disproportionately impacted communities of color because people of color were sold adjustable rate mortgages at a higher rate than whites, even where income levels and financial risk were on par. The upshot of this predatory lending practice has been a massive dislocation of workers and families (most of whom considered their homes their only economic asset) side by side with an unprecedented transfer of wealth to financial institutions and the private sphere.
Advocates abroad call this type of activity by a name more familiar to the third world—a land grab. Multinational corporations have acquired 15 to 20 million hectares of land in wholesale purchases in the global south to establish large-scale industrial farms for food and biofuels.
Closer to home, in the Detroit area, speculator John Hantz is trying to purchase 200 acres to create a large corporate farm. Indeed, land grabs have been afoot for some time within postindustrial landscapes from where capital has fled in search of cheaper labor. What makes the current land grabs especially troubling is the opportunistic use of the tsunami of foreclosures by banks to seize properties. Their willful enablers in this transfer of assets have been the states and their housing policies, ostensibly created to reduce the number of vacant bank-owned properties by converting them into rental units.
Foreclosures: Excellent Investment for Some
A handful of fast-growing real estate management corporations are now stepping into the foreclosure crisis. Backed by billions of dollars in private equity, property management companies are viewing the crisis as a rare opportunity to amass tens of thousands of single-family homes and convert them into rentals—i.e. long-term high-yield investments. Beyond the stresses on families in neighborhoods experiencing the land grab, this nascent industry—promoted by federal policies—will in all likelihood facilitate the transfer of tens of billions in wealth from distressed homeowners—largely Black and Latino—to a few wealthy private equity firms.
Vultures! Vultures!” a middle-aged African American man yells at a Caucasian male in an expensive leather jacket and white button-down shirt. The man holds a clipboard with real estate listings—identifying him as an auctioneer.
A crowd of more than 100 has assembled on the steps of the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland as the auctioneer attempts to read out the list of properties to be auctioned publicly. But the crowd starts up a chant of “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” Musical instruments are played loudly, signs and banners are waved about, and the auctioneer is drowned out with hisses and jeers. The auctioneer endures the hazing for a few minutes, makes a whispered call on his cell phone, and ducks into the courthouse building. A long line of protestors immediately forms, preparing to follow him inside. A young African American male holds up an “Occupy Oakland” sign.
The auctioneer is told by a deputy that he cannot conduct his business in the building and there ensues a game of cat-and-mouse between him and the crowd as he attempts to conduct his business at a different spot outside the courthouse and the crowd splits up to hound him wherever he goes. Finally, the auctioneer leaves after another whispered phone call—presumably to a bank official—and the crowd moves on to another auctioneer, also identified by his clipboard. Having witnessed the crowd’s treatment of a fellow auctioneer, he leaves without attempting to read out the names of listed properties. A third auctioneer is also encircled and quickly shouted down.
As the U.S. economy slows, the likelihood of significant federal or local investment in new mass transit diminishes. But low- and moderate-income families depend upon housing close to transit to reduce their commuting expenses and improve access to jobs, schools, and other opportunities. Not surprisingly, the rental market has already begun to grow tighter in communities near existing transit and will most likely lead to escalating property values, making it more difficult to ensure long-term housing affordability.
Thousands of privately owned affordable apartments—both HUD-subsidized and unsubsidized—located near transit are at risk as property values rise. A 2009 AARP report co-authored by the National Housing Trust (nhtinc.org) and Reconnecting America (reconnectingamerica.org) claims that there currently exist over 250,000 privately-owned, HUD-subsidized apartments within walking distance of quality transit. However, over 150,000 of them are covered by federal housing contracts that will expire in 2014, which raises the possibility of their being converted to market rate housing as transit-oriented housing values rise.
These HUD-subsidized apartments house a very vulnerable population: The average annual income is less than $12,000; approximately 66 percent of residents are elderly or disabled; and most are people of color. In fact, low-income and people of color are about four times more likely to rely on public transit to get to work than middle class whites. Consequently, preserving transit-oriented housing is critical to maintaining access to jobs and resources for these disadvantaged populations.
The right to vote is under attack all across our country. Conservative legislators are introducing and passing legislation that: (a) creates new barriers for those registering to vote, (b) shortens the early voting period, (c) imposes new requirements for registered voters, and (d) rigs the Electoral College in select states.
On April 26, Urban Habitat hosted 120 Bay Area leaders for the annual State of the Region Conference at The California Endowment’s Oakland Conference Center. Social justice advocates came together to talk about equity, how to problem-solve, act, and organize.
Urban Habitat President and CEO Allen Fernandez Smith kicked off the event by celebrating the achievements of the more than 80 organizations in attendance, while outlining the important work being done in the region and all that still needs to be done moving forward.
The new Eastern Span of the Oakland to San Francisco Bay Bridge, with its signature single tower and 7 billion dollar plus price tag, is rising out of the bay waters, strengthening the connection between two of the region’s core cities. But even as the Bay Area adds another legacy architectural landmark to its skyline, questions about who benefits from this and other massive public investments remind us of the challenges we face in ensuring everyone’s right to enjoy the great resources and beauty that the Bay Area has to offer.
The annual Gross Regional Product (GRP) for the Bay Area is approximately $487 billion, the third largest in the country after Los Angeles and New York. Much of that economic activity is shaped and channeled by public policy decisions by government agencies at the local, state and federal levels. For example, in addition to construction of the Bay Bridge and the new San Francisco Transbay Transit Terminal, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) are currently in the process of deciding where and how $277 billion in public money will be spent over the next 28 years. These expenditures will shape everything from the frequency of bus service to the extent of suburban highway expansion.
Public Property — Popular Power
Wednesday, June 27, 2012 @ 6:00 p.m.
Pacific Coast Brewing Company
906 Washington St. @ 10th St.
Join us in conversation about the role of emerging majorities, Occupy, and the power of the public to create new political spaces.
Drink, eat, mingle! Meet the writers and editors behind the magazine. All ages invited (under 21 okay) and wheelchair accessible. Please R.S.V.P. to firstname.lastname@example.org for more info call (510) 839-9510 ext 303
The landscape at 14th and Wood streets in West Oakland has quite a story to tell about reclaiming a community’s future from industrial pollution.
Fourteenth Street, which runs through the downtown office district, ends at the sound wall bordering one of the busiest interchanges in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nearby, a historic train station that community activists fought to preserve from profit-driven redevelopment shows telltale signs of neglect: litter, broken windows, overgrown grass. The panoramic view of diesel trucks on the freeway framed by large gantry cranes at the Port of Oakland contrasts sharply with the new market-rate housing development next door.
The developer’s website offers a provocative vision for this newly rebranded area: “Once the end of the line for transcontinental rail passengers, Central Station will soon become a new kind of urban community: diverse, stimulating, and welcoming.” But environmental justice activists have a cautionary tale about the politics of infill redevelopment and smart growth that are ushering this neighborhood into a new era.
In a converted trucking facility across the street from the new housing development on 14th and Wood, a small but mighty community-based organization goes toe-to-toe with developers in the fight for the future of West Oakland.
History, Smart Growth, and Health
Margaret Gordon, cofounder of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (EIP), has long been a key community voice in redevelopment planning for the properties outside her office window. “The community has been through two different planning processes with the City around the train station development, and now we are on our third process,” she says. “Now the people in that new development next to it have different ideas. All these new residents see is an abandoned building... they don’t know about the baggage wing in that train station where the Pullman Porters did all their organizing because that was the only place that African-Americans were allowed to do so. We had to fight the City to not allow developers to tear it down and to put local hiring in place to make sure that residents will benefit.”