Op-Eds

From the Community | The house I (can’t afford to) live in

Opinion by Antonio López
May 11, 2021, 10:01 p.m.

W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” For the Bay Area, the problem of the 21st is the red line, or rather its legacy: continued housing segregation, only now more sophisticated in its strategies of exclusion. 

Here in Silicon Valley, it is easy to believe that the problem of white supremacy is chiefly an issue of hate crimes. At worst, racism here is conceptualized at the individual level, a question of comportment towards one’s ethnic neighbors. Words like equity are popular in corporate mission statements. Anti-racist workshops abound during professional development events. Anti-racism, in a word, is reduced to performance. We show up to a rally to decry discrimination, but in the same breath favor policies perpetuating it. 

In conversations about equity, it is important to remember that de jure segregation persisted in the Bay Area all the way to the 1960s. With support from the Federal Housing Administration, African Americans were relegated to the most impoverished neighborhoods of the Bay Area. Federal Housing Administration manuals instructed banks to avoid “inharmonious racial groups,” advising banks instead to enact racially restrictive zoning ordinances, which Palo Alto did. As late as 1950, the majority of subdivisions in Palo Alto had ordinances stating that “No person not wholly of the White Caucasian race shall use or occupy such property unless person or persons are employed as servants of the occupants.” African American households in turn were routinely excluded from mortgage loans, often leaving them no choice but to rent housing in urban ghettos like East Palo Alto.

Decades later, neighboring cities suffer from a severe lack of affordable housing. Palo Alto has approved just 38% of the 1,988 housing units the state will require by 2023. San Jose has signed off on just 53% of its state-mandated housing by the end of 2020. For over 20 years, Menlo Park failed to adopt a housing element. (A key part of a city’s overall General Plan, a Housing Element provides an analysis of a community’s housing needs for all income levels, and lays out the strategies to provide for those housing needs.) Only after the civil rights firms Public Advocates Inc. and Public Interest Law Project sued Menlo Park did the city at last adopt a Housing Element and commit to facilitating construction of 2,000 homes to low-income housing

Meanwhile, East Palo Alto, where I am a councilmember, has been a vanguard of housing justice since its inception and incorporation into the county in 1982. From its rent freeze in 1985 to the Below Market Rate Inclusionary Housing Program in 2002 to the council’s unanimous endorsement in 2014 of impact fees for market rate developments to the latest round of Tenant Protection Ordinance in 2014 and housing ordinances in 2019, the city of East Palo Alto never stopped working to support the poor in this area. Most recently, Paul Bains, pastor of St. Samuel’s Church, piloted the first RV-safe parking program in the entire peninsula. Started in 2019, the program offers designated spaces for overnight parking for local RV dwellers. It also offers access to portable showers, restrooms and laundry services. Around two-thirds of funding is derived from the city’s general fund and Measure O, the voter-approved business-license tax on residential rentals. To date, 34 households have obtained permanent housing through the program

Esteemed Stanford academics and students, explain to me how a city with a 2020-21 budget 19 times smaller (41.8M) than neighboring Palo Alto ($810.7 M) can accomplish this, while Palo Alto struggles to house the dozens of families parked right outside Stanford’s campus.

Where outside of Silicon Valley would a proposal for affordable housing be met with answers like, “I just want you to imagine the kind of traffic problems we’re going to have when they’re insisting on so much housing?” An ideology that puts manicured convenience over care has become ingrained and institutionalized in our area. 

To absolve oneself of the responsibility for housing justice, as the Palo Alto mayor does, simply because “the majority of new homes being acquired in Santa Clara County are by Asian Americans,” belies the racist structure of housing here in Silicon Valley. It touts multicultural progress without any serious compliance with the state requirements for housing. Moreover, it passes the responsibility to cities like mine that are already overburdened with budget deficits and stagnant revenue. 

Consider that Latinos comprise 24% of the County of San Mateo but 13% of its elected officials. Consider that my father’s first job in this country was washing dishes, and after 35 years, he works room service. From toiling in the mercury mines of San Jose in the 1880s, to doing back-breaking farm labor in the 20th century, to serving as low-paid operatives in local microelectronic industries, Latinos in Silicon Valley have sustained the economic vitality of the greater region. How is this pandemic any different, with its disparities in infection rates between communities with the highest concentration of essential workers and wealthier communities? 

Silicon Valley’s housing struggles demonstrate that the fight for racial justice won’t just be waged on the streets but in city halls all across the Bay Area. Violence won’t just be made manifest in shaky cell phone videos on the 8:00 news, but by those headlines we won’t see, that won’t draw rallies even though they should: for instance, the reluctance of wealthy municipalities to comply with this year’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation numbers. 

To my neighbors in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, the next time you think about joining a march, by all means do so. But don’t let your allyship stop once you put down the picket sign. Pressure your councilmembers and homeownership association to reform single-family zoning policies. Tell them to build 60 affordable senior apartments instead of $5 million homes on the same land. 

Do so not to alleviate a personal sense of guilt, but as part of the protracted struggle of anti-racist work. White supremacy will only end when it is dismantled by those it oppresses or when those who benefit from it abdicate their privilege. True allyship is the willingness of those in dominant groups, whether they are white people, men or straight and able-bodied people, to cede coveted positions of power and invest in new leadership. True allyship begins with redistributing power to communities of color.

I am not interested in empathy. I want equity for my people. When I say my people, I mean Latinos, I mean Black people, I mean Tongans and Samoans, I mean working class communities who know what’s like shopping with WIC checks at Safeway, I mean all of the people of East Palo Alto. This beautiful city has taught me to advocate for neighbors not out of compassion, but because their struggle is ours. I know that in order to combat systemic oppression, we must combine resources to ensure we have a say and stay in the future of this beautiful Valley. 

Most of all, what I know is that the dynasty of white politics in our county must end. The good ol’ boys club that has ruled here, ever since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, has outlived its time. The beneficiaries of whiteness must gracefully exit the chamber. But as they leave, let them keep the door open, and see those whose parents and forbearers sustained this valley for centuries have their seat at the dais.

Antonio López (@barrioscribe) is a councilman for the City of East Palo Alto and the author of Gentefication, Winner of the 2019 Larry Levis Prize in Poetry. He is a first-year Ph.D. student at the Modern Thought & Literature Program.

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