As Stanford decides the final form of its academic system in the wake of COVID-19, thousands of students are left in limbo, having to decide where to reside during their designated off-campus quarters. For many, the Bay Area appears to be an intuitive option. The Bay Area is familiar. It’s a place with character and things to do. It’s conveniently close to campus. Plus, it would be fun to spend a few months living with friends. Innocent, right?
Not even close.
In this article, we provide an introduction to our history and place in the larger Bay Area — both the region and its people who are deeply afflicted by some of the nation’s worst patterns of mass gentrification and displacement — and we seek to answer the question: what does this regional problem have to do with us as students? This article is not intended as a moral judgment, but rather as an honest reflection on our reality as Stanford students.
Beginning with terminology, gentrification refers to a process of neighborhood change — a generalized restructuring of place, encompassing the transformation of low-status neighborhoods to upper-middle-class playgrounds. Displacement occurs when housing or neighborhood conditions, physical and economic, force people to move against their will, often leaving behind key resources like community structures (i.e extended family) and employment, depending on the severity of the displacement. Lastly, while they are distinct, race and class are intertwined in these phenomena, as neighborhoods that have undergone gentrification typically see major changes in both socioeconomic and racial demographics.
Beyond terminology, it is critical to understand that these words alone do not fully illustrate the suffering and instability caused by gentrification and displacement. It’s not simply a matter of rising housing costs, but also of families becoming homeless, of people constantly starting over in the face of markets and policies far bigger than themselves. Throughout this discussion we must also recognize that these patterns of homelessness, the shattering of communities and the loss of stability are not distributed proportionately across racial demographics, introducing a critical nuance that those who claim “color blindness” fail to recognize. For further reading, we highly recommend this article that demonstrates the tangible effects of gentrification and displacement through the story of Naseem, an Oakland elementary student.
The Bay Area itself is a region where the median home price is just short of $1,000,000 (jaw-droppingly expensive in this country and around the world). Just northwest, nearly one-third of neighborhoods in Oakland and San Francisco experienced gentrification between 2013 and 2017–– the highest rate in the country, according to a new national study. The same study shows that for a family earning less than $64,000 — a typical amount for two full time minimum wage workers, such as a young couple just starting out — no Bay Area neighborhoods have an affordable median apartment rent.
From the Urban Displacement Project, the gray spot that is Stanford’s campus becomes all the more glaring in the midst of a map demonstrating the ongoing gentrification and displacement of surrounding areas. Most other areas not brightly colored are undeveloped natural lands such as forest, hills and baylands.
While Stanford alone cannot carry the blame for this crisis plaguing the region, Stanford has a direct, persistent hand in fueling its conditions. For one, Stanford is inseparable from tech, with a long history of investing into the industry that’s created a massive market of lucrative jobs in a highly concentrated area. This creates an influx of people who compete for housing, pricing out low income residents simply trying to find a home within their own communities. There’s no point denying this relationship, as tech giants like Facebook themselves own up to the fact that their industry has intensified a housing crisis decades in the making.
Yet even with this undeniable connection between Stanford’s investments in tech and tech’s known exacerbation of the housing crisis, Stanford fails to acknowledge and mitigate its harmful effects on surrounding communities. Despite the dire regional need for affordable housing units, Stanford’s campus is the size of 8180 acres, of which 60% remains open and built on unceded Ohlone land. Of course, resolving these issues of land use and additional housing construction requires collaboration with local governments and other community partners. However, Stanford has all too often neglected this responsibility to collaborate, as through the recent abandonment of its general use permit in the face of critical county and stakeholder input.
For such a well resourced institution founded “to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in [sic] behalf of humanity and civilization”, this is simply unacceptable.
Stanford Coalition for Planning an Equitable 2035, Stanford Solidarity Network and public stakeholders filed into the already packed Palo Alto City Council chambers to voice their demands at the first public hearing regarding Stanford’s new General Use Permit (GUP) application in May 2019. They hoped to advocate for full mitigation of the impacts of Stanford’s proposed expansion plan. Months later, Stanford pulled out its permit instead of working with stakeholders for an equitable solution.
But that’s Stanford as an institution. Where do we, as students, come in?
When we as students fail to recognize our institution’s history, we take away our ability to hold Stanford accountable for its actions and shape the legacy we all share as Stanford affiliates. We also pay, quite literally, into Stanford’s contribution to the housing crisis. We do this through the labor we contribute to Stanford through campus jobs or research, through our tuition dollars and the donations we bring in as inspirational stories pitched to donors. In this way, even our mere attendance provides Stanford capital — capital that is invested in industries that intensify gentrification and displace low income communities in the Bay Area.
Yet that’s just the baseline of how we contribute to the problems just outside our campus, and we take it a step further when we as individuals choose to literally take up space.
This is because regardless of our reasons for living off campus, we actively worsen the crisis when we as outsiders claim a dwelling unit that could have gone towards local, low-income residents. Of course in asserting this we must also remember that it is, without a doubt, Stanford’s responsibility to provide accessible and affordable on-campus housing to keep as many students as possible from having to find off-campus housing. For students who cannot afford to devote a majority of their income to meet Stanford’s steep housing costs, Stanford’s lack of affordable housing effectively forces its most vulnerable students — rather than the institution — to make the hard ethical and financial choices instead.
In spite of possible attempts to find housing ethically, even subletting or living in an already expensive neighborhood does not cancel out the impact of moving to the Bay. Gentrification is, after all, a process of transformation in a neighborhood. When students move to the Bay, regardless of where or how they are living, they contribute to a systematic pattern of (dis)investment.
We see this negative influence of students living in the Bay reflected in local policy and legislation, where gentrifiers are catered to at the expense of low-income communities. Economically, we fuel demand that feeds a predatory short-term rental market that systemically removes swaths of housing units from the market through mechanisms such as conversion and hotelization. Of course, while some families use things like Airbnb as a way to earn extra income, research shows an alarmingly widespread trend of homes being swept off the market for the temporary pleasures of tourists and other transient occupants, i.e. students just like us.
We know from experience that the all too common reaction to all of this is to begin making excuses, to defensively justify our needs over those of local residents. But we must recognize and be suspicious of this instinct. As beneficiaries of a wealthy institution, privileging ourselves above those without the world class education, network and Stanford name to back them up is quite simply elitist, and this remains true regardless of our own personal backgrounds.
So, what does that all mean for us as Stanford students who have lived or are considering living off campus? What does that mean for similarly situated individuals like graduates and young professionals hoping to live in the area? What does that mean for anyone not from the Bay Area thinking about moving there?
The answer, expressed by many hardest hit Bay Area residents for years, is that moving into the Bay and taking the few affordable housing units available from low-income families makes you a gentrifier. It doesn’t matter how well-meaning or ethical you make out your housing decisions to be. People of color and FLI students are not exempt.
Or, put most eloquently by residents of various Bay Area communities themselves: if you were thinking about living off-campus in the Bay Area, “Don’t.”
Special thanks to Keoni Rodriguez, Keona Blanks, John R. Oberholzer, Jess Dominick, Stanford FLIP and others for contributing to this article.
More resources to get a sense of the experiences of locals and the larger crisis:
Priced Out by KQED: A series that tells the stories of people struggling and surviving amidst the increasing cost of living. They examined the changing neighborhoods and cities in the Bay Area, looked at who is getting evicted and why, as well as the potential solutions that have emerged
SF Homeless Project: Stories of fear, hope, survival. Portraits of life on the street during the pandemic
One Paycheck Away: Addressing Homelessness In The Bay Area: Hear directly from some of the Bay Area’s leading experts on issues surrounding homelessness: Needa Bee, Angela Jenkins and Tirien Steinbach. Moderated by Mina Kim, Anchor and Host of Forum, KQED.
Contact Kiara Bacasen at kbacasen ‘at’ stanford.edu and Daniella Caluza at dcaluza ‘at’ stanford.edu.
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