“Brown in a Different Way”: The Gentrification Dilemma

Thursday, September 13, 2018

American Banker – Nobody’s Home

What happens when neighborhood revitalization is too successful? Some cities have managed to eliminate their vacant housing problems. Yet many now face acute shortages of affordable housing — shortages that hit those cities’ low-income residents the hardest.

GORDON: And I think … I was going to do this, like, right before you came, but I failed. But you take your time to set up.

HELTMAN:  Are you ready?

GORDON: Sure. Let’s do it. With a baby on.

HELTMAN: With a baby.

GORDON: He’s pretty chill.

HELTMAN: Could you introduce yourself?

GORDON: Yeah. My name is Meghan Gordon, I’m a staff attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center, and I represent low-income communities in Alameda County, primarily doing eviction defense for low-income tenants.

HELTMAN: It’s January, and I’m in Alameda County, California, visiting Meghan, who graciously let me interview her one afternoon while she was on maternity leave.

Alameda County comprises much of the eastern portion of the San Francisco Bay area, and includes Berkeley and Oakland and is home to about 1.7 million people. It is also the site of one of the biggest real estate booms in recent memory.

I’ve been talking a lot about vacant housing — and that makes sense, it’s the subject of this podcast. But there is a challenge within the challenge when it comes to vacant housing, namely that even if a city or community is able to reverse the negative cycle of disinvestment within a community, that reversal can also spin out of control.

From American Banker, I’m John Heltman, and this is Nobody’s Home.

HELTMAN: In some ways, what is happening in Alameda County’s real estate market is representative of what can happen when housing markets go from cold to hot. That rapid increase in property values has the effect of reducing the number of vacant and abandoned properties, but it also has a secondary effect — and that is putting additional pressure on low-income tenants. Alameda County, like many urban jurisdictions, has rent control laws that limit a landlord’s ability to raise a tenant’s rent when market rates go up. The idea behind those laws is to ensure that longtime residents don’t get pushed out, but Meghan says unscrupulous landlords can find ways to get them to leave.

GORDON: Well, one thing that they’ll do is, for example, there was a developer in Chinatown that did this, where they bought a building, and the tenants contacted a local organization that helped them organize and kind of fight back. And what did the landlord do? The landlord cut off the elevator, and said that they were doing, you know, construction and so they had to turn off the elevator. So a lot of people in this building are elderly and disabled. Now they can’t get up and down. Then they tore out the bathrooms. So this was a building that was structured kind of like a single room occupancy, so, or like a dorm room, for example. So a lot of the tenants had their own individual space where they sleep and maybe they have a small kitchenette, but then they share bathrooms. So they tore out all the bathrooms except for one in the entire building. So now we’ve got tenants who are disabled who can’t get out of the building and tenants who are getting UTIs because the lines for the bathrooms are so long. And you know landlords just, that’s called, like, a constructive eviction. They make their property so horrible that they want tenants to just give up and leave. Some landlords will cut off the water. Some landlords will cut off gas. Some landlords will just ignore requests for repairs, thinking that once the tenant leaves — at least in this area, once of once your tenant moves out you can raise the rent to whatever you want when you get a new tenant, right?

HELTMAN: So you can cover the cost of whatever repairs need to be made but … 

GORDON: Maybe. But a lot of people here in the Bay Area, because housing prices are so high, they will move into places that are uninhabitable because they have no other choice.

HELTMAN: And that’s just what is called “constructive” evictions. She says she gets cases from tenants whose landlords serve them with eviction notices that can’t be enforced, or threaten to call Immigration on tenants who they suspect of being undocumented. And she said the number of calls her agency gets for legal assistance with these evictions has gone up dramatically.

GORDON: I’d say that we’re seeing not only more evictions but we’re seeing evictions on a bigger scale, because there’s so much money to be made by developers now.

Listen to the full podcast here…

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