OAKLAND -- Already blamed for reshaping the culture of urban neighborhoods, gentrification could also be hurting the health of the Bay Area's poor, according to the Alameda County Public Health Department.
"It just destabilizes what may be a stable environment," said Muntu Davis, the county's public health director and one of the first in the country to treat gentrification -- and its frequent byproduct of displacement -- as a public health concern.
"We're not saying that development shouldn't happen," Davis said. "We're saying that development should happen, but it should also maintain the stability of housing for the existing residents."
The county's chief physician is the latest to weigh in on the economic changes that are transforming central parts of Oakland and other cities as rents and housing prices rise sharply, supplanting long-term residents with tech industry workers and other wealthier, college-educated arrivals.
His new initiative coincides with a report released Monday by advocacy group Causa Justa/Just Cause that says gentrification is pushing out African-Americans and worsening economic inequities in Oakland and San Francisco. Among the findings is that apartment rents in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods of North Oakland surpass the cost of rents in affluent areas such as the Oakland hills or Rockridge.
The Public Health Department did not write the report but was a key collaborator contributing to the research and policy recommendations, Davis said. He said health officials plan to work more closely with East Bay cities, particularly Oakland, in crafting housing development plans that account for the possible adverse effects of gentrification in the same way a city might consider an environmental hazard that needs to be addressed.
"Any area that has a long history of disinvestment, that's usually where new investment shows up ... but it doesn't always benefit the existing residents," he said. "It just brings a new population."
The county has long espoused a "place matters" philosophy that tackles health problems through the prism of where people live, but considering the physical health effects of relocation is a newer idea, Davis said.
Several academic studies link displacement to adverse health impacts, but many of those studies are of people forced to move because of a natural disaster or heavy-handed urban renewal policies that demolished public housing projects. The longer-term forces of gentrification have been harder to measure, and some studies -- such as a November report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland -- even claim the trend is financially beneficial for lower-income residents.
The Just Cause report defines gentrification as "a race and class remake of urban communities that have been historically disinvested in," said lead author and Just Cause project manager Dawn Phillips. Her report finds many deleterious effects but also asserts that displacement is not inevitable.
Landlords, developers and individual speculators are driving the changes, but "government has a big role to play in terms of gentrification," she said. "We can actually do something about it."
The Public Health Department's endorsement is a boost for Just Cause's report, which the organization hopes to use as it pushes the Oakland City Council and other government agencies to enact more tenant protections and other anti-displacement measures.
But for tenant activists such as Mustafa Solomon, it did not take a report to understand the emotional and physical toll of getting forced out of a home. Evicted from his North Oakland apartment after an accidental fire, it took a legal fight and six months spent in a motel before Solomon could return to his home of 17 years.
"Don't get me wrong: I had sleep deprivation for many, many months, but I have a dog, I walk, I keep my head clear, listen to jazz. I didn't let it break me down," Solomon said. "I'm one of the fortunate ones."
To buy or download a copy of the report, go to http://www.liberationink.org/content/development-without-displacement-resisting-gentrification-bay-area.