In 2014, major development plans in the West Oakland, Chinatown, and Lake Merritt areas were approved by Oakland’s City Council as a means of addressing growth demand. These plans include both housing and commercial development. It is expected that these plans, once implemented, will beautify our community by providing new housing, retail shops, office space, and related infrastructure. As a Keep Oakland Beautiful board member, I say, ‘so far, so good.’
Area included in the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan.
However, while community development is desirable, it’s a complex and sensitive issue because, in creating change that is positive for many people, it is inevitable that some will be adversely affected. This can lead to significant gentrification of a community — a shift in a community’s lifestyle, resulting in a larger proportion of wealthier residents and/or businesses, along with increasing property values and, whereby, some less affluent residents are displaced from their homes and community.
The issue of gentrification is by no means new – just look at the history of the United States. As our country developed, immigration and westward expansion led to the removal of the aboriginal people from their homes and hunting grounds, ultimately driving them onto reservations. Even today, Native Americans, as a group, have not recovered from their imposed exile. They continue to lead the nation with the highest rates of poverty and unemployment of any ethnic group. Clearly, progress for many comes with significant consequences for some.
In the 21st century, I’d like to think that we’re enlightened enough to find solutions that can allow community development and existing residents to peacefully coexist, minimizing the amount of gentrification that might occur.
To be transparent, I want to state that I do not live in Oakland. Some might say that I have no right to express an opinion about this sensitive Oakland issue. I understand that point of view, but would offer that I’ve worked in Oakland for almost 15 years and I care deeply about the community and its diversity. That’s why I volunteer to be a Keep Oakland Beautiful board member, support local beautification projects throughout the year, and try to raise awareness of issues that affect the beauty and well-being of ‘our community.’
While I’m in favor of thoughtfully planned community development, I believe that the execution of those plans must provide some means of economic protection for current, ‘at-risk’ residents who wish to remain here. I think that providing new housing to meet current and future demand is a good thing. But, we run astray, if we build housing and then allow the rents of existing tenants to be raised because the neighborhood has improved (even when landlords spend no money to improve the current tenants’ apartments), causing the tenants to vacate their homes because they cannot afford to pay higher rent. The same is true for existing homeowners who may see their property values and property taxes substantially increase. While an increase in property value is viewed as an asset, it’s only of real benefit to homeowners if they sell their houses and move. The increased tax burden is, however, immediately felt.
Plans for new housing need to include affordable housing, too. Alameda County is one of the ten most expensive housing markets in the United States. We need a proper mix of housing to meet the needs of the entire community.
There are ways to mitigate the impact of community development on current residents, including rent control, tax subsidization, building affordable housing, creating jobs and training that would help existing residents increase their income, as well as other available economic and social programs. Mayor-elect Libby Schaaf seems open to solutions to the impact of community development on existing residents, stating that, “I’m very focused for the upcoming year on strategies to avoid displacement.”
Proposed mixed-use infill development along 7th Street commercial corridor. From West Oakland Specific Plan.
I suggest that we support Mayor-elect Schaaf, other elected officials, developers, community representatives, and other key stakeholders in collaborating to find common ground they can build upon and to identify and implement those ‘strategies to avoid displacement.’ If we work together and take the time to truly listen to one anothers’ perspectives and needs, we can have the community development we want, without unfairly impacting existing residents. As President John F. Kennedy said, “A rising tide floats all boats.”
Keeping Oakland Beautiful is everybody’s business.
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