An Oakland Diaspora: What Drives Longtime Residents to Leave?

Vanessa Ladson moved to Antioch in 2010, but she still travels back to Oakland for work, church and her favorite foods. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

Vanessa Ladson has a pool, a hot tub and a laundry room. And on this particular day, a rainbow arcs over her five-bedroom home in Antioch.

On a Sunday in December, she’s wearing a red top, hoop earrings and lipstick: Ladson is ready for church. It’s about 40 minutes away in East Oakland, where she used to live. But she doesn’t think too much about the distance between her home and Lily of the Valley Christian Center.

“It’s my family,” she says.

It’s not just Sundays that Ladson gets into her blue Ford Focus, which she calls “Fiona,” and heads to Oakland. During the week, she wakes up at 4 a.m. to beat rush-hour traffic to downtown Oakland, where she works for the East Bay Municipal Utility District. If she’s running late and catches the worst of it, the commute could be two hours, she says.

“It is awful getting up that early, but that is the price to pay,” she says.

Ladson loves Oakland. But after leaving in 2006 and bouncing around cities in the East Bay for a few years, she finally landed her own home in Antioch, a deal too good to pass up, says Ladson. Plus, she didn’t want her then-teenage son, Tyler Thompson, to be brought up in such a dangerous city, she says.

Thompson appreciates the house in Antioch. It almost makes it worth it, he says.

“But you always have that thought in the back of your head, like, man, if I could, I would be down where everyone knows me,” says Thompson.

Even though its been nearly a decade since he lived in Oakland, he still thinks of the city as home.

Currently, many Oakland residents are being forced to think about quality of life and how far their money can go as “The Town” sheds its reputation as an affordable alternative to San Francisco. Oakland has become one of the fastest-growing renters’ markets, and as prices rise there will continue to be displacement that leaves a bad impression on those who are choosing or are forced to leave.

Howard Kees has been an Oakland real estate agent for 25 years. He bought a cheaper home in East Oakland in the 80s so that he could pay for a better education for his children.
Howard Kees has been an Oakland real estate agent for 25 years. He bought a cheaper home in East Oakland in the ’80s so that he could pay for a better education for his children. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

“It’s almost like when you’re with somebody, and they’re not quite where they need to be. They have all this potential and they’re just bummin’,” says Denise Kees, a real estate agent from East Oakland. “Then they go off and they become successful and then they dump you.”

Kees says Oakland has dumped plenty of longtime residents.

In the last decade, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the city has lost nearly 10 percent of its African-American population, down from 113,833 in 2005 to 102,933 in 2014.

This hits home with Kees, whose best friend moved to Antioch.

“When I want to go see my best friend, I have to get on three or four freeways and drive for an hour,” she says.

As in many major cities, most residents in Oakland are renters — more than 60 percent, according to the Census Bureau. But the majority of both renters and homeowners wouldn’t be able to afford a median-priced home in their communities, according to an analysis by the Urban Strategies Council in 2014 that looked at selected Oakland neighborhoods.

Howard Kees, Denise’s father, has been a real estate agent in Oakland for about 25 years. Before that, he coached youth basketball. Now some of his former players are settling down. They have good credit and stable jobs that provide steady income — just not enough.

“Those same kids that I coached are coming back to me and saying, ‘Coach, I’m ready to buy a house. If coach could do it, so could I,'” he says. “And I hold my head down and say, ‘You don’t qualify.'”

Howard Kees grew up in West Oakland at 20th and Wood streets and attended McClymonds High School. Now, “yuppies, buppies and hipsters” have moved into the neighborhood, he says. The last house he sold in West Oakland went for $600,000 and was “tore from the floor up” — a fixer-upper. There are two more homes he’s currently trying to broker in the neighborhood for more than $800,000 apiece, he says.

Part of the problem is that there are very few incentives for developers to build houses for residents with average incomes. State and federal tax incentives often support low-income housing developments, while private developers are able to make up costs of building more expensive housing by charging prices that more and more people are willing to pay to live in Oakland.

Developers built no housing specifically for people making a “moderate” income between 2007 and 2014, according to city data.

“It is a surprise. I didn’t think it was zero,” says Michele Byrd, Oakland’s housing director.

A state Assembly bill introduced last year would have tried to extend certain housing subsidies statewide for middle-income residences. It failed.

This year, Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, a Democrat from Richmond, is working on legislation that also targets more moderate income earners.

Oakland is currently considering new housing policies, including a discussion about impact fees that would either require developers to build a certain percentage of affordable housing as part of their projects or charge developers a fee that would help pay for more affordable housing elsewhere.

Antioch has a different story. Between 2007 and 2014, the city surpassed its housing goals, set by the Association of Bay Area Governments. The bedroom community in eastern Contra Costa County has space to build and land is cheaper than in Oakland, says Forrest Ebbs, Antioch’s community development director.

“You can actually build moderately priced housing here and make a good profit on it,” Ebbs says.

Average_Sale_Price_of_a_Single_Family_Home_Antioch_Oakland_chartbuilder (2)

Over the last decade, Vanessa Ladson moved from Oakland to Hercules, then to Pittsburg and finally to Antioch in 2010 — jumping on a five-bedroom house that sold for $300,000. To her, leaving Oakland means she’s able to live in comfort.

But she misses her former home.

It hurts her to think about the house on 105th Avenue in East Oakland where she grew up, she says. The home had roses along the walkway and carport. Plus, there’s the fish market she remembers, along with the local corner store and her favorite taco truck.

“I will not eat a taco or burrito if I don’t go to that truck,” she says.

For some people, the idea of losing a local network isn’t just about losing a sense of community, says Richard Walker, an author and retired UC Berkeley professor. There is “enormous economic cost,” especially for more vulnerable populations like the elderly, he says.

“They can’t get to their old doctor. They don’t know where to go. They’ve gotten lost and some of them literally die,” he says.

But in order for people to have a chance at staying in Oakland, there need to be stronger city policies and leadership to implement laws that will at least try to keep them here, Walker says.

East Oakland Is Simmering

When asked whether homes are available in East Oakland to the middle class, Howard and Denise Kees simultaneously say, “Yes!”

Denise Kees says she feels like Oakland is a relationship that's not going to last.
Denise Kees says she feels like Oakland is a relationship that’s not going to last. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

The historically working-class East Oakland neighborhood where Howard Kees lives near MacArthur Boulevard and 100th Avenue has below-average incomes, but most people own their homes, he says. The supply hasn’t changed, but prices have been elastic. In recent years, he’s seen homes in the neighborhood sell for less than $100,000 and for as high as $600,000, he says. The average price is around $300,000, about $100,000 less than the citywide average, says Kees.

And more is changing in the neighborhood than property prices.

The number of black residents in Kees’ census tract dropped nearly 25 percent from 2009 to 2014, according to just-released census estimates. The white population has increased, and household income numbers are rising, too.

While Denise Kees still calls her community “the ’hood” with affection, she is concerned that the demographic upheaval in Oakland neighborhoods will ultimately drain the city of its diversity — and force friends to move.

And when people make that choice to leave, she says, “You can’t come back.”

An Oakland Diaspora: What Drives Longtime Residents to Leave? 2 March,2016Devin Katayama

  • Jill

    Please look at this link to understand that a HUGE part of the reason all this is happening is due to the region’s Plan Bay Area 2040. This plan ADMITS to its central idea of focusing growth with Priority Development Area’s (PDA’s) to the “inherent tension between the Plan’s emphasis on focused growth within PDA’s and a pattern of displacement risk in the region. Please read the study on displacement risk and how local and regional governments threw us all under the bus with their new general plans.

    It’s a mess. MTC and ABAG held a displacement forum in Oakland in February. Everyone has been affected by the central planning efforts happening in our city governments. They are admitting to having to build in safeguards now because the plan actually incentivized displacement! They won’t admit to doing it intentionally, but after all the research I’ve done, it can be proven that some of the land use decisions were made to purposely push out lower-income tenants and bring in wealthier young tech workers. They make a lot more money for all the cities in the bay area and cities know that. I have been to the city meetings and they WANT them to come and if people are displaced, they honestly don’t care. Cities need money so bad these days, they can’t think about the residents well-being anymore.,%20Understanding%20Displacement%20in%20the%20Bay%20Area.pdf

  • Balynt

    Great article. Thank you. The changes in Oakland are truly staggering. The financial meltdown was a major part of this. So many lost their homes.

  • ErikKengaard

    Over population drives up the price of land, and a real home needs at least 1/3 acre. Homes in Oakland were affordable for at least a century [1860 – 1960]. Guess what happened. Population. No vacant lots left.

  • jskdn

    When someone leaves their housing in Oakland for another area, it become someone else’s housing opportunity, lessening the housing cost burden for those still in the area by reducing the demand for an inadequate supply. Why are the lives of the latter not of value? All the tax and transfer programs tend to aggravate the price pressures for those whose housing is being supported by other people.

  • Mitchell

    Lay off the dog-whistles! “Diversity” doesn’t only come in the color black. Oakland isn’t becoming less diverse; it’s becoming more so.

    • SherriS

      Oakland has always been diverse. It is becoming less so. I’m guessing you’re a newcomer that doesn’t know much about the demographics over the last 40 years.

      • Mitchell

        “Diverse” does NOT mean “black”; in Oakland, more diverse may even mean less black.

        As another commentator’s pointed out, “The change in the Oakland census over the past two decades is a loss of
        blacks, a small increase of whites and a huge increase of Hispanics” — from an increasingly wide area of Latin America. There’s also been an increasingly broad range of residents from throughout Asia — and of occupations, socioeconomic status, and degrees of assimilation.

        The (class and ethnic) integration of traditionally (often monolithically) working-class black neighborhoods corresponds to an INCREASE in Oakland’s actual diversity.

  • annjohns

    Come on. The change in the Oakland census over the past two decades is a loss of blacks, a small increase of whites and a huge increase of Hispanics. Can any media outlet practice honest journalism?

  • Wanderer

    Oakland is visibly changing. You may think it’s good if you’re a property owner whose property is appreciating, you may think it’s bad if you or a family member is being pushed out. But it’s silly to deny that it’s happening.
    Oakland is indeed out of single family house lots, as you would expect so close to the center of such a big, dynamic metropolitan area. So to get affordability, Oakland needs to a) build more housing, build up; and b) require that a share of that new housing be affordable at least at a workforce level–as San Francisco, Berkeley, and other Bay Area cities do.


Devin Katayama

Devin Katayama is a reporter covering the East Bay for KQED News. Previously, he was the education reporter for WFPL in Louisville and worked as a producer with radio stations in Chicago and Portland, OR. His work has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, The Takeaway and Here and Now.

Devin earned his MA in Journalism from Columbia College Chicago, where he was a Follett Fellow and the recipient of the 2011 Studs Terkel Community Media Workshop Scholarship for his story on Chicago’s homeless youth. He won WBUR’s 2014 Daniel Schorr award and a regional RTNDA Edward R. Murrow Award for his documentary “At Risk” that looked at issues facing some of Louisville’s students. Devin has also received numerous local awards from the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists.

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