Gentrification Is Making Us Sick

Oakland activists are working with the Public Health Department to create a vision of healthy development without displacement. Also, Just Cause won a landmark victory with the Tenant Protection Ordinance that will protect thousands of tenants from harassment by landlords -- the first protection for Oakland tenants in more than a decade.
“Seniors can’t wait for housing.” Photo credit: CJJC

“Seniors can’t wait for housing.” Photo credit: CJJC

by Zoë Levitt

The Alameda County Public Health Department has witnessed the health consequences of gentrification for years. As Oakland neighborhoods have become less affordable and housing resources have decreased, the health threats have increased for the county’s most vulnerable residents.

Case managers in the health department’s home-visiting programs have heard numerous stories of low-income clients being threatened with eviction if they complain about housing conditions that contribute to asthma and other health issues, as Amy Scholinbeck described in her testimony at the Oakland City Council on Oct. 14, 2014.

Many of our clients have been forced into areas where services are less accessible and still others have been pushed into homelessness — a devastating scenario for health.

Gentrification and displacement have also come up repeatedly in the work of Place Matters, a community-centered local policy initiative of the Alameda County Public Health Department (ACPHD). This initiative was built on the recognition that the places where we live critically shape our health. Social inequities drive health inequities, and policies and institutions are largely responsible for the vastly unequal conditions faced by people based on race, income, and geography.

Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson’s office and ACPHD launched Alameda County Place Matters in 2006, at the invitation of the national Place Matters Initiative, now part of the National Collaborative for Health Equity.

Over the years, it has become clear that while Place Matters and our community partners were successfully engaging the issues of housing, land use, and transportation policy to improve health, gentrification was undermining those efforts by displacing longtime residents and preventing them from benefiting from neighborhood and city-level policy change.

The Power of Partnership

When Causa Justa::Just Cause (CJJC) approached Place Matters in 2012 to work on a report about development without displacement, it was a perfect opportunity to deepen our understanding of the causes and consequences of gentrification as well as the role of public health in responding to the crisis.

Our organizations had built a strong partnership, starting with a joint effort to prevent water shut-offs in foreclosed homes in 2006 and leading to our ongoing work to improve tenant protections and code enforcement practices in Oakland. We also co-authored a report on the public health impacts of foreclosure in 2010.

Our extended partnership taught us what was possible when we pooled our different powers. CJJC has people power, organizing strategy, and a deep political analysis of the housing crisis developed through years of resident and community organizing on the ground. ACPHD can bring public health data, access to technical resources, and institutional credibility to reach and convene a broad audience. Together, we could build stronger evidence and advance more effective policy campaigns.

When CJJC released their report, Development without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area last spring, a number of reporters focused on the public health angle of the story.

Through a year-long partnership between CJJC and Place Matters involving resident interviews, local data, and research, we learned that gentrification has serious impacts on the health and well-being of longtime residents of gentrifying neighborhoods, displaced individuals and families, and eventually, on our broader society.

Impacts of Gentrification

Some of the impacts of gentrification in the East Bay include rising rents, economic hardships, evictions, foreclosures, displacement of black households, and a loss of social and economic supports that can save lives.

Rising rents cost elderly residents and people on fixed incomes over 50 percent of their income and force them into difficult budget trade-offs, such as paying for electricity but not heat. Gentrification can cause overcrowding, increase tenant harassment and eviction, and exacerbate discrimination in the housing market. It can also lead to closures of vital community-serving businesses and institutions.

Foreclosures combined with gentrification have deeply affected the wealth and well-being of the African-American community in Oakland. Between 1990 and 2011, Oakland’s black population decreased from 43 percent to 26 percent, the largest drop by far of any group.

During the same period, more than 2,000 black households were displaced from North Oakland, while homeownership, a significant wealth-building opportunity, dropped and renters grew among the city’s black population. Income and wealth are among the strongest determinants of health, as they enable access to multiple health-promoting resources and opportunities, which accumulate over generations.

Displacement and its discontents

Displacement is financially burdensome and psychologically taxing, particularly on the poor and elderly. Moving at any age reduces social supports and increases stressors, but the longer one has lived in a neighborhood, the more likely one is to experience anxiety or depression after a move, hence elderly residents are at greatest risk of social isolation and depression due to displacement.

Displacement disrupts access to education, employment, health care, and healthy neighborhood amenities. Residents forced to move may face longer commutes to work or school, leading to increased stress, loss of income, job loss or greater school dropout rate. Displaced residents may have trouble obtaining medical records, prescriptions, and affordable health care services.

Displacement can also mean relocation to neighborhoods with fewer health-promoting resources, such as high-quality jobs, healthy food options, accessible public transit, and safe and walkable streets.

Displacement fractures the social and economic supports that can save lives. In CJJC’s report, the case of the elderly resident saved from a diabetic coma by a neighbor who shared coffee with her on a daily basis is a clear example of the neighborhood relationships and rituals that are disrupted by displacement and critically important to health.

Displacement can also mean the loss of political voice, as residents lose their ability to shape the future of the city from the place where they socialize, work, or pray.

Gentrification is the latest in a string of urban policies causing “serial displacement” of communities of color through disinvestment and disruption. [See “Serial Forced Displacement in American Cities: 1916-2010” by M.T. Fullilove and R. Wallace, Journal of Urban Health, 2011.]

This repeated upheaval and dispossession in the name of development has profoundly undermined the support systems needed to survive and thrive and impacted health and well-being across generations.

Displacement also harms society as a whole by increasing metropolitan segregation and inequality, which contributes to poorer health outcomes for all. As urban residents are forced into neighborhoods with less accessible public transit, displacement may also increase driving and greenhouse gas emissions for the region. (Gentrification Is Making Us Sick, continues in next column)

 


 Sidebar

Defining the Terms of the Struggle: Gentrification and Displacement

Gentrification is the profit-driven race and class remake of urban, working-class communities and communities of color that have suffered from a history of disinvestment and abandonment. This process is driven by private developers, landlords, businesses and corporations and supported by the state.

Displacement is the out-migration of low-income people and people of color from their existing homes and neighborhoods due to social, economic, physical, or environmental conditions that make their neighborhoods uninhabitable or unaffordable.

— Definitions from CJJC’s report Development without Displacement, available at www.cjjc.org

For more information on Place Matters, see www.acphd.org/social-and-health-equity/policy-change/place-matters.aspx

 


 Sidebar

The Destructive Impact of Gentrification

At a recent discussion hosted by CJJC and Place Matters, an Alameda County employee and lifelong Oakland resident illustrated the unhealthy and unjust consequences of gentrification with the following personal story.

As a young person growing up in West Oakland, he and his friends wrote repeatedly to City Hall requesting improvements to a park where they played basketball, but to no avail. It was only decades later that the City initiated major landscaping and improvements to that park — alongside the introduction of several market-rate housing developments, the influx of whiter, wealthier, and more politically connected residents, and rising rents.

When residents who have lived, worked, and contributed to their neighborhoods for decades in the face of disinvestment aren’t able to stay and benefit from change, such development is neither healthy nor sustainable.

At a Baptist church in West Oakland recently, I learned that 60 to 70 percent of the congregants had been displaced to other cities around the Bay, which meant that they could not vote in their city of worship, even though many of them would have liked to support increasing Oakland’s minimum wage.


 

Tenants

Staff from the Alameda County Public Health Department speak out on the health impacts of displacement at a Tenant Justice Campaign rally outside Oakland City Hall. Photo credit: ACPHD

 

Tenants’ Rights Movement Wins New Law in Oakland

by Robbie Clark

On November 5, 2014, the Oakland City Council approved the Tenant Protection Ordinance (TPO), a landmark policy victory that will protect thousands of Oakland’s tenants from landlord harassment.

The TPO resulted from the work that Causa Justa::Just Cause (CJJC) has been doing with the Alameda County Public Health Department’s Place Matters program. It was a key policy solution highlighted in CJJC’s Development Without Displacement report released earlier this year. [See http://www.cjjc.org/en/publications/report]

Dan Kalb, councilmember for District 1, sponsored the ordinance, which was approved by five out of eight councilmembers last November.

The TPO is a major win for the Bay Area tenants’ rights movement and a critical step forward in ensuring that Oakland’s longtime residents are not displaced by new development. It’s part of a growing tenant justice movement, which includes establishing a rent cap and limiting rent increase pass-throughs for Oakland’s tenants.

It was also the first tenant protection policy to be approved in Oakland in more than a decade. Previous protections, such as the rent stabilization program and just cause evictions, only applied to tenants in units built before 1983. The TPO extends to all rental units built up until 2014, with the exception of owner-occupied buildings and nonprofit-owned housing.

The TPO is also a win for immigrant rights and the fight for healthy housing conditions for all because it specifies 16 categories of harassment, including threatening to report tenants to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and refusing to make basic repairs deemed critical for the health of tenant families, seniors, and immigrants.

The TPO includes attorney fees for tenants forced to take landlords to court and obliges landlords to pay damages if found in violation of the ordinance. It also requires the City of Oakland to track tenant complaints across the board in order to accurately assess the scale of the issues faced by Oakland tenants.

The fight for healthy housing for Oakland tenants is far from over, but the TPO is a good start. We will continue to demand that the city prioritize resources for enforcement of tenant rights and establish an administrative program to directly fine landlords who harass Oakland tenants and violate tenant protection laws.

Robbie Clark is an organizer of Just Cause :: Causa Justa.




 

(Gentrification Is Making Us Sick, continued)

 

Profit-driven Gentrification

In their report, CJJC points out that development is the investment of resources, services and infrastructure. This is something all neighborhoods and communities deserve, but for decades it has been denied to many areas based on the race and class of their residents.

Gentrification, by contrast, is the profit-driven transformation of working-class communities and communities of color that have suffered from a history of disinvestment and abandonment.

It’s not inevitable, but a result of decades of government policy and practice, which give private developers and incoming affluent residents more resources and political voice than longtime residents, compounded by policy shifts that have massively eroded funding for affordable housing and diminished the ability of public institutions to protect and provide for our most vulnerable residents.

In order to truly prevent gentrification and displacement, a new approach to development is needed, and public health departments have a role to play in this shift.

Creating healthy development without displacement

Public health departments have long worked in partnership with other public agencies to initiate neighborhood change in the name of health. While many of these changes have been positive, too often government-supported neighborhood change has excluded and displaced existing residents.

Public health departments have a history of involvement in destructive policies like Urban Renewal, which displaced thousands of black residents and businesses from urban centers in the name of “blight removal.” [See “Public health, the APHA, and urban renewal,” by R.P. Lopez, American Journal of Public Health, 2009.]

Our historic role in this racialized period of mass displacement demands that we make the prevention of displacement central to current work to build healthier communities — including partnerships between urban planners and public health to increase opportunities for physical activity, public transit access, healthy food access, and safe and walkable streets. Otherwise, these efforts may simply reproduce the unjust patterns of the past.

Dr. Muntu Davis, county health officer and director of ACPHD, said in an interview last summer: “Preventing displacement may be the single greatest challenge and the most important task in our efforts to create healthy communities for all.”

There is much work to be done to bring about healthy development and public agencies cannot and should not do it alone. Community organizations, advocates, and residents throughout the Bay Area have advanced a powerful movement for development without displacement and secured a number of exciting victories in recent months.

CJJC and the Tenant Justice Campaign secured improvements to Oakland’s rent regulations last spring, and more recently, won the adoption of the Tenant Protection Ordinance, which will protect thousands of tenants from landlord harassment, a common cause of displacement. Together, these represent the only legislative advances for tenants’ rights in Oakland for over a decade.

Other promising actions underway include a community-based planning partnership to create “Healthy Development Guidelines” for Oakland — a joint effort between East Oakland Building Healthy Communities (under the leadership of Communities for a Better Environment, CJJC, East Bay Housing Organizations, and HOPE Collaborative), ACPHD, and the City of Oakland Planning Department, with technical assistance from ChangeLab Solutions. This multi-year resident engagement process will result in a tool that city planners can use to ensure that new developments meet community-identified priorities for health equity.

Many other exciting efforts are happening across the region. In both Contra Costa and San Mateo Counties, local health departments are raising displacement as a health issue, supporting anti-displacement community organizing, and providing policy and technical support to cities facing displacement pressure.

Public health departments and community organizations can and should strive to be allies in community-led struggles for development without displacement. To support these efforts, public health departments can provide public health data, research, and analysis to document the significance of displacement and the health consequences it brings. This means addressing all the reasons residents are forced to move — including lack of opportunity, habitability and affordability.

We can also provide testimony at public meetings and convene institutional and community partners to advance needed policy change such as tenant protections and affordable housing preservation, among other solutions.

Ultimately, our healthy development efforts should focus on ensuring that existing residents have the voice, opportunities, and resources they need to be healthy and thrive in the places and communities they already call home.

As Maria Poblet, executive director of CJJC, stated in “The Struggle for the Flatlands: How Oakland Can Fight Gentrification”: “The struggle for stable, habitable homes needs to be a collective one; a people-powered process that shows us our power as creators of community instead of as consumers; a process that city officials accompany us in as allies of the people they represent; a process that builds grassroots institutions through which we build long-term progressive political power and grow in community with each other in the city we call home.”

In this collective struggle, the task of public health departments is to see our role as allies of the people and use our institutional powers to protect health and well-being for all — including the right to stable, affordable, and healthy homes and neighborhoods.

This article first appeared in Race, Poverty & the Environment, published by Reimagine! Movements Making Media ).

Zoë Levitt is the Local Policy Associate at the Place Matters Initiative of the Alameda County Public Health Department.

Special thanks to members and staff of Alameda County Public Health Department and staff and members of CJJC. Special thanks to Katherine Schaff, Tram Nguyen, Robbie Clark, Anna Lee, Kimi Watkins-Tartt, Dawn Phillips, Alex Desautels, and Will Dominie.

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