Positioned near the epicenter of California’s housing crisis, Oakland is slightly more affordable than San Francisco and Silicon Valley, but the East Bay city is experiencing rapid gentrification and the displacement of longtime residents. Amid skyrocketing rents and an influx of high-income workers, local organizations are testing new approaches to revitalize neighborhoods and serve low-income residents without spurring more displacement. The East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC) is on the frontlines of this effort. Since 1975, EBALDC has developed and preserved more than 2,200 affordable homes and now serves more than 6,000 people annually through both property management and community engagement services.
Romi Hall is the director of neighborhood collaborations at EBALDC. In this role, she manages EBALDC’s work as a convener of the San Pablo Area Revitalization Collaborative (SPARC). SPARC was formed in 2014 to improve the health and wellbeing of residents in a historically African-American neighborhood and to help prevent displacement by securing parcels of land for affordable housing, resident-desired economic development, or community facilities. Over the last five years, the collaborative’s work has centered on a five-block area of the San Pablo Avenue Corridor (SPC), which stretches from Downtown Oakland to the city of San Pablo. One of EBALDC’s signature projects, the California Hotel, is located on this stretch; since 2011, the formerly vacant hotel has been redeveloped to house 137 below-market-rate units as well as on-site resident services and ground-level businesses including a new restaurant space, a music education nonprofit displaced from its former location, and the recording studio of an Oakland-based Grammy winner.
Hall is one of 14 mid-career professionals in the second cohort of the Fulcrum Fellowship, a leadership development program run by the Lincoln Institute’s Center for Community Investment. She recently sat down with Communications and Publications Editor Emma Zehner.
Emma Zehner: What strategic challenge will you tackle during your fellowship?
Romi Hall: I want to continue to work with our collaborative partners to ensure that residents are able to live in or return to culturally vibrant, healthy, and affordable neighborhoods. I am focused on supporting more “development concierge” work—identifying key opportunities and projects for affordable housing or resident-desired community facilities, and matching them with nonprofit developers. Along with this concierge work, I would like to work with collaborative partners to translate the on-the-ground project and community-based work into advocacy campaign and policy work. The last part is sustaining the collaborative backbone role of coordinating efforts to address the many dimensions of community revitalization, from housing to health to education to employment.
EZ: How is EBALDC working to ensure that revitalization of the San Pablo Avenue Corridor won’t fuel displacement?
RH: The work started around five years ago when we were still recovering from the recession. Nobody really knew that big swaths of Oakland had been purchased by investors. Over that time, we have seen the neighborhoods where we are deeply invested very rapidly and quickly shift. We are in crisis mode now.
Organizations like ours are working rapidly to better apply an anti-displacement lens to our strategies to ensure that our community revitalization successes don’t come at a cost to current residents. We still have more to do to continue to figure this out. One of the key approaches has been to buy up as much land as we can, to either preserve or produce affordable housing and support economic and cultural development. Our partners and EBALDC are also implementing resident engagement, placemaking activities, and leadership work. Collectively with our SPARC collaborative partners, we are on target to have 400 new units of affordable housing and a new grocery store, which will open in May 2019.
EZ: What is the role of zoning and land-use planning in shaping the future of the neighborhood?
RH: One of the things that is interesting about zoning and land use within the SPARC neighborhood is that there is a specific plan for the entire area (West Oakland), but it is not too detailed for the San Pablo Corridor area. This provides some flexibility in terms of what is possible and how to move on work that residents want to see in their neighborhood. I think we have some opportunities to think about how to utilize zoning or other land-use approaches to keep the neighborhood affordable despite positive changes. In the neighborhoods surrounding the San Pablo Avenue Corridor, the zoning is largely for lower-density, residential uses such as single-family homes, duplexes, and fourplexes. This can slow some of the growth, as the large market-rate developments that are happening in other parts of Oakland are limited. The larger-scale developments can only occur on San Pablo Avenue, but this is where the SPARC partners have purchased many of the properties, thus helping to secure the affordability of the neighborhood and to support thinking about different zoning and land-use approaches.
EZ: EBALDC takes a “healthy neighborhoods approach” to its work. What does this mean in practice?
RH: A lot of the community development field is heavily focused on economic development and affordable housing, but it doesn’t necessarily work with a more holistic, comprehensive lens. We adopted this approach after research from our county public health department showed a life expectancy difference of almost 16 years between neighborhoods. The difference isn’t because of race, but because of the social determinants of health. [This] led us to adopt our healthy neighborhoods approach and to understand that we cannot have such a comprehensive approach and rely on ourselves to achieve our vision. We now look to identify measurable health goals in our new developments; create vibrant, cultural corridors tied to place; and support residents with a small amount of funds to implement their own projects to address issues in their neighborhoods. Our new approach also meant that we needed to partner differently, and, through this work, we started our Neighborhood Collaborations department to work on convening strong, place-based collaboratives.
You could create a healthy neighborhood by pushing people out, but what if people could afford to live in a place and see themselves represented [there]? And they are healthy in that place—not because they are pushed out, but because they are here, they see themselves here, and they are contributing to, if not owning, the change? We are honing in on the neighborhoods that have some of the most inequitable outcomes, working within those places with the intention of keeping people in their homes, and helping to build up community the way they want, so that change doesn’t mean you leave, but it means you get to stay.
EZ: What challenges have you faced in your intense focus on cross-sector collaboration in the SPARC corridor?
RH: The thing about the collaboration is that it takes a while to build trust. Everyone has a role, but it takes a long time to understand everyone’s different roles and how to align the roles, the partners, and the people to make change happen. One of the questions I think a lot about is how can you push on those different roles and make them more flexible to meet the needs of communities? And how do you support partners—particularly resident groups, organizations, and institutional leaders—not just to participate as individuals, but to think about how they can leverage their organization, their community’s voice, and their place in the system to do the work? Once you have trust there, it is a game-changer in terms of how the partners talk together and collaborate. For example, one social service agency noticed a property that was causing them a lot of heartache. They said, what if we buy that building? They did. And they don’t normally do development. But since they were part of a collaboration, they leaned into something new with full support from the collaborative. You don’t get that very often, and I think trust and belief in the work was key to making this happen.
EZ: EBALDC is increasingly focused on the intersection of public health and community development and the provision of on-site supportive services for residents. What does the recent Kaiser Permanente Housing for Health Fund commitment to fund affordable housing mean for EBALDC’s work in the Oakland area?
RH: It is incredible to see Kaiser and other healthcare and insurance companies looking at investing in affordable housing and realizing the role that affordable housing and community developers play in creating a healthy ecosystem. The stars were aligned in terms of where Kaiser wanted to invest, and it was a special opportunity for us to be the first investment and have our mission align with a big healthcare partner. Kaiser is also looking to attract other larger corporations to invest in the housing fund they created to secure more affordable housing, thus securing the Bay Area’s future.
EZ: What is next for the SPARC Collaborative? Are there plans to buy additional parcels of land in this neighborhood?
RH: The group will focus on achieving its five-year action plan results. They have a little over a year to meet their goals. As part of this process, the partners will start planning for SPARC 2.0. Our strategy continues to include acquiring key parcels and underutilized land to produce or preserve affordable housing and to create community facilities, and using this as a buffer against displacement. The city has some public land, so we are working on that. There are other hotel properties that we are looking at. The group has started to purchase multi-unit buildings at risk of being converted to market-rate housing to preserve affordability—somewhat of a [community] land trust model. We are also asking, are there ways to create more home ownership opportunities?
EZ: A 2016 KQED article about SPARC said, “If this experiment works, it may represent one of the few models of how an Oakland neighborhood was able to grow from the ground up.” Do you see a possibility to scale this approach in other Oakland neighborhoods over time?
RH: Well, first I’d say we didn’t grow the neighborhood from the ground up. The neighborhood already had a history, a community, a story, a culture, a set of buildings, [and] people; it was a place already. The journalist wrote this. What is most important is that we continue to tap into hearing from residents, representing their voices, building political capital and will, and making sure as practitioners, organizations, and institutions that we listen and act. Each day, each year, the SPARC collaborative partners are getting better at this. So I’d say back to the journalist now, nearly three years later, that we are still tooling the model but having more success and experimenting less.
Five years into this work of convening neighborhood collaboratives, we are thinking about our ecosystem here in Oakland and reflecting on the power [that arises] when aligned, passionate partners come together and are supported to make change happen. We’ve seen crazy dreams start to become reality. We hope in the future to share more of our work and lessons learned so that other neighborhoods will also join us in creating healthy, safe, and vibrant neighborhoods where they are. To the extent that we are able to support other neighborhoods, great. And this certainly doesn’t mean EBALDC itself needs to take the lead or be the convener of this work. We can support, champion, and rally. Our goal is to support and build our ecosystem to spread health equity and opportunity, not as an anomaly but as a way of being.
Emma Zehner is Communications and Publications Editor at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
Photograph Credit: East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation