Rev. Jesse Jackson to East Palo Alto: Fight gentrification


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.

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8 people like this
Posted by Matt
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jan 28, 2015 at 6:45 am

John: East Palo Alto resident
Sarah: Wealthy Google engineer

Sarah: "I want to buy your house for $2 million"
John: "Agreed"


6 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 28, 2015 at 7:19 am

[Post removed.]

23 people like this
Posted by XDM
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 28, 2015 at 8:05 am

Jackson is ridiculous. I am not caucasian and have lived in EPA for many years and would welcome some gentrification. That is what has made this City a little bit better over the Years. I hate it when these people come to low income areas to spew their poison to fight change and keep these crime ridden areas as they are or get worse. Im sure he lives in a nice community and not in a less desireable one like EPA. Most of us residents want change, a safer place to live.

14 people like this
Posted by Mark Dinan
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 28, 2015 at 10:02 am

Mark Dinan is a registered user.

I live in East Palo Alto (since 2009), and gentrification is really the least of our worries. "Keep EPA dangerous, poor, and isolated" may have worked 15 years ago, but maintaining a ghetto in the heart of silicon valley is absurd. The primary beneficiaries of East Palo Alto's affordable housing are Menlo Park & Palo Alto, where businesses wait staff, gardeners, house cleaners almost all live in EPA. There needs to be a regional approach to affordable housing, and East Palo Alto cannot provide all the working class housing stock for the entire peninsula. I am not advocating converting EPA to exclusively high end housing like Palo Alto, but having a mixed community like Berkeley (graduate students, professionals, working class, etc) should more be the vision than the current reality. The leadership in the city is more concerned with keeping EPA affordable than advocating policies that help the city. Rising housing prices are the single best thing that can happen to East Palo Alto, as 80% of the tax revenue from the city comes from property taxes. Infrastructure investments literally cannot happen as long as the tax base is at its current low state.

9 people like this
Posted by rising tide
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 28, 2015 at 10:02 am

I suggest "a rising tide raises all boats" and improving the EPA community, reducing crime, increasing educational achievement and so on, could raise real estate prices and what's wrong with rising real estate values and more prosperity and a future! I would rather this not be a place where felons are released on parole.It affects the honest people trying to get ahead there.

9 people like this
Posted by long time EPA resident
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 28, 2015 at 11:29 am

I think what a lot of commenters fail to realize is that most of those who are getting displaced are not the ones committing the crimes and bringing the city down. It's the working middle class who once could afford to live in EPA so that they could have a decent commute to their jobs in nearby areas.
I know someone who works at Stanford, children go to schools in the peninsula, and just moved to Stockton because it is more affordable. What about the extra commute costs, stress, and less time to spend with their family?
But, some folks seem more concerned about money and only about their own welfare - no one elses. Sure, let Google and Facebook employees buy up all the property so that the city can have more money. Forget about the people whose lives are affected. -- however, 30 years ago, residents of EPA used to care about the wellbeing of their neighbors. You just don't see that anymore - in EPA or many other places

5 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 28, 2015 at 11:38 am

Rev. Jesse Jackson should point the East Palo Altans a right method how to "fight to keep from being displaced". To depend on the "donation" from others is not only way to make the community better and safer. People in East Palo Alto have to get our self changed, get more education to keep up the "new era". The image of poor and criminal shouldn't be equal to the city of East Palo Alto and shouldn't be the heritage and identity of East Palo ALto. To keep from being displaced shouldn't mean that the poor image of city does not get changed.

13 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2015 at 11:59 am

I would be a lot happier if Jackson stopped worrying about gentrification and spoke along the lines of how to be productive citizens [portion removed.] If he spoke more about being good fathers, good role models, good employees, good neighbors and obeying common sense life rules, it would make a lot more sense to me.

Someone like Jackson could make a difference in the lives of so many people if he spoke out against violence, crime, vandalism and disrespect for authority. Instead he just plays the victim card.

9 people like this
Posted by Memories
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2015 at 1:10 pm

I'm curious - how many commenters actually attended the event? Mark Dinan, maybe?

I went, and it was excellent. It wasn't excellent because of Rev. Jackson. It was excellent because of the wealth of knowledge, wisdom, understanding and experience amongst the panelists. Their various areas of expertise shaped a vital conversation about past and present land use policies that highlight various scenarios for the future.

Mark Dinan is correct in that East Palo Alto isn't responsible for the whole of affordable housing for the Peninsula.

Growth without displacement is a big challenge, but it's a great goal because it reflects valuing residents over buildings, and self-determination over wholesale gentrification.

Two last points: gentrification is actually an imprecise term because it's used more as a label. Looking underneath the label is important, and while that didn't happen at the event, it left me with wanting to do so. I've seen growth with displacement and growth with little displacement. I was also left with the realization that East Palo Alto's concerns are similar to the surrounding cities' concerns. But they're treated as the catch-all dumping ground. It's time for the rest of the Peninsula to take seriously their affordable housing obligations. It's not East Palo Alto's job to do it for you. That's part of what self-determination is.

Kudos to East Palo Alto, CLS EPA, and Stanford University for this welcoming, insightful conversation.

2 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2015 at 2:05 pm

> gentrification is actually an imprecise term because it's used more as a label

Really? Well, it's been used for a long time here in the US. Many urban neighborhoods, particularly on the East Coast, have undergone gentrification by making abandoned properties available to people who are willing to refurbish them, and live in them, for as little as a dollar.

In virtually all uses of the word, older, delapidated properties are sold to people with the time, money, interest to rebuild them--ultimately creating neighborhoods that are safer, have higher property values and generate more property taxes.

Gentrification really isn't that vague a term, it would seem.

2 people like this
Posted by Memories
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2015 at 2:20 pm

I never said it was a vague term. I said it was imprecise because it's used as a label and what's under that label needs to be examined.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2015 at 3:15 pm

Impricise to you perhaps (and that's OK as an opinion)--but probably not imprecise to people who are actually rebuilding neighborhoods for the benefit of all (except the Jesse Jackson's of this world, it would seem).

Oh, and sooner or later doesn't everything have a label?

6 people like this
Posted by badadvice
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 28, 2015 at 4:11 pm

Jackson is missing the mark on this one. Keeping EPA the way it is now and not allowing the city to move forward and grow with the rest of the world is debilitating to the people who live there.

6 people like this
Posted by Memories
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2015 at 4:14 pm

Rebuilding neighborhoods wasn't the topic of the discussion. I'm not sure why you think it was. Of course, what you think ultimately doesn't matter because you're not involved.

4 people like this
Posted by Mike-Crescent Park
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 28, 2015 at 4:28 pm

Mike-Crescent Park is a registered user.

Heritage? Today's East Palo Alto was created in the early 50s by a process that's the reverse of gentrification. It's called block busting, transforming a once small area of homes , farms and dairies into what it has now become. A friend of mine now 75 was raised there and personally saw it all change from the semi-rural area it was to the town of today.

Even though it became a very dangerous place to live his mother had few options so stuck it out and stayed there until she died at a very old age. So today's East Palo Alto does not even have 65 years of the current "heritage" speakers at this conference reference. Be it gentrification or whatever other force is at work It seems fortunate that bhEast Palo Alto is once again headed in a positive direction. It is unfortunate that outsiders from Stanford and Chicago want to keep this town from becoming on its own a much better place.

And the idea for Silicon Valley business to help create training for better jobs for Palo Alto residents? The "Pound of flesh?"

That training already is available from the long time and successful East Palo Alto organization JobTrain. Give them your volunteer support and donations and make fewer speeches.

1 person likes this
Posted by Born&Raised
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 30, 2015 at 4:02 pm

Born&Raised is a registered user.

Gentrification is good for residents who can afford to remain in EPA and will hopefully force the criminals and drug dealers to leave, making the city safer for all. As a longtime resident, I personally welcome gentrification and want to see an improvement in the perceived negative reputation of EPA. It would also be nice to have higher property values for us homeowners.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 21, 2015 at 6:54 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

This was a wonderful event and I hope that it spurs some serious discussions. East Palo Alto is now no longer affordable for many renters, thanks to the greedy mega landlord and Costa-Hawkins. Those looking to buy are also going elsewhere. At least there are solid renter rights and concerns about the future for our seniors.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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