Last September, real estate firm Lane Partners sold its Uptown Station office building in Oakland, Calif., to Uber. The $62.5-billion-plus transportation network company intends to fill the 330,000-square-foot office space with 2,000 to 3,000 employees sometime in 2017. The influx grants Uber a commanding presence as Oakland’s largest private-sector employer — bested only by government and health-care entities.
Locals worry the new tenant, while a boost to the economy, will inflame an already overheated housing market. Residents fear an aftermath of impoverished living costs, supplanted culture and displacement of longtime residents.
The California Housing Partnership Corp. estimates that Oakland requires nearly 60,000 more homes to reduce prices and accommodate low-income and very low-income families. The rental search site Zumper said the deficit has elevated Oakland rents to the fourth highest in the San Francisco Bay Area.
But as one faction of the tech industry is poised to move in, another element aspires to fight gentrification at its roots. This subset belongs to the socially minded civic technology lot, a group of digital do-gooders moiling to pit 21st-century ideas, apps and services against municipal ills.
Mapping the Invisible Issues
The work of U.C. Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project illustrates civic tech’s potential on the issue. The project is led by Miriam Zuk, an Oakland resident and director of Berkeley’s Center for Community Innovation. Zuk and her research team have produced a pair of maps documenting urban gentrification. The group crunched data from the U.S. Census Bureau and regional sources to help visualize the Bay Area’s harsh housing market realities.
[click_to_tweet].@LibbySchaaf uses the term techquity to represent the harmony Oakland seeks between biz goals & resident interests[/click_to_tweet]
The first map identifies where outbreaks are happening, and the second charts affordable housing policies by city. The geographic patchwork of oranges, purples and blues show hot spots on Oakland’s north and northeastern borders closest to San Francisco. A flood of shaded housing tracts indicates gentrification’s spread across the entire city — neighborhoods either exhibit signs of, or are already experiencing, spiked real-estate costs and rampant displacement.
The plight is similar across the Bay Area, where a dearth of affordable housing policies — as the project’s second map attests — has left building developers and landlords free to capitalize on demand. Even so, the policy map reveals Oakland is among the Bay Area localities with the most affordable housing regulations. Oakland has an annual 2 percent cap on rent increases, inclusionary zoning ordinances, a housing trust fund to create more affordable housing and many more policies.
Zuk said the vision for the maps is to spur community dialog and thoughtful action.
“We’re hoping that by making this information public, and by allowing people to explore the maps — and kind of dig in — it will help them learn about what’s out there and what other people are doing,” she said.
The other ambition at the Urban Displacement Project is to add credible academic analysis to gentrification data. In Oakland, statistics show African-Americans have borne the brunt of the city’s rising home prices.
Census data provides evidence of a decades-long migration out of Oakland, beginning in the 1980s when the percentage of African-American residents was at its peak at 47 percent of the population. Since then, the percentage has only fallen. By 2010, black residents had dwindled to 28 percent of the population while whites represented 34.5 percent. The trend has continued in recent years. In 2014, the American Community Survey estimated the African-American community at just 26.1 percent and whites at 39.7 percent.
A Battle for Balance The seismic shift in numbers isn’t lost on Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. In response to the Uber announcement, her administration is in the middle of a major gamble to construct 17,000 affordable housing units while protecting another 17,000. The project and policy measure are part of a two-pronged play to reduce gentrification’s negative impacts. The city limits and diffuses market prices while encouraging community commitments from technologists and tech companies. Schaaf coined the term “techquity” to represent this harmony between business goals and resident interests. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf/Photo by APImages.comShortly after Uber’s announcement, Schaaf outlined her stance while speaking to a crowd of civic technologists at the 2015 Code for America Summit. “Techquity is using the power of government to have a very intentional conversation with our tech business community about being diverse, inclusive and more mission-driven,” she said. Apart from passing targeted legislation on transportation network companies, Schaaf said there are no quick tools to compel action. “[Uber] did not ask for tax breaks, they did not ask for any special treatment or exceptions, so there’s nothing I can force them to do,” Schaaf said, but added that she has expressed the city’s expectations. Her efforts are bolstered by a civic tech group called TechEquity. Founded in 2015, the organization is unaffiliated with the city and works to ensure East Bay tech companies give back by hiring local, buying local, investing in youth education and affordable broadband, and, generally speaking, operating as inclusively as possible. TechEquity is currently compiling a list of core commitments tech companies can make to support affordability and accessibility. “I think there are a lot of low-cost things, that if companies want to come in and operate from a place of goodwill are super easy to do and we hope to support them in that,” said TechEquity spokesperson Catherine Bracy. More broadly, Bracy said the group’s vision is to be an active reminder of the tech industry’s original ethos at the start of the Internet: to be democratic and decentralizing, to break down barriers, and to create culture and wealth. “I think it’s really important for those of us who believe in the power of the Internet to fight for an industry that will grow up on top of what is probably the most democratizing technology in human existence,” Bracy said.
Tech, Data and Next Steps
Beyond activists and academics, civic technologists and startups are offering their talents to either assist affordability or help track factors that can trigger gentrification.
Code for America has served Oakland with a number of open source apps, both through its parent organization based in San Francisco and through OpenOakland, its local volunteer chapter. These apps have helped parents find affordable day care, renters locate earthquake safe housing and citizens voice concerns to officials about issues like displacement.
Outside Oakland, civic tech startups are no less engaged with technologies that while not specifically targeting gentrification can support those who want to track it. The Boston-based startup coUrbanize has a social media platform that connects housing developers, citizens and city council members on construction projects — which in some cases has prompted developers to add affordable housing units. The startup Civic Insight allows residents to track the status of building permits in their neighborhoods with immediate updates, and Loveland Technologies, originally created to fight blight, is developing a national database of public information on land parcels.
In her work at the Urban Displacement Project, Zuk’s biggest challenge is finding quality data and creating more open data on the housing and rental market. There’s census data, but it becomes stale quickly. There are companies like Zillow that publish rental prices, but once properties are rented, this data disappears as prices elevate. Further, homeowner organizations tend to challenge laws that require landlords to release yearly rental prices.
“There is that fear that once you start tracking it, that’s just a stepping stone to regulating it,” said Zuk, “and I can’t imagine landlords would want more of that.”
Another obstacle hindering policies and affordable housing projects is the fact that city officials are not financially incentivized to work against gentrification. After all, property tax revenues account for a significant share of a city’s revenues, and higher home prices facilitate that.
In Oakland, for example, OpenOakland’s budget app shows that revenue from property taxes represents 32 percent of the general fund.
“The incentive structure is not there at all,” Zuk said of cities’ role in combating gentrification. “Though I think Oakland is starting to take it seriously.”