Vicksburg, Mississippi It was hard to believe a friend’s claim that Oakland, California has now become one of the three most expensive cities in the country in no small part because the housing market has gone berserk. He said that Oakland now only followed New York City and San Francisco, and had bypassed Seattle, San Jose, and other famously, exorbitant cities. What happened here? Oakland used to be where people moved for affordable housing who couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco, famous for its port, industry, and blue collar grit, and Jack London. The city where Gertrude Stein famously stated, “there’s no there, there.”
But, now they are all coming there. Suddenly, it is also one of the most diverse cities in the country with the population almost evenly split between Latino, African-Americans, whites, and Asian-Americans, so much so that one controversy, when I recently visited, had to do with racial profiling of neighbors in the Nextdoor.com application that is used by one-third of this highly connected city, exposing the well-known, little discussed racism that stalks almost all of these sites with their constant alerts of anyone with a hoody and a tan.
Not without a fight though. Visiting the weekly paper, the East Bay Express, I picked up a recent issue featuring a cover story on one of Oakland’s biggest landlords, Michael Marr, who had specialized in vulture investing of foreclosed properties after the 2008 real estate crash, ending up with 333 houses and apartment buildings in the city with 1300 rental units under management. Now he’s in federal court though for what the FBI characterized as a conspiracy to “rig foreclosure auctions” along with eleven other East Bay real-estate investors who “made a pact not to compete with one another at foreclosure auctions.”
Marr is letting his lawyers handle that mess and meanwhile is trying to jack rents in some cases by more than $1000 per month. Rent controls in Oakland only cap increases for homes built before 1983, as the impact of such increase would cause massive displacement of many long term residents. It was good to see that standing in the way and organizing the tenants was the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, known as ACCE, and formerly California ACORN. The tenants and the organization have demanded a rent freeze while the court case is pending, a sale of Marr’s ill-gotten properties to the Oakland Land Trust, and action on lingering issues with mold, bedbugs and other problems. ACCE is not only fighting these issues in Oakland either. Fighting a foreclosure with a late night rally at a vulture investor’s house in Los Angeles has found them defending their free speech and association rights in Los Angeles as well.
ACORN has recently won rent controls in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland with the Living Rent Campaign, and more landlord accountability in Toronto and Bristol, but there is little in any of our arsenals to prevent sweeping gentrification without a public and governmental commitment to diversity and affordability in a city. Oakland could become the battleground where we have a chance.