This article is part of a larger story on state Senate Bill 50 that can be found here.
For proponents of State Senate Bill 50, the proposal isn't just a way to get California out of its worsening housing crisis. It is also a chance to redress grievances from the past by creating housing that's affordable to all, including low-income residents and minorities who have been previously discriminated against.
At a March 5 joint meeting of the Senate Housing and Finance committees, Nancy Skinner, the state senator representing Berkeley and one of the co-authors of SB 50, cited Richard Rothstein's book, "The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America." In the book, Rothstein, a historian and UC Berkeley academic, surveys federal, state and local policies — as well as real estate and banking schemes — that promoted racial segregation in cities across America.
Palo Alto residents don't have to go far to see the effects of these policies. Rothstein recalled, for example, Wallace Stegner's effort in the mid-1940s to build 400 housing units (and community amenities) for Stanford University faculty and staff. Though Stegner's cooperative was able to purchase of a 260-acre ranch near campus for the planned development, it could not secure financing or Fedral Housing Administration (FHA) loans because the cooperative included three African-American families, out of 150 total.
"In 1950, the association sold its land to a private developer whose FHA agreement specified that no properties be sold to African Americans. The builder then constructed individual homes for sale to whites in 'Ladera,' a subdivision that still adjoins the Stanford campus," Rothstein writes.
Rothstein also recounts the practice of "blockbusting" in East Palo Alto, which began in 1954 when a resident of a white-only area in East Palo Alto sold his house to a black family. Floyd Lowe, president of the California Real Estate Association, and other agents immediately began running ads warning of an imminent "invasion" by African-Americans, prompting white families to sell at discounted prices to agents and speculators.
"African-Americans, desperate for housing, purchased the homes at inflated prices," Rothstein writes. "Within a three-month period, one agent alone sold 60 previously white-owned properties to African-Americans."
Within six years, the population of East Palo Alto was 82 percent black, he noted, and conditions were deteriorating as African-Americans who were excluded from other neighborhoods doubled up in single-family homes.
Matt Bowling, a local historian and teacher, similarly cited Palo Alto's history of housing discrimination on his website PaloAltoHistory.org.
"While there have certainly been many instances of racial brotherhood and tolerance in Palo Alto, anyone looking back into the city's history must come to terms with the role that racism and bigotry played in the unfair treatment of African-Americans and other minorities," Bowling wrote.
"For instance, the majority of subdivisions established in the city between 1925 and 1950 included the following clause: 'No person not wholly of the white Caucasian race shall use or occupy such property unless such person or persons are employed as servants of the occupants.'"
Other discrimination was more informal or took the form of failed proposals to create segregated neighborhods within the city.
"Housing discrimination has led to the creation of 'two Americas' right in our midst," Bowling wrote of the growing racial divide driven by real estate practices. "While largely poor and minority East Palo Alto suffers from crime, unemployment and a troubled school system, just across the freeway Palo Alto thrives after decades of excluding blacks."
According to an recent report by UC Berkeley's Urban Displacement Project and the California Housing Partnership, the current housing crisis further contributes to segregation, with communities of color being particularly vulnerable to the impact of rapid rent increases in the region. The report, "Rising Housing Costs and Re-Segregation in the San Francisco Bay Area," found that a 30 percent increase in median rent in certain U.S. Census tracts was associated with a simultaneous 28 percent decrease in low-income households of color (the same was not true for low-income white households).
"Rising costs and migration patterns are contributing to new concentrations of segregation and poverty in the region," the report states.
Listen to "Behind the Headlines" for a discussion on SB 50 with Palo Alto Vice Mayor Adrian Fine, Greer Stone, vice chair of the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission, and Weekly journalists. The episode is now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.
State legislators who are pushing for new laws forcing cities to allow dense, multi-family housing developments in single-family neighborhoods threaten to divide the state's Democratic voters and may open the door to political challenges of incumbents even in Democratic strongholds like the Bay Area and Peninsula.