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California Reparations Task Force: Berkeley Housing Advocate to Highlight Sharp Decline in Black Residents

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A rent-controlled apartment complex at 3100 College Ave. in Berkeley. (Melati Citrawireja/KQED)

California’s reparations task force, a statewide group charged with developing recommendations that address the impact of slavery in the state, is scheduled to meet this week to discuss ongoing housing issues, such as gentrification.

The first of its kind in the nation, the task force was created through AB 3121, authored by then-Assemblymember Shirley Weber, now the state's first Black secretary of state. The task force has been investigating anti-Black discrimination in California that continued after slavery, working to educate the public on its research, determining the compensation for Black Californians, and drafting an apology. The task force also is researching: the history of environmental racism, where higher concentrations of pollution have been found in Black neighborhoods, and the devastating effects of white supremacy and overpolicing.

A man with a short afro wearing a red shirt.
Darrell Owens, a data and policy analyst at the nonprofit California YIMBY, will be giving expert testimony at the task force meeting Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2021. (Courtesy of Darrell Owens)

“More data shows that Black residents are leaving the state for other cities and states. You can’t give reparations to a group of people who no longer live in your state,” said Darrell Owens, a data and policy analyst at the nonprofit California YIMBY, which advocates for affordable housing. “This is the fundamental problem that the housing affordability crisis and gentrification is causing on Black Californians.

Owens, also an activist with East Bay for Everyone and a former commissioner on the Berkeley Housing Advisory Commission, is giving expert testimony at the task force meeting Tuesday. He talked about this with KQED’s Brian Watt.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brian Watt: What is your personal experience with gentrification?

Darrell Owens: The area that I grew up in Berkeley gentrified pretty heavily. Like [with] many Black families, we had to leave when we could no longer afford to keep our house.

If you're a Black family, and you live in a single-family home, or any home that you own, and you have a medical crisis that comes up, or a big bill that comes up, if you don't have a lot of income, the only asset of value you really have is your house. So reverse mortgages are a very common way in which a lot of Black families have been disappearing from places like Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco, because as soon as an emergency comes up, they need to cash in on the only asset they have value on — which is their house.

On your block of Berkeley, were the Black families who were leaving selling homes that they owned? Or were they simply unable to pay rent in homes they had been renting for almost generations?

I would say that the homeowners left first. And what a lot of people don't talk about in housing — and something I'm going to very much emphasize at the committee [task force meeting] — is that the “Big Bang” of gentrification in the Bay Area, a lot of people think, is the tech boom. But I was pretty stunned to see the census data show clearly that in many cases, in Oakland's case, twice as many Black residents had been displaced from Oakland or had left Oakland in the 2000s than in the 2010s.

The reason that's the case is because of the foreclosure crisis. We don't really talk a lot about how the foreclosure crisis was so impactful on the massive demographic decline. I remember, growing up in my neighborhood, foreclosure signs on every other block. And a lot of Black residents just packing up and moving to suburban areas outside of the Bay Area or leaving the metropolitan area altogether.

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In the short term, as you prepare to address this reparations task force, what do you hope gets achieved?

I hope that there's some reckoning with the current reality that we are losing Black residents and that so much discrimination against Black people in California has manifested through housing policy. Even when the Civil Rights Act was passed, all kinds of suburban communities installed single-family-only zoning so that they would never have any apartments in their communities where they thought Black people would live.

I want to be clear that there's a difference between a reparation and, say, a solution to the housing crisis. A reparation is to owe debt for the discrimination of state-sponsored attacks against Black Americans and slavery, of course, along with Jim Crow laws. A lot of that actually does intertwine with housing in the form of redlining and exclusionary zoning. So one of the solutions, in part, to help solve the housing crisis and reduce the burden on Black families is to build more housing. A lot of Black families are moving to other states where they're building lots of housing — notably places like Houston and King County in Washington. We want to make sure that we have an opportunity for Black families to continue in California, as well.

So when you think about policy decisions that could provide long-term solutions, what are you going to tell the committee?

In particular, there's a lot of talk about the new state law that allows for two homes in single-family zones. And though disproportionately single-family zones have whiter residents, in cases where there are Black residents living in single-family-only zones, there's a really intelligent way to go about helping Black families generate wealth without cashing out their homes, especially in highly gentrifying areas. The way is to build a duplex or a granny flat, an ADU [accessory dwelling unit], which will allow Black families to rent them out and collect money without actually cashing out on their homes and being forced to leave. So this is a way for a lot of Black families to get more income without having to cause their displacement.

California’s reparations task force is scheduled to meet Dec. 7-8. It’s open to the public. You can join virtually here.

To learn more about the housing crisis, listen to our podcast Sold Out: Rethinking Housing in America.



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