Affordability of Bay Area housing is now at an all-time low. According to the California Association of Realtors, only 16% of our region’s households can afford a median-priced home, and this number drops as low as 12% for households in Contra Costa and San Mateo Counties and 10% in San Francisco.1 While economic growth has soared in recent years, housing growth has not. Nearly 500,000 new jobs were created in the Bay Area between 1990 and 2000, yet less than 200,000 new housing units were built.2 This imbalance, coupled with accelerating gentrification, has the potential to further exacerbate housing affordability, especially for the urban poor and communities of color.
In the 20th century, African Americans participated in the migration from rural communities into the city, only to watch the inner cities become dilapidated from lack of investment and destroyed by the inopportune sighting of highways and mass transit as suburbs grew up around the city core. This trend was enabled by the advent of low-cost automobile transportation and GI bills for whites returning from WWII. The preeminence of the automobile in transportation was greatly assisted by an alliance between General Motors, Firestone, Chevron, and several other companies to buy and rip up streetcars systems throughout the country under the guise of a front company. For most of the second half of the 20th century, white flight and exclusionary blockbusting practices were in full effect as 90% of development and 75% of new jobs went to suburbia. Hence, suburban sprawl and job sprawl were added to the American lexicon. Social critic Jim Kunstler notes that today’s U.S. economy is centered on the building, servicing, and accessorizing of suburbia.
Today a counter-trend seems to be emerging; sprawl is on the defensive, being assailed for its many shortcomings while more attention is focusing on the urban areas. Affluent people and companies previously located in the suburbs are returning to the city. Some call this “regentrification,” meaning the “gentry” is moving back, reclaiming the city from its poor and less powerful inhabitants. The term is controversial as it implies that the people moving in are a higher class in terms of culture and morality. This phenomenon is also referred to as urban renewal. Yet neither term adequately encapsulates the reality of what happens to the displaced residents.
Whether by choice or economic reality, large swaths of former inner city Bay Area inhabitants have been moving to suburbia with large standardized houses and long commutes. It’s happening all over the Bay Area, in West Oakland, East Palo Alto, and Bayview Hunters Point. To be sure, a sign of achievement in the black community has been moving out of the hood, and the large tract homes in outer Contra Costa and Solano counties are certainly luxurious by global standards – now averaging around 2,500 square feet.
Bayview Hunters Point, along with nearby Visitation Valley and the Outer Mission district, house 73% of San Francisco’s African-American population. In April 2006, San Francisco Redevelopment Agency commissioners unanimously approved a plan to redevelop 1,400 acres in Bayview Hunters Point. At an earlier hearing, several public commentators described the Redevelopment plan as “a social hurricane...sweeping people out of their homes.”3 The plan now awaits Board of Supervisor ratification. Many in the African American community fear Bayview Hunters Point will suffer a similar fate as the Fillmore in the mid-1960s, where the Redevelopment Agency used eminent domain-style gentrification to remove poor residents.
Accelerating migration to urban centers – and if not properly managed, gentrification – will almost certainly flow from escalating energy prices. As the costs of gasoline and other aspects of the suburban infrastructure escalate, higher income suburbanites will find the possibility of living closer to their workplace or transit increasingly enticing and more economically viable than the suburbs. Using funds from their suburban home sales to secure a spot in the city will be a no-brainer for many, even before a full scale energy crisis is upon us. Popular culture will shift, further embracing the “urban lifestyle” as money, resources, and people flow into previously marginalized areas.
As economic localization reshapes the Bay Area economy and landscape, policies must be in place to ensure that the seemingly inevitable energy-driven urban migration works for existing residents. Can change be managed to yield cities that are more self-reliant in energy, food, and manufacturing; less energy intensive for private transport, and more inclusive and equitable? Affordable housing (as well as jobs) is often thought of as the best ways to stave off gentrification. At the same time, any housing needs to be built in the context of a community redevelopment effort for a post-fossil fuel-based future (see section on Transportation).
The continuing and accelerating urban migration could provide the impetus for relocalizing the urban landscape, thereby providing much needed affordable housing and simultaneously reconfiguring communities for less private transport and energy. Socially just urban development emphasizes sufficient affordable housing to accommodate the existing residents and their children within the context of a community featuring all important social institutions within walking distance, including local food markets, effective public schools, libraries, recreation areas and parks, health clinics, locally rooted retail, service, and manufacturing businesses, and churches, as well as access to public transit. The new housing complexes should follow the latest green building standards and ecological design principles, incorporating urban agriculture, local energy generation, and gathering areas. Construction services and materials should be sourced from locally-owned, ecologically committed companies and local materials suppliers to the greatest extent possible.
In such a transition, co-housing could further reduce energy consumption, reduce living costs, and build community. In co-housing, each family has a private living and sleeping areas, as well as access to common areas for dining and other activities. Because some meals and other activities and tools are shared, energy consumption and cost of living can be significantly lower. Housing cooperatives could provide another means for making home ownership a possibility for lower income residents.
3 Carol Harvey, “Bayview and Redevelopment: A Two-Part Series,” BeyondChron.com, March 30, 2005, http://www.beyondchron.org/news/index.php?itemid=3102.