With tech money pouring in, it’s hard for low-income seniors to stay in their communities.
By Laura McCamy
APRIL 6, 2015 — At a recent meeting of the Hope and Justice Committee of St. Mary’s Center, in Oakland, the members allowed a reporter to sit in as they discussed their experiences with gentrification.
For Oakland’s many low-income seniors, the escalating cost of living from the influx of technology workers and others able to pay higher rents makes the hope of aging in place more of a dream than a reality.
This problem is not limited to Oakland, although fast-rising rents and a shortage of affordable housing make the problem more acute here. According to a 2014 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Oakland-Fremont metropolitan area was country’s seventh most expensive jurisdiction for housing.
‘Everybody’s Face Has Changed’
Ortencia is 82 and, like all the members of the group, preferred not to give her last name. She pays $600 for her studio apartment here. She gets a break because she does yard work at her building; the rent would be $850 otherwise.
Veleda was born and raised in Oakland after her grandmother moved the family here from Oklahoma. “This place was littered with big hotels because people was coming here to work in the shipyards” in the 1940s and 1950s, she recalled. “Now we go to Oakland and everybody’s face has changed.”
Today, Veleda, 62, lives at the San Pablo Hotel, a senior single room occupancy hotel. She struggles to manage her diabetes in a unit that shares a bathroom with another apartment. “Thank God I still have my ability to think and a zest to do things,” she said. “God forbid the day I can’t do that.”
Denise’s family moved to the Bay Area from Louisiana. Her grandmother couldn’t read or write. When Denise became a mother in her teens, her grandparents took her in and she was able to go back to school and get a college degree. She worked for Bank of America in San Francisco and Concord and raised two children as a single mother.
When she got married later, Denise moved to Oakland because her husband wanted to be here. Now he has passed away and, she said, “I’m left here all alone.” She says there are “bullets flying” around the transitional housing where she currently lives. Still, she wants to make Oakland her home.
Dwindling Affordable, Accessible Senior Housing
Nationally, a 2014 study by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and the AARP Foundation projects that by 2024, “the number of households aged 65 and over with incomes less than $15,000 is expected to rise 37 percent, or by 1.8 million households.”
The report also found that the supply of affordable senior homes is dwindling, while those with universal design features to make them accessible to older adults with disabilities falls far short of demand.
Growing older in urban areas like Oakland can be especially difficult for African Americans, according to Zoë Levitt, of the Alameda County Public Health Department. Unlike whites, Latinos and Asians, when black households have to move, they “are more likely to end up in a neighborhood with lower-income residents than their current neighborhood,” she wrote.
Levitt added, “Thus, African American seniors, if displaced, are more likely to find themselves in neighborhoods with fewer health-promoting resources and/or lower quality amenities, as average neighborhood income is closely tied to the availability of neighborhood resources.”
Steve King, senior associate at the Urban Strategies Council, noted the growing mismatch between the cost of housing and the income of Oakland residents. “At every level, the median income earner…cannot afford the median house, either to own or rent [in their neighborhood],” he said. “It obviously affects everyone, “ he said, but people at the bottom income tiers have a harder time.
The State of Bay Area Blacks Report, prepared by the Council, looked at local population trends between 2000 and 2008.
This report showed population changes already underway between the 1990 and 2000 census. Their analysis revealed that number of census tracts with a majority black population declined, although some Oakland neighborhoods remain predominantly black. In Oakland, the report found, a declining black population was replaced mostly with an influx of white residents.
“We know Oakland lost 24 percent of its African American population.” But teasing out the reasons, King said, is not so easy. “It’s a complex story.”
Elder Majority in County is Black
The story is somewhat different for black seniors. While the number of Oakland residents over 65 grew by 4 percent from 2000 to 2010, the number of black seniors over 60 increased 12 percent.
Data from the 2000 and 2010 census, as well as from the Council’s study, shows that more than half of Oakland’s senior population is African American.
But staying put in one’s later years is not always easy. King noted that, according to the Council’s 2012 report, “Who Owns Your Neighborhood?” in some blocks of East Oakland, 90 percent of homes were foreclosed between 2007 and 2011. “When you think about the social fabric of a neighborhood and the social ties that evaporated,” he said, “we know it’s a huge issue.”
This isn’t the first time Oakland neighborhoods have experienced radical change. “The word ‘gentrification,’ when I was coming up in Oakland, is a word I didn’t hear a lot,” said Veleda, who is African American: “If the government wanted your property, they would take your property by public domain.”
Veleda remembers an earlier transition in West Oakland. “We moved into a neighborhood that was occupied by Italians and whites,” she said. “When they moved out, they took everything of value that was beautiful.”
Close neighborhood ties are essential to seniors. At the nonprofit Family Bridges, which operates four health centers for older Asians in Alameda County, CEO Corrine Jan observed that isolation is more detrimental to health than many medical diagnoses.
Because seniors make up half the transit-dependent population nationwide, according to the Alameda County Public Health Department, many fall prey to social isolation if they are forced to move to neighborhoods poorly served by transit.
The agency’s Levitt said, “According to a survey of 400-plus transit-dependent bus riders we conducted in 2012, seniors were most likely among all age groups to feel socially isolated, with more than half reporting no friends or family within walking distance of their homes.”
A 2013 report prepared for the Alameda County Healthy Homes Alliance concluded that, while Oakland as a whole is very diverse, “the same cannot be said for many neighborhoods in the city.” The data showed a huge correlation between largely ethnic communities, renters and indicators of low income and poor health outcomes.
Laura McCamy wrote this article for Oakland Local with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by AARP. This story is part of a series on the effect of gentrification on seniors in Oakland.