Investigating the Roots of Exclusion in San Francisco

The Bay Area is known as one of the most progressive places in America, but a new report shows racial and economic inequality runs deep.

San Francisco at sunrise

(Photo by David Yu / CC BY-NC 2.0)

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The racially segregated patterns of housing in the United States have roots all over the country, in federal policies and practices and written and unwritten local rules. A new report from the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley, aims to show that the San Francisco Bay Area — long considered a bastion of progressive values — is no exception to this rule, and was in fact on the vanguard of some racist housing practices.

The report is called “Roots, Race, & Place: A History of Racially Exclusionary Housing in the San Francisco Bay Area.” It traces the ongoing racial and economic segregation of San Francisco and environs to a series of explicitly and implicitly segregationist policies and practices in history, concluding that “the region’s past and present are both stories of a system of racial capitalism, in which race and racism are fundamental to the creation of profit and accumulation of wealth.” Focusing less on nationally common practices like redlining and more on locally rooted exclusionary zoning and racial violence, the authors depict a history that often goes unacknowledged in the Bay Area, but that helps explain some of its ongoing inequalities today.

While it’s true that the Black Panthers began in Oakland and the Free Speech Movement was based on Berkeley’s campus, says Eli Moore, a program manager at the Haas Institute and co-author of the report, it’s also true that homeowners associations and local governments around the Bay Area found a variety of ways to enforce housing practices that favored whites at the expense of minority groups.

“We felt that it was important to note the way that cities in the region had actually been on the leading edge of racial exclusion at different times, because it’s kind of a check on our own collective regional sense of who we have been and who we are, and a call to conscience on not repeating the past,” Moore says.

The report opens with the story of Sing and Grace Sheng, who planned to purchase a home in a South San Francisco neighborhood in 1952, only to face a backlash from a group of white homeowners who claimed to be concerned that their property values would tank if a Chinese-American couple owned a home in their subdivision. The developer of the subdivision also urged homeowners to protect their racially restrictive deed covenants — even though they had been rendered moot by a Supreme Court decision four years earlier — and also threatened the former owner of the house who was selling to the Shengs, the report says. Eventually the homeowners voted 174-28 to block the Shengs from buying a house in their subdivision. The episode illustrates how a range of informal tactics were used to enforce segregation even in the absence of legal constraints.

“Local governments, realtors, developers, landowners and homeowners collaborated in different ways to ensure racial exclusion and dispossession,” Moore says.

“It wasn’t just one actor or individual,” says Nicole B. Montojo, a housing research analyst with the Haas Institute and co-author of the report. “It was really about the relationship between public- and private-sector actors that allowed for a lot of those tactics to be employed.”

Segregation in the Bay Area was created and sustained through the early taking of land from indigenous people, the legal restriction of Chinese immigration, and “extrajudicial violence” by groups like the KKK, the Workingmen’s Party, and the Anti-Coolie Association, the report says. It was reinforced through attempted bans on laundries, “sundown towns” where only whites were allowed after dark, anti-black discriminatory policing, and codes of ethics that barred realtors from “introducing into a neighborhood … members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values.” White flight and the establishment of a series of smaller municipalities throughout the region also provided new opportunities for local segregation. These policies and practices not only harmed minority groups but financially benefited whites, by organizing the physical landscape of the city in ways that unequally enriched white families over time, the report says.

“This history established massive inequities in who owned land, who had access to financing, and who held political power, all of which determined — and still remain at the root of deciding — who can call the Bay Area home,” the report says.

Today, formally “colorblind” housing and zoning policies perpetuate those inequalities, the report says. And opposition to affordable housing — on the basis of maintaining property values or neighborhood character — often echoes the narratives of the segregationist past. Focusing on the locally specific aspects of a history that touched the whole country shows “how important what happens locally is,” says Montojo.

“When we’re thinking about solutions, I think it also points us toward what can we do locally to see transformative change that can take root more broadly as well,” she says.

Moore says the history outlined in the report calls into question whether formally colorblind policies are adequate to the task of building a more inclusive and equal region.

“Right now the Bay Area is in a moment when it comes to race and housing where the inequities are so glaring, the lack of affordability is so extreme, and gentrification patterns are so apparent that it’s a starting point for conversation,” Moore says. “We didn’t set out in the research to establish a causal relationship between these histories and current conditions, but obviously we want people to understand how these histories shaped the region today.”

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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Tags: san franciscobay arearedlining

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