Analysis: It’s Time for Housing Justice for Our Black Communities

A photo of Karen Campbell as a young adult. She always dreamed of owning a home in Oakland where she grew up, but the housing prices were unaffordable, even on a middle-class income. Photo courtesy of Denzel Tongue.

My family’s history is deeply shaped by our nation’s history of discriminatory housing policies.

I’ve written about my grandfather’s story and about how redlining affected my family. But I never fully explored how this legacy continues to impact the housing situation of my family and many others. The legacy of redlining and housing discrimination has exacerbated California’s already devastating housing crisis for the Black community. As a result, California’s major cities stand to lose community members who have made some of the biggest contributions to our state’s rich culture.

At the heart of all this is one simple question: Does every Californian have a right to remain in the city that they call home?

My family history on my mother’s side is relatable for many African Americans. My grandfather, Dave Campbell (from Galveston, Texas), and my grandmother, Lillian Lane (from Memphis, Tenn.), both hailed from the South. Like many Black folks from their time, my grandparents and their families moved to the West Coast to escape the crushing racial prejudices of the Jim Crow era. My grandmother arrived in 1943 and my grandfather arrived around 1950. This mass exodus, known as the Second Great Migration, shepherded thousands of Black families to regions like the Bay Area, where they hoped for a better future and more opportunities.

Sadly, in California, many of these families faced redlining, discrimination and police brutality. Nonetheless, they settled here, helping to shape the Bay Area’s trendsetting culture, politics, and distinct sense of identity. In the decades that followed, Black residents in Oakland, where I live, created things as varied as the Black Panther Party to the musical and counter cultural Hyphy Movement. They led America’s fight against South African Apartheid, thanks to the leadership of Congressman Ron Dellums. Black Oaklanders also set down roots by building churches, opening popular small businesses and even creating an annual festival that helps all Oaklanders understand the role that Black cowboys played in American history. The Black community in my beloved city of Oakland has often been on the forefront of radical and cutting-edge politics and culture.

Now, Oakland is losing the identity that Black Oaklanders worked so hard to create. The city is hemorrhaging its Black population due to gentrification.

My mother’s story

To get a sense of how living in Oakland has changed over time, I talked to a longtime Black resident and the most reliable source I know: my mom. Karen Campbell was born and raised in in West Oakland and attended McClymonds High School. When she was growing up, in the 1960’s and 70’s, West Oakland was one of the few communities where working-class African Americans like my grandparents could afford to live and purchase a home. My mom hoped to do the same when she grew up. In 1990, the time came for her to leave her parents’ house, but housing prices had already begun to rise and she found herself with limited options.

Apartments near the centrally located Lake Merritt were far too expensive for her budget as a fast-food worker. The most affordable option was to rent in East Oakland, but my mom worried that the area – then ravaged by violence due to the crack cocaine epidemic – would be unsafe for a single woman living alone. With a heavy heart, she left Oakland and moved in with an uncle in San Jose who needed a roommate to split the rent with. She left behind her close friends, childhood home, church and community.

Author Denzel Tongue, left, and his mother Karen Campbell at a Golden State Warriors game in 2019. Photo courtesy of Denzel Tongue.

My mom continued to dream of one day owning a house in Oakland. But when she began the hunt for a home again in the mid-2000’s, now with a union job in the Alameda County Superior Court system and a middle-class income, there was nothing left within her price range. She did find an affordable option in Vallejo, 30 minutes north, but backed out after a lender attempted to sneak a balloon payment into the mortgage agreement that she never would have been able to pay.

Eventually, she did move back to West Oakland, but as a renter. Extended family had sold my grandparents’ home long ago, never imagining this would lock them out of the housing market indefinitely. Today, my mom rents a duplex owned by her childhood church, which generously keeps her rent low enough that she can afford it.

Many of my mother’s Black friends and coworkers who grew up in Oakland have not been so lucky. Although they still work in the city, some commute two to three hours each way from as far as Sacramento for work, church or community events. Many others have given up on the dream of homeownership and moved away for good.

An exodus of people of color

As I finish grad school, prepare to re-enter the workforce and plan for my future, I too must grapple with the issues that affected my mom, including unaffordable home prices and limited access to equitable financial support for homeownership.

The reality is that living in Oakland has slipped out of reach for many Black residents. This is happening across the state, as Black Californians move from urban cores to more affordable regions. But the Bay Area is seeing one of the largest exoduses of people of color. Of all large U.S. metropolitan regions, the Bay Area has the largest discrepancy in education and affluence between in-movers and out-movers. People moving to the Bay Area tend to be wealthier, highly educated and either White or Asian. In contrast, a disproportionate share of low-income out-migrants from the Bay Area are Black and Latino. Over time, this type of disparity deeply reshapes the sociocultural and economic makeup of communities, while also pushing historically oppressed groups to the peripheries and away from centers of economic opportunity.

It’s clear that housing unaffordability is a major factor that drives Black Oaklanders out of the city — so what can we do about it? I’ve written about nonprofit organizations like the Oakland Community Land Trust that seek to preserve low-income housing stock and promote wealth building by acquiring properties and selling or renting them at affordable rates. Land trust programs are helpful, but more needs to be done to address the systemic issues that impact Black Californians.

Policymakers need to go further in protecting Black Californians from predatory financial products like the one that was offered to my mom. And they need to expand programs that promote Black homeownership and housing affordability. Research has shown that non-bank financial institutions have grown greatly in recent years with 5 out of the 10 largest home lenders in California being non-banks. These types of lenders are not subject to the regulations present in the Community Reinvestment Act, a law passed in 1977 to reverse redlining and shield low and moderate-income communities from financial predation.

Poor access to credit, predatory financial practices and the nuances of the Bay Area housing market make homeownership challenging for many of the region’s Black residents. In California, Black residents access 3 percent of home loans despite making up more than 5 percent of the population. Many of the home purchase loans given to Black Californians are from non-bank lenders.

I support efforts amongst racial equity advocates to increase accountability by further regulating non-bank financial institutions through a Community Reinvestment Act for California. This would allow regulators to curtail racially discriminatory practices and also promote greater access to credit for Black households seeking to own or maintain their homes. Beyond this, policymakers must also continue to protect tenants and build affordable housing for low- and moderate-income Black families in cities like Oakland.

Oakland has been losing its Black residents for decades. Each loss represents a small tear in the rich cultural and social fabric that has held Oakland together for years. As housing costs continue to shatter the community and bleed Oakland of the rich culture that put it on the map, I fear for the city’s future. Now is the time for policymakers, housing advocates and residents to come together and protect that diverse tapestry that makes Oakland and cities like it great.

Denzel Tongue writes a column for the California Health Report about the intersection of racial justice, public policy and health equity. He is a master of public policy candidate at The Goldman School of Public Policy and a California Initiative for Health Equity Fellow.

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