‘Berkeley is very much in the crosshairs’: Reparations task force discusses housing, gentrification

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Lisi Ludwig /Senior Staff
Darrell Owens, a housing and transit activist with East Bay for Everyone, provided expert testimony on the displacement of Black Californians to the California Reparations Task Force on Tuesday.

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For the past 50 years, the Black population in Berkeley has declined, according to census data compiled by Darrell Owens, a housing and transit activist with East Bay for Everyone.

South Berkeley reported the highest numbers of displaced Black residents in the city over the last 10 years, according to the data.

“The only neighborhoods Black people in Berkeley grew in were Downtown, likely in the new housing built,” Owens said in an email. “The other neighborhood was West Berkeley and upon closer examination of neighborhood blocks I realized this Black growth was mostly homelessness.”

Owens provided expert testimony on the displacement of Black Californians to the California Reparations Task Force on Tuesday. The task force studies the impacts of slavery on African Americans to propose “compensation, rehabilitation, and restitution,” according to the California attorney general’s website.

Tuesday’s meeting focused on a variety of housing issues, including gentrification and homeless individuals. Owens recommended that the state provide grants to Black homeowners and give Black cooperatives full authority over zoning and planning, among other policies.

While these issues plague the state at large, Berkeley in particular has a long history of exclusionary zoning, redlining and residential segregation, according to Samir Gambhir, director of the Equity Metrics program at the UC Berkeley Othering & Belonging Institute.

“Most of these areas were under-invested and had fewer opportunities to break out of the cycle of poverty,” Gambhir said in an email. “This has resulted in black families being pushed out of the city to areas in the northern and eastern reaches of the Bay Area.”

However, the city of Berkeley is taking steps to address the housing issues that particularly impact Black residents.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín said the city is exploring a “Right to Return” policy, where priority housing would go to those who have been evicted due to rent increases. Arreguín added that the city is also looking at a “Community Preference” policy to prioritize affordable housing for former residents of gentrified neighborhoods.

“The question of who has enjoyed particularly wealth-building opportunities in the 20th and 21st centuries is substantially impacted by policy decisions,” said Ben Metcalf, the managing director of the campus Terner Center for Housing and Innovation. “Berkeley is very much in the crosshairs of that.”

While these policies are welcome steps, Gambhir noted that other solutions must include areas impacted by housing disparities, such as employment and education.

Additionally, Owens said he recommended the city start Black cooperatives in South Berkeley, as well as help finance Black homeowners to build accessory housing.

“If we want to end the homelessness and the poverty we see in this city then we must recognize Black people were specifically targeted by the state to be kept out of homeownership and the middle class,” Owens said in the email.

Contact Riley Cooke at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @rrileycooke.