Skyrocketing rents and home prices, fueled by a lack of housing, have displaced many in the Bay Area. Photo: Janis Mara

At first blush, Happy Skywalker would seem like just the kind of person who makes Berkeley distinctive. As a homeless teenager, she taught herself web-development skills using the free computer in the library, and she once ran for City Council.

But, like so many Berkeley residents, she found herself on the wrong end of an eviction notice in 2017. She fought the eviction, but after six months, worn out, she stopped fighting, cashed in her life savings and bought a motorhome to live in. She now travels from state to state working web assignments remotely, though disabling health issues limit how much she can work and hence earn.

“It’s amazing the number of people who have had to move away.” — Laura Lane

While Skywalker’s case is an extreme example, social workers and other experts say rising rents and home prices in Berkeley and the Bay Area have displaced thousands of people in recent years.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and representing tenants in Berkeley. It’s amazing the number of people who have had to move away,” said Laura Lane, who was director of the housing practice at the East Bay Community Law Center for 20 years. The center’s housing program focuses on defending eviction lawsuits brought against low-income tenants, emphasizing defense of long-term tenancies to preserve the value of rent-controlled units.

In the 12 months between April 2017 and April 2018, Lane said, the housing program has assisted 1,539 people in Oakland and Berkeley with eviction cases or rent increases.

“Since the spikes in rent and the surge in the rental market over the last six years, we have seen an increasing number of people who are either unable to afford new units if they are displaced, or extremely concerned about being displaced based on their ability to remain in the central Bay Area if they are evicted,” said Brendan Darrow, a staff attorney with Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board.

More jobs but not enough housing

It’s easy to see what’s behind the skyrocketing rents. As of early 2016, the Bay Area economy had added 480,000 private-sector jobs over the previous five years, but only 50,000 housing units, according to the San Francisco Planning Urban Research Association.

“Much of price growth is driven by scarcity,” Alex Casey, a policy adviser for Zillow, told Berkeleyside earlier this year. “What the data show, when you look at the community as a whole, if you are not adding new units, then you are going to see existing units become more and more pricey and unable to sustain the current community members.”

Though rent growth has eased in recent months, the median rent in Berkeley was $3,500 as of April 30, according to real-estate site Zillow.

In the San Francisco metro area, which includes Berkeley, the median rent now requires almost half of the median income – 42% – according to Zillow. From 1985 to 2000, the median rent required 31% of the median income.

For these reasons, Skywalker said, she was willing to live in what she described as a run-down apartment.

“It was a complete shithole, but I could afford it,” she said.

African Americans affected more

While Skywalker is white, there is considerable evidence that the African-American population of Bay Area cities has been disproportionately affected.

“Absolutely the bulk of people served by the Law Center are African-American,” Lane said.

Between April 2017 and April 2018, 802 of the 1,539 Berkeley and Oakland residents who contacted the Law Center for help, 0r52%,  were African-American, Lane said. Of the remaining clients, 12% were Hispanic, 3% were white and the rest encompassed a number of different demographics, according to Lane.

In 2010, there were 14,007 African Americans in Berkeley, comprising 13.6% of the total population of 102,743 people, according to the U.S. Census. By 2016, that number had fallen to 11,241, or 10% of the total population of 112,580 people.

In contrast, the percentage of white people in the population remained essentially the same, going up just a tad from 59.2%, or 60,797 white people, in 2010, to 59.5%, or 66,996 white people, in 2016.

The drop in the African-American population was even more marked in Oakland. In 2010, the population was 35.7% African-American out of a total of 399,484 residents. There were 142,460 African-American people in the city – plummeting to 109,471, or 28%, in 2016, out of a total of 390,724 people, according to the census.

In 2010, there were 125,013 white people, or 31.3% of the population, in Oakland. By 2016, the white population had increased to 134,925, or 34.5% of the population.

A number of factors are behind the drop in the African-American population, according to Chris Schildt, chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission and one of the country’s foremost experts on displacement.

She noted that while there is a booming economy for some in the Bay Area, there is an increasingly difficult economy for many.

“Those with college degrees working in the tech industry, those who have six-figure salaries, can afford to bid up the price of housing while the tech economy relies on minimum-wage workers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, all those who are not making six figures — but we are all competing for the same housing,” Schildt said.

And then there’s history. Schildt cites The Color of Law, a 2017 book by Richard Rothstein, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute, which documents early federal, local and state government policies that mandated racial segregation.

In the book, Rothstein demonstrates that the Federal Housing Administration, established in 1934, furthered these segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods — a policy known as “redlining.” The FHA also subsidized builders who were mass-produced housing developments for whites with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to African Americans.

“People might say we eliminated all that in the 1960s by passing the Fair Housing Act. But we never remedied the harm we created,” Schildt said.

Redlined neighborhoods with high populations of African Americans were allowed to languish until the market was interested in those places, according to Schildt.

“In Berkeley, in Oakland, in San Francisco, in every major city in the country where we have had this systematic disinvestment based on race, we let that underinvestment stay until the market was interested in those places,” Schildt said.

“We have suppressed the land values, suppressed the ability of people in those communities to build wealth or have good jobs and now what we’re seeing – this started happening 15-20 years ago — is a combination of real estate investors and white people moving into the area and saying, ‘Oh, look at this bargain,’” Schildt said.

This situation is a combination of federal, state and local politics and structures of real estate investors and speculators combined with white and economically well-off communities having an interest in living in those places, according to Schildt.

She said there can be a tendency to say it’s one or the other, “and it really is both working together. The remedy needs to happen at a structural and policy level.”

Berkeley adds funding to stem displacement

Berkeley, in recognition of the increasing pressure on renters, allocated $650,000 in June 2017 to help people facing the loss of their apartments. The funds are for legal help in evictions, financial assistance to help people in rental arrears and displacement protection, according to Karina Ioffe, communications director for Mayor Jesse Arreguín.

Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board also offers an array of services to both tenants and landlords. The Berkeley City Council appears to be leaning toward placing a bond measure on the November ballot, too, that would pay for affordable housing.

The Oakland City Council allocated $2.2 million for anti-displacement services, but a bookkeeping error meant the funds were not dispersed, according to the East Bay Express. The city is now planning to expedite the distribution of the funds.

Possible repeal of Costa Hawkins

Schildt and Lane said repealing the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act is one possible remedy.

In November, Californians will vote on whether to repeal the 1995 housing law. Costa Hawkins prevents rent control from covering any property built after 1995. Also, it mandates so-called “vacancy decontrol,” which allows landlords to raise rents to market rate after a tenant moves out of a rent-controlled unit.

“Costa Hawkins prevents those cities that want to protect their low-income communities from enacting stronger rent control provisions,” Lane said. She added, “Repealing the act is the most important thing that needs to happen right now.”

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Janis Mara covers East Bay real estate as a freelancer for Berkeleyside. She has worked at the Oakland Tribune, the Marin Independent Journal, the Contra Costa Times, Adweek and Inman News, an Emeryville-based...