Berkeley cannot wait to right historical housing wrongs

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I came to the San Francisco Bay Area from Ohio more than 40 years ago. I was drawn to the Bay Area because of its natural beauty, culture and inspiring political activism. This area had the most diversity I had witnessed in my lifetime. However, I was shocked at the high price of housing. I was also surprised to face much of the same racial discrimination and prejudice in my search for housing as my parents experienced in the Midwest during the Jim Crow era.

Despite being a qualified tenant with gainful employment, I was rejected from many housing options. I would show up for a scheduled appointment to see a rental unit only to have the property owner or management tell me that the rental price had been raised past my means or that it’d been taken off the market.

Historically, Berkeley was no different than any other city throughout the United States with respect to systemic racism. The city’s segregation policies were woven into the fabric of government and practiced by local residents. If I am elected to Berkeley City Council, my direct experience facing the remnants of these past policies will inform my future policy positions.

Black Americans settled in San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond and across the North and West during the Great Migration after World War II. This corridor, running from Richmond through Berkeley and Oakland, has historically been the center of Black life in the Bay Area. Black workers were sharply restricted surrounding where they were permitted to live by force, fraud and law. Antioch, for example, was a “sundown town” — a place where Black Americans and other people of color were unwelcome after dark.

Berkeley’s housing market had a “redlined” area west of Grove Street, now ironically Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The federal government did not provide mortgage loans and mortgage insurance for Black prospective homeowners because the area was considered “too risky.” White families in the Elmwood district received the benefits of federally backed mortgages.

Berkeley’s legacy of redlining and segregation continues in the city’s exclusionary zoning codes. The codes prohibit lower- and middle-income housing types (duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes) in northern areas closest to jobs, schools and transit. In Asian and Black neighborhoods of South and West Berkeley, waves of gentrification and displacement have taken place since the 1970s. These patterns are not new, and our City Council must work to end housing displacement, gentrification and exclusionary zoning.

Black people faced many hidden setbacks to homeownership and generational wealth — Jim Crow laws deprived Black individuals of education, land ownership, decent wages and the right to vote, altogether limiting housing opportunities from people of color. As a real estate professional, I provide industry information and resources to people of color to access homeownership and build generation wealth, attempting to address this issue one home at a time in my community.

My real estate expertise has helped to demystify complicated contracts and documentation to purchase a home or save a family home from foreclosure. People of color, especially Black Americans, are often left behind or forced out of their communities. Communities of color need partners that understand equity and inclusion to build broad-based housing justice and economic wealth.

A collective effort is necessary to end exclusionary zoning and promote a more inclusive city of all socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. It’s not enough to be inclusive in conversations — we must actively include people who have been historically excluded and pushed out of Berkeley. The city needs to develop strong equitable policies to increase its commitment to South Berkeley for low- and middle-income housing and economic justice.

We must utilize the city’s Housing Trust Fund, community land trusts, limited equity housing cooperatives and mutual housing associations to guarantee rental units are affordable in perpetuity and provide increased opportunities for homeownership. We must levy a vacancy tax on long-term empty residential spaces to increase financial support for tenants facing immediate eviction.

Our investments in South Berkeley should also be dedicated to new parks, recreation for families, street safety improvements and assistance for local businesses. Currently, the Lorin District and Ashby BART area is a sea of shuttered businesses and a yawning chasm with a dangerous six-lane highway right in the heart of the district. A South Berkeley Black arts and cultural district should be created and centered on Adeline Street, which should also be narrowed to two lanes. This would create a more pedestrian-friendly experience and bring more customers to local stores.

South Berkeley should aim to be a historical destination. A “15-minute neighborhood” with all basic necessities — schools, banks, grocery stores, hardware stores, pharmacies and clothing stores — within a short walk from home, and enriched with legacy.

The Adeline Corridor can become a vibrant mixed-income and mixed-use neighborhood with jobs and basic goods for everyone. Trust me, it all starts with a good home.

Deborah Matthews is a candidate for Berkeley City Council, District 3.