East Palo Alto residents must fight to keep their city, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson encouraged them to organize. Otherwise, residents will be pushed out by gentrification, a process that hasn't changed in communities of color since Jackson, 73, began fighting it in the 1960s, he said.
Jackson, a civil rights activist and Baptist minister, took to the podium on Monday to address self-determination in East Palo Alto versus gentrification during a luncheon in the city and a panel discussion at Stanford University's Tresidder Union.
Residents must fight to keep from being displaced even if that means marching by the thousands to Silicon Valley company headquarters to be heard, Jackson said. The valley, with its vast wealth, is putting housing pressures on the region, and should take some responsibility for coming up with a plan for saving and funds for preserving East Palo Alto's heritage and affordable housing, he said.
Jackson met with Silicon Valley leaders after the Tresidder event to discuss ways they can help move East Palo Alto residents forward. Among his ideas: fund a tech-training center in the city to help raise residents' incomes so they can afford to stay in the valley and help create a development bank to build affordable housing and fund minority entrepreneurs.
Silicon Valley companies have yet to prove if they will be "friends or foes" to East Palo Alto, Jackson told the standing room-only crowd.
"Caring matters -- it carries the day," he said.
But does Silicon Valley care?
"If it does, we have a strong ally; if not, we have a strong foe," Jackson said.
Since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 -- 50 years ago this year -- little has changed in terms of economic parity for African Americans, Jackson said. In 1964, he was beating the same drum in Chicago, trying to convince the establishment to invest in communities of color. But segregation by economic inequality made that difficult, and the setup that existed then still remains, he said.
African Americans and persons of color continue to be affected adversely by a historical and exclusionary system that has kept them in isolated communities, and in communities such as East Palo Alto, even that is also now threatened with being taken away, Jackson said.
East Palo Alto is "an island separate" from Silicon Valley, where "poverty is a weapon of mass destruction," he said.
Jackson joined a panel with eminent members of the East Palo Alto community, legal representatives and Stanford University scholars to discuss East Palo Alto's history, the threats that could undermine the community and potential solutions.
Carol McKibben, a professor in the Stanford Department of History, said the problems of unequal housing began decades ago in East Palo Alto, and that "these racial beachheads ... are not that way by accident."
Federal mortgage loans in the 1950s and 1960s were "one of the biggest welfare programs that moved a whole generation of white males to the middle class and home ownership," McKibben said, but those loans did not extend to African Americans. People of color were excluded from receiving loans, and through "redlining" (the practice of denying or charging more for services, or denying jobs to residents in particular areas) were kept from dwelling in white neighborhoods, she said.
California had an enormous wave of migrants up through World War II, including African Americans, who worked in technology and associated industries, but they were shunted into the least desirable places, including East Palo Alto, she said.
"It was a complicated but complicit relationship between federal, state and local agencies" that contributed to the systemic exclusion of communities of color from good jobs and housing. In the 1970s and '80s, those segregated communities were designated as areas of blight and became targeted for urban renewal.
In the early 1980s, then-unincorporated East Palo Alto faced dissection of its community. San Mateo County officials proposed annexing its west side to Menlo Park and bringing in two task forces to "clean up" the east side, city Councilman Ruben Abrica, who was involved in the city's incorporation, said.
"When we heard that, we could see the writing on the wall. The sheriffs would come in and clean up the city and develop the economy, but for whom? For what? To depopulate East Palo Alto? ... Self-determination was really the battle cry. It was the right of the community to determine our own destiny," he said.
With 70 percent of the city's low-income rental housing currently in the hands of one corporate landlord and surrounded by tech companies Facebook on the Menlo Park side and Google in Mountain View, the city is facing a very intense battle in the next couple of years, Abrica said.
"Now we will be talking gentrification," he said, noting that the dilemma will come to a head in the next two years when the City Council holds a new election.
But East Palo Alto is in better shape to determine its future than other unincorporated communities of color because it chose incorporation, Michelle Wilde Anderson, a Stanford Law School professor, said. Unincorporated areas have a very difficult time convincing county governments to support their survival, Anderson said.
"The advantage that East Palo Alto has that other areas don't is to empower East Palo Alto residents to use political tools. Your independence allows you to write land-use and housing laws. That's incredibly powerful," she said.
East Palo Altans should carefully consider steps that are anti-displacement while being pro-growth, she said. The city could succeed by keeping its core single-family homes while including higher density housing that incorporates a quantity of low-income housing.
Anti-growth policies in surrounding cities such as Palo Alto and Menlo Park have put a lot of pressure on East Palo Alto, she said. And that attitude "is about sentimentality," but East Palo Alto's survival requires being unsentimental about buildings and sentimental about people, Anderson said.
Residents should "really think about how East Palo Alto can take its pound of flesh from Silicon Valley," she added.
To that end, Abrica suggested that the city get together with prominent institutions to buy up buildings to create and preserve low-income housing.
Daniel Saver, a housing attorney with Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, said Silicon Valley has the private capital that could be leveraged, but it must be done with care.
The city could also develop a no net-loss policy that allows for growth and profit by developers but preserves the number of low-income units at affordable rents, he said.
East Palo Alto has enacted tenant protections that are some of the strongest in the state, Saver said. The City Council approved an affordable-housing impact fee for new units in July 2014 and a tenant-protection ordinance in May 2014 that prohibits landlords from using intimidation to keep tenants from organizing or demanding repairs to unsafe and unsanitary conditions.
Tenants who are evicted while a unit is being repaired must receive alternative housing and temporary relocation costs, including storage and housing pets and cannot be charged more than they normally pay for rent under the ordinance. Landlords must pay relocation costs if units are demolished or removed.
Planning Commissioner Tameeka Bennett said the ordinance gives residents badly needed protection, especially on the city's west side where 1,800 units are controlled by one corporate landlord. However, she expressed concern that the ordinance could be challenged, since a judge overturned a similar ordinance in San Francisco.
"I'm a little worried about that," she said.