Why Bay Area neighborhoods are still racially segregated

Skyscraper shot of Piedmont California

Piedmont, California is zoned for 100% single-family housing and is known as a segregated white community in the Bay Area, consisting of nearly 75% white residents. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Sam Pullara)

When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the United States became illegal. But according to new research from UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute, those divisive practices still exist in the Bay Area through zoning laws that create restrictive neighborhoods segregated by race.

The study is the fifth and final installment of the institute’s “Racial Segregation in the San Francisco Bay Area” series. Researchers mapped jurisdictions and produced a set of maps of 67 cities across six Bay Area counties that show the correlation between segregated neighborhoods and areas zoned for single-family homes.

Samir Gambhir wearing a pink shirt

Samir Gambhir works as a geographic information systems (GIS) researcher and manager of the Equity Metrics program at UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute. (UC Berkeley photo)

The findings were clear: As the proportion of single-family zoning increases in a city, so does its white population, while Black and Latinx populations decrease.

“White communities prefer to stay far away and segregated from other communities, and single-family zoning has been a key driver in perpetuating that segregation in the Bay Area,” said report co-author Samir Gambhir, who has worked as a researcher and manager of Othering and Belonging’s equity metrics program since 2013. “It is zoning as a means to put stricter controls on where people want to live, about how their property is appreciating, and how they would like to access different public goods.”

The research also shows that major cities throughout the Bay Area have a majority of housing zoned only for single-family structures, including San Francisco at 51% and Oakland with 65%. Piedmont is residentially zoned 100% single-family housing.

Gambhir spoke with Berkeley News about what can be done to battle segregation in Bay Area communities, and how his research relates to the broader efforts for racial justice.

Berkeley News: How is the Bay Area segregated, and what is the impact of that segregation?

Samir Gambhir: If you look at the racial distribution in the Bay Area, it is around 40% white, 26% Asian, 24% Latino and 6% Black. It seems like a very diverse community.

But if you look at our research, you’ll see that there are pockets of segregation across different counties. There are communities which are highly dominated by Black, Latino or Asian people. White  people have the most segregated communities. They seem to want to have their own communities to keep away from people of color.

This analysis clearly brings out how segregated the entire Bay Area is. That segregation impacts economic outcomes:  a racial segregation that leads to economic segregation.

There is an uneven distribution of private and public resources in terms of what white neighborhoods get versus Black neighborhoods. Children from segregated areas also go to segregated schools. There is an unequal distribution of wages, access to health care, access to healthy food, employment issues and the list goes on.

Graph showing how white communities are more segregated than other racial groups in the Bay Area. The graphic illustrates trends that are otherwise described in the text of the story.

(Courtesy of UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute)

Those unequal outcomes manifest just by the fact that the community is segregated. All of this is impacting the life outcomes of residents in these communities.

And historically, the situation has not changed much. The Bay Area is still almost as segregated as it was in the 1960s.

That’s why we embarked on this study to not just research the impact of segregation, but the harms and what we can do to ameliorate that segregation.

How do current housing zoning laws perpetuate this segregation?

I think housing choice is highly structured and racialized. White communities identify anything associated with Black communities as a negative. Crime or schools, or anything. White communities prefer to stay far away and segregated from other communities.

Majority single-family zoning communities are primarily white with rich community resources such as good schools, less pollution and better funded public amenities such as police. Single-family zoning is one of many mechanisms of perpetuating segregation by keeping low-income folks and people of color out of their communities.

Whether it’s good schools, a safe neighborhood, these are some of the basic needs.

In the 1970s, local jurisdictions actually used it as a planning tool. It is zoning as a means to put stricter controls on where people want to live, about how their property is appreciating and how they would like to access different public goods.

We are planning to release a detailed report which deals extensively with single-family zoning in the Bay Area. It analyzes the relationship between singe-family zoning, racial segregation and socio-economic outcomes.

So how can we combat this segregation in a community like the Bay Area?

We have looked into mobility strategies to help promote integration. Providing resources that allow people to move from high poverty, racially segregated neighborhoods, to more integrated neighborhoods.

Map of Bay Area that highlights areas zoned for single-family housing

(Courtesy of UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute)

Improving the low-income housing tax credit would also help increase access to, and the creation of, affordable and multi-unit housing in the Bay Area. Even then, that housing should be located in areas which are high-opportunity where those residents can access all those amenities that high-opportunity areas have.

We are currently working on a project for California Department of Housing and Community Development and the Tax Credit Allocation Committee where we presented a model to them to identify high-opportunity areas within the state to assist them in developing policy to incentivize construction of large family Low-Income Housing Tax Credit housing.

There are also policy areas that focus on rent control, rent stabilization and other policies which are really effective in addressing the issue of the gentrification as well.

What we provide in the report is a structure of policies that are out there that will certainly promote integration. But there has to be political will to make sure that those policies are applied.

Protests against racial injustice and police brutality in Black communities are occurring throughout the country, and in the Bay Area. How does neighborhood segregation fit into this dialogue?

At the Othering and Belonging Institute, we try to talk about these things in a broad framework of humanity. How do we treat our fellow human beings?

Othering certainly is a mechanism by which we are trying to segregate people: ‘us’ versus ‘them.’

So, it’s important that people look at this research through the lens of ‘othering and belonging,’ and see that if you have a more integrated community, we are actually lifting up everybody.

We are lifting up the entire society. We are all living together.

If people look at our work through that lens while looking into specifics of all the different issues related to systemic racism and disadvantage, I think it would make a lot of sense.