Richmond’s rent control advocates and opponents face off over gentrification
on April 17, 2015
Richmond is seeing better days. According to a recent research paper by UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute, homicides and violent crime were at historic lows in 2013, parks are being renewed, living conditions are improving and new investment money is flowing in. But what seems to be good news for the city’s just over 100,000 residents, the authors say, could even pose a threat to a large and deeply rooted community in Richmond: African Americans, who make up almost a quarter of the population.
As the city’s reputation is changing for the better, making it more appealing in the real estate market, the institute’s analysis, “Belonging and Community Health in Richmond,” warns that rising housing prices and a lack of housing regulations leave low-income African American tenants particularly vulnerable to eviction and, ultimately, displacement. “It is sad irony of a community that has struggled with really profound challenges for decades is now turning things around, and their historic residents are not going to be here to enjoy the benefits,” said Eli Moore, one of the authors and a program manager with the Haas Institute, which is part of UC Berkeley’s Division of Equity and Inclusion. The paper calls it “alarming” that the number of African American people in Richmond fell by 12,500 between 2000 and 2013, a drop of 35 percent. During that time the residency of Latinos and Asian Americans increased by 62 percent and 26 percent, respectively.
The authors–Moore, researcher and program manager Samir Gambhir, and research assistant Phuong Tseng–examined economic and housing trends in Richmond between 2000 and 2013, broken down for every neighborhood in the city. On the city level, the research team concluded that some trends show “troubling signs” regarding the housing market. Median household income in Richmond fell 15 percent, twice the rate experienced in Oakland and far more severe than the rates in El Cerrito and Berkeley. Homeownership decreased sharply in Richmond, only exceeded by the decrease in Vallejo and Antioch.
According to the study, large portions of the city are made up of low-income renters, and some 37 percent of renter households spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The research also mentions that more and more investors, who don’t plan to actually live in the units, are buying up property in Richmond, thereby increasing housing prices.
According to Zillow.com, an online real estate and rent marketplace headquartered in Seattle, the median home value in Richmond was $313,200 at the end of February, 2015, an increase of 22.9 percent over the past year. Zillow predicts that home values will rise another 7.1 percent within the next year. In their publication, Moore and his team warn that if regional trends in accelerating housing prices, and what they call persistent economic inequality, hit Richmond, a “substantial” part of the city would be vulnerable to displacement.
However, there is a prominent critic who rejects this thesis. Richmond Mayor Tom Butt calls the Haas Institute’s paper “poorly written” and said that “It jumps to some conclusions that are not supported by the data.” In his eyes, the main flaw is the conclusion that the African American population has relocated to other areas because rents in Richmond have increased and made living in the city unaffordable. Butt, who took over as mayor in the beginning of this year, points out that the research showed a large influx of Latino residents, many of whom, he said, have very limited income. “So if people were displaced by rents going up, why is the Latino population with lower income levels moving in?” he continued.
The mayor believes that the exodus of African American people from Richmond is not motivated by rising rents. “There are a lot of other explanations for it. One of them is that a lot of African Americans got an opportunity to move out of neighborhoods that were violent and they moved out to second or third ranked suburbs, where they got a bigger house, and a bigger backyard, and less crime, and better schools, and so forth,” said Butt.
Moore agrees that the Haas Institute’s research only shows that African Americans are moving away; it didn’t uncover why people were leaving or where they relocated. He said that in some cases, people are probably moving towards greater opportunities, better schools, safer neighborhoods or better air quality. But in other cases, people might be pushed out by the rising cost of living. “Anyway, they won’t be around to benefit from the improvements being made in Richmond,” said Moore.
The authors with the Haas Institute point to a well-known phenomenon in the Bay Area: Better living and housing conditions lead to a changing population, and affected neighborhoods end up having higher rates of predominantly white residents who are relatively wealthy and well-educated—a process referred to as gentrification. Moore and his team found out that areas in Richmond that are in the early or middle stages of gentrification overlap with areas with higher percentages of African American residents—namely North Richmond, the Hilltop area, and the Iron Triangle. According to Moore, the main threat to these communities is not gentrification itself, but one of its possible consequences: displacement. This is the case when the cost of living in an area leaves its low-income residents not being able to afford to live there any more, ultimately forcing them to migrate to places where costs–especially for housing–are significantly lower. “The demographic change in itself is not as much a concern as if it leads to people being involuntarily pushed out of a community that they feel a part and they like to stay in,” said Moore.
One of the core issues that makes Richmond’s residents susceptible to displacement, according to the Haas Institute, is eviction. “In Richmond you have a situation where there’s no regulation that governs under what conditions people can be evicted,” said Moore. Oakland and San Francisco, both cities that have been hit by massive waves of gentrification, have “Just Cause” eviction polices, which list a set of conditions under which a tenant can be rightfully evicted. “Richmond does not have that. They also don’t have rent stabilization whereas San Francisco and Berkeley have policies that say there’s a percentage cap on how much a landlord can increase the rent each year,” said Moore.
In 2009, the Richmond city council approved an ordinance that regulates evictions for people living in foreclosed homes. Plans for rent control and Just Cause eviction ordinances were discussed by the city council after that, but no regulations have been implemented.
But the issue seems to be heating up again. A recent case of a landlord increasing the rent for apartment buildings on Bissell Avenue sparked a partial rent strike by its residents, mainly low-income families, and brought the rent control issue back on the city’s political agenda. Vice Mayor Jael Myrick recently proposed a 45-day moratorium on rent increases and evictions, according to an article published this week by The Contra Costa Times news site. “We do expect displacement to happen if we don’t do anything, so this is our opportunity to get ahead of it,” Myrick told the publication. (Myrick did not return interview requests for this story.)
Mayor Butt objects to such regulations. He notes that San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, all cities that introduced rent control laws, today have rents that are among the highest in the country. “Somewhere there is a disconnect there,” said Butt.
He said that Richmond has the lowest rents in the area and that rent control would only apply to certain tenants, while the others could face even higher rents. Because of state law, buildings that were constructed after 1996 are not subject to rent control. So, he continued, tenants in Richmond could face different outcomes only based on where they happen to live and when they moved in. “It is like a lottery. One just got lucky and got rent control, the other one happened to end up here at a later time and didn’t,” Butt said. He fears that more regulation on the housing market would scare away developers and discourage the construction of new units, in his eyes the key to more affordable housing.
The East Bay Rental Housing Association (EBRHA), which represents rental property owners and managers in Alameda and the Contra Costa Counties, did not return interview requests for this article.
“I think that there’s a lot of emphasis on Richmond right now simply because it seems like there’s a sympathetic city council [towards rent control],” said Butt. He does not think that displacement is going to become a widespread problem in Richmond, and said that “The fact that something might happen is a very poor excuse for going out and making major policy changes.”
Anne Omura, an attorney and director of the Eviction Defense Center in Oakland, draws a very different scenario. She witnessed large-scale gentrification in Oakland in the 1990s, defending tenants who faced eviction. “It’s a déjà vu for someone like me who was around at ground zero of the housing wars in Oakland before we got Just Cause. And in Richmond we see the same trend,” said Omura.
According to the attorney, the organization’s clients from Richmond this year and last year were all African American or Latino. She estimates that the center currently has 50 clients from Richmond, and two to three new cases each month. “From our experiences, a lot of times the vulnerable populations are people of color. Particularly in Richmond, we are going to see African Americans and Latinos displaced,” said Omura, who also emphasized that the organization has been getting more calls from Richmond recently.
But it is not only African Americans and Latinos who are struggling with rent increases and eviction. “Many of our members are low-income renters and they won’t be able to automatically pay a couple of hundred dollars more in rent from one month to the other,” said Sandy Saeteurn, a community organizer in Richmond with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN). The Oakland-based organization works on environmental and social issues mainly in Asian and Pacific Islander communities. According to Saeteurn, APEN in Richmond mainly works with the Laotian community, which is to a large extent made up of low-income families.
The organization unsuccessfully pushed for rent control ordinance in the city in the early 2000s, said Saeteurn, and described how Richmond members of APEN were confronted with rent increases they were not able to pay. “Housing prices are just increasing over all, and so it was challenging for them to even find a new place to rent that was affordable,” said Saeteurn. She also said that such cases have been increasing among their members in the last couple of months.
Moore and Omura both say that people who are evicted often have to move further away, a pattern that could be observed earlier in San Francisco and Oakland. “What we hear is that people from Richmond are moving to places like Vallejo, Antioch, and Pittsburg,” said Moore. According to Omura, some of her clients have had to go as far as Sacramento to find areas where they can afford to rent.
Even if the cities are only a few miles away, tenants in Oakland and Richmond live in two different worlds when it comes to their rights, Omura says: “It’s just crazy to see, if you walk into an Oakland courthouse, how many rights a tenant has. We need to change that ideology in Richmond like we did in Berkeley, like we did in Oakland, like we did in San Francisco.”
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