Gentrification in East Palo Alto: How and why should we act?

Opinion by Neil Chaudhary
Oct. 9, 2014, 3:33 p.m.

Last week, I discussed how the loss of affordable housing in East Palo Alto (EPA) is accelerating the process of gentrification, especially highlighting Stanford’s complicity in the transformation of the ethnically diverse, working class city into another yuppie, tech-catering community. But, little was mentioned about specifically how Stanford students can slow down or even stop the process of gentrification.

But, does EPA deserve to be specially preserved? The housing market is playing according to the rules: high property values and living expenses in the Bay Area are direct results of the demand to live close to Silicon Valley, and those who cannot afford living there will not. But, just because gentrification is a “natural” market process does not vindicate the working class communities it displaces.

To illustrate this point, consider the civil rights movement of the 1960s. At that time, the issue of racial segregation was at the forefront of discussions in equality of opportunity. The Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that, in fact, “separate but equal” was inherently unequal. Life for African Americans consisted of inadequate schools, dilapidated public facilities and caustic living conditions, while the White world was generally more well off and better resourced.

But beyond the inequality, we also decided as a society that segregation cultivated animosity, ignorance and harmful stereotypes. For example, integration of public schools not only helped to equalize access to opportunity, but it also for the first time forced Blacks and Whites to interact with each other. And while the process was hostile initially, integration of the two worlds eventually started eroding harmful and racist belief systems. Interaction with diverse groups forced people to confront the falsity of their pre-conceived notions and develop a deeper sense of empathy towards others.

Fast-forward 50 years and segregation still exists, this time along class lines of rich and poor. Inequality in access to opportunity still exists. In EPA parents enter a lottery to send their children to higher quality Palo Alto schools, leaving a child’s educational quality up to random chance. Moreover, EPA bears the burden of harmful car emissions from University Avenue and, up till 2007, was the site of hazardous waste disposal by a company named Romic.

Furthermore, similar to racial segregation, segregation across class lines has also fostered unfounded and harmful beliefs. Although classism is a harder metric to measure, one example is the tech community’s response to the BART rail strike last year. The response from the tech elite was to vilify the workers, even going so far as racial slurs. The elite’s response revealed its ignorance surrounding the wages and living conditions of the working class.

So, if we agree with the logic of the civil rights movement, we must also agree that gentrification – the displacement and continued segregation of low-income populations into under-resourced communities – must be stopped. And, the opportunity that presents itself to Stanford students most immediately is East Palo Alto.

Stanford students can – and should – get involved in multiple ways to combat gentrification in EPA. One such way is preserving affordable housing. Students can aid tenants in EPA currently fighting against large residential companies like Equity Residential to maintain their housing. For example, the Center for Legal Services in East Palo Alto (CLESPA) provides community legal services for tenants fighting off evictions. It’s especially in need of Spanish speaking translators, who provide a crucial bridge between lawyers and tenants.

Students can get involved in local politics as well. In EPA, the city council has been considering an affordable housing fee on market-rate units in order to maintain funding for low-income housing. This proposal is particularly relevant since the state subsidies for affordable housing in EPA have dried up. Closer to Stanford, the City of Palo Alto is planning a city ordinance on housing that will expand affordable housing to accommodate low income families despite intense opposition. These are only a couple examples of how local laws will have significant impact on the future development of EPA and Palo Alto. Stanford students can and should get involved in political advocacy, including raising political consciousness of these issues on campus.

In addition to protecting housing, Stanford students can also build up the financial well being of EPA itself. Organizations like Nuestra Casa host ESL classes for Spanish-speakers seeking employment, financial literacy classes for households to accumulate savings, informational sessions to connect residents with government services and leadership programs to develop EPA community advocates on issues such as education, healthcare, and housing. Here again, Stanford service groups and students could lend their time as volunteers. Or, they could connect organizations like Nuestra Casa with resources and groups on campus like Code The Change, which improves the efficiency of NGOs through technology and computer programs.

Programs in the Haas Center have already demonstrated a commitment to EPA. Initiatives like East Palo Alto Stanford Academy demonstrate that, as a student body, we care about the well being of EPA. I am asking that we take it a step further. I am asking that we address and mitigate the economic forces displacing and segregating rich from poor, white from minority in EPA. From direct service to political advocacy, there are multiple ways to get engaged. In fact, Stanford even provides Social Impact Grants ($1,000 each) and summer EPA Social Venture Fellowships ($10,000 each) for students to create positive meaningful change in EPA.

We have the resources. We have the opportunities. Now we must act.

Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’

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