Increasing residential segregation in the Bay Area

A new report shows an increase in residential segregation in the Bay Area over recent decades:

Photo by Mohamed Almari on Pexels.com

The Bay Area has become more racially segregated since 1990, mirroring a long-running national trend of cities and neighborhoods dividing more starkly along ethnic lines, according to a new study by UC Berkeley researchers.

Oakland, Fremont, San Francisco and San Jose are all among cities ranked as “highly segregated” by the university’s Othering & Belonging Institute…

Menendian said land use policies, including restrictions on denser housing and apartments, have driven segregation, particularly in the Bay Area. “It’s crystal clear that excessive restrictive zoning plays a significant role.”…

The impact of segregation, Berkeley researchers say, is clear: residents in communities of color have lower future economic gains, educational achievement and poorer health.

The full report includes a number of interesting sections.

In some ways, the Bay Area is seen as a success story. Exciting cities and and cultural opportunities. Proximity to Silicon Valley and the tech industry. Diversity. A striking setting. But, this report hints at a darker side of this success: an ongoing process of homogenization. Divisions by location based on race and class. Zoning that keeps uses and people separate.

Do the two trends – success and division – necessarily go together? One does not have to lead to the other or vice versa. The same project found high levels of residential segregation in cities in the Midwest and Northeast, places without the same level of success as the Bay Area in recent years.

One way to think about this is to look at how the region as a whole could address this. Individual municipalities could address particular topics – like affordable housing or zoning issues – but might only help so many people and push the problem into other communities. A region-wide approach would help think about how gains can be shared and how concerns can be addressed by all. Even the biggest cities cannot go it alone when they rely on nearby places for workers and amenities.

Another matter to think about as addressed in the final paragraph above: residential segregation has cascading effects that can last for a long time. Where people live affects many aspects of life, ranging from what jobs can be accessed, the quality of housing, what is available through local schools and other institutions, and more. This is not an issue of people choosing to live some places rather than others; residential segregation speaks to patterns that can become reified and can physically establish different social worlds.

Finally, I am reminded of the Emerson and Smiley book Market Cities, People Cities. Is the long-term goal of the region to put the economy first? Or, is there enough interest in promoting more people friendly policies? The reputation and history of the area suggests there are resources and collectives to move toward more people oriented policies. However, this is a difficult move for any American city as social, political, and economic forces push toward placing the economy first.

Changes in housing costs in metropolitan regions are more easily navigated by some

Rents may be down in parts of San Francisco but some people moving within the region or outside of it have encountered higher housing prices:

While rents in San Jose have fallen 6 percent since January, tech havens in Santa Clara County — including Mountain View, Sunnyvale and the city of Santa Clara — have seen rents fall by at least 11 percent during the covid pandemic, according to a new study by Apartment List. Rents also declined in the East Bay.

The exodus of now working-from-home techies from the Bay Area has left openings and rent discounts at complexes near the tech giants. The uncertainty of the pandemic has driven renters back home, to spacey outer-suburbs or to remote towns and resort communities such as Lake Tahoe…

The demand for more living space and the shortage of homes for sale has driven up single family home prices in Silicon Valley, with suburban buyers pushing median prices to $1.33 million in Santa Clara County and $1.63 million in San Mateo County in September, according to CoreLogic data…

Popov said rent declines have generally decreased the farther away you get from San Francisco. Outer markets in Salinas and Sacramento, for example, have seen rents climb.

The effects of COVID-19 illustrate how housing prices within a region or within contiguous regions do not necessarily all follow the same patterns. Even as one area might experience less demand in one part of the market – rental units in particular neighborhoods communities, other portions of the market – such as single-family homes – may be more expensive.

In a market like this, those who can move around have some advantages. First, those with resources and particular occupations can move away from areas with more cases of COVID-19. This could have a direct effect on health. Some of these workers might return when COVID-19 is no longer a concern but for now they can be in less dense areas and work from home.

Second, some people are more able to move than others. Even if prices are going up in desirable locations, they can pay more. They have particular occupations that allow them to work from home, an option that is less possible certain job sectors. Perhaps their social networks and connections to local institutions are more fluid and accessible remotely.

This discussion occasionally comes up when people look at available jobs throughout the United States. The question will arise: how come more people do not move to go where the jobs are and take advantage of the economic opportunities? Moving is not a simple task. It involves more than just having a good job or not.

The same can be true of housing costs. The price of renting or buying a home can vary dramatically from place to place. Yet, a large number of people may not move one way or the other for a variety of reasons. And since jobs and housing prices are linked for many, it can be hard for many to simply leave the expensive Bay Area or move within the region to take advantage of lower rents or costs in some areas.

Constructing needed housing and other housing during COVID-19

Even during COVID-19, construction goes on in the Bay Area amidst a need for housing:

California’s shelter-in-place order has forced millions of people to stay home and businesses to close to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some construction workers, however, are still reporting for work to build and renovate Silicon Valley mansions and San Francisco luxury condos because of carve-outs in shelter-in-place orders that exempt any housing construction as “essential” business.

Local officials say residential construction of all kinds is necessary to address the region’s housing crisis. The exemption means affordable housing projects are moving forward, too…

In Palo Alto, where the median property value is $3 million, according to Zillow, residential construction has been so ubiquitous that the city’s new coronavirus support line was inundated with calls about what kind of construction was permitted under shelter-in-place, according to the city’s daily coronavirus newsletter Monday. This past week, crews showed up to work on single-family homes valued on Zillow at $7.3 million for an eight-bedroom house and $9.6 million for a five-bedroom house…

Backlash from concerned neighbors is predictable, said Laura Foote, executive director of YIMBY Action, a Bay Area network of advocates for increased housing supply at all economic levels. “People find new reasons to believe what they have always believed,” she said. “We have a housing shortage and that is what’s driving up cost. More housing also helps bring down the overall cost.”

The article goes into more detail about the debates over the continued housing. There appear to be multiple issues: whether any construction should go on, whether construction should go on for building luxury or expensive housing, and if construction goes on, whether workers and developers should follow rules about social distancing.

This is both a reminder of the lingering issues in a world very focused on COVID-19 as well as the complications of housing questions in the Bay Area and California more broadly. Fiinding solutions has proven difficult; building more affordable housing in many regions depends on local actions which wealthier communities tend to avoid.

Perhaps the question coming out of the pandemic will be this: will the Bay Area, the Seattle area, New York City, and other tight housing markets be more open to affordable housing conversations and action after everyone had to unite (or at least agree to stay away from each other) for a common cause? Crises tend to reveal inequalities but they do not always lead to efforts to address and rectify the problems.