Why Is a Health Funder Backing Work on "Sustainable Neighborhoods" in the Bay Area?

If you've ever lived in a gentrification zone, you can probably figure what the term "sustainable neighborhoods" means. These would be places where, among other things, low-income, elderly, and disabled folks aren't bulldozed aside by development trends dictated strictly by market forces.

The grassroots outfit Causa Justa is among those groups standing up to that bulldozer in the Bay Area, seeking to advance what it calls "development without displacement." The group recently landed a grant from the California Endowment for this work. Or, rather, we should say another grant, since this support follows previous grants dating back to 2006 for resident advocacy and a number of other programs.

Why is the California Endowment investing in "sustainable neighborhoods?" That's a good question, since we think of the foundation as strictly focused on health. But like other foundations in the health space, such as RWJF, this funder defines health broadly, and that expansive definition has led them to support initiatives that work to make sure that communities are inclusive in their housing plans.

Why? Because there is research indicating that the health of specific community groups can be adversely impacted by displacement. One negative side effect is "social loss," which people can experience as long-standing community ties are blown to smithereens by smart-phone toting yuppies—leading to "excess stress and psychological effects, which in turn have effects on physical systems that we rely on for resilience against disease and chronic conditions."

To say nothing of the stress caused by being forced to move because your rent just tripled. Gentrification, it turns out, is pretty darn toxic. 

And it's epidemic in major cities all over the U.S., where upwardly mobile folks are looking for new digs near their jobs. Nowhere are things worse than in San Francisco, where the median rent has jumped over $3,000 a month, evictions are rising, and available space is way down.

No matter how many Google vans get pelted with eggs, gentrification keeps displacing more low-income residents throughout the Bay Area, including in areas previously overlooked by affluent renters and buyers. 

So, for example, housing in Oakland—historically a base for African-Americans in the region, including many homeowners—has been getting squeezed in a big way, with data showing that blacks are being pushed out.These are some of the issues that Causa Justa calls attention to in a study called Development Without Displacement. 

Collaboration is key to addressing housing challenges, and Causa Justa is just one of several community organizations in the Oakland Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative (OSNI), which is working to make sure there is affordable housing in Oakland. It looks like this work is paying dividends. On July 1st, 2014, the Oakland City Council unanimously approved a new district plan which calls for 1,800 new homes, many of which will be affordable to low- and middle-income residents.