Recent graduates of UC Berkeley, my three housemates and I entered into our house hunt in Oakland armed with the rhetoric of our time: gentrification, classism and white privilege as three considerations amongst many.
We’d heard other people’s post-graduate housing horror stories: one friend who moved into a duplex in West Oakland shared her building with a rowdy group of white men in their 20’s. In their street-facing window, they hung an American flag large enough to cover the glass whole. From the sidewalk the building looked like a single unit home, and my friend felt self-conscious as she used the front door, worrying that her neighbors might think the flag was hers.
We scoffed at these boys. How insensitive could they be, loudly displaying their comfort in this country in a neighborhood populated by people who are systematically wronged here. We will not be like these boys, we said to each other out loud. We will tread lightly. We will not be gentrifiers.
It was easy for me to say these things. It was similarly easy for me to convince my parents, who grew up in San Francisco, that today’s Oakland is not the same as the Oakland of their youth — unlike the 1980’s, it’s no longer a widely feared chapter of the Hell’s Angels.
Today, Oakland is home to street fairs, music venues and many of the San Franciscans who can no longer afford the cost of my home city’s ever-expansive gentrification. It continues to promote a long history of community organizing, and time and time again has been named as one of America’s greenest cities. It was easy for me to imagine myself moving away from UC Berkeley and into this adjacent world, where I spent weekends as a student dancing at bars near 19th Street and walking around Lake Merritt, imagining myself a part of something larger than the comfortable structure of academia that I’d occupied for so long.
We felt confident that we could beat the expensive housing market with moxie, holding true to our learned morals as we put up drywall and found free furniture online. We imagined ourselves toasting to our new home, craft beer in old pickle jars, feeling victorious. White women and recent college grads, we were blindly confident that this would work. We learned this confidence subconsciously — we aren’t generally made to think about how we appear to the world around us.
While I was in school, I could live in the East Bay easily, endowed with the purpose of being “a student.” But since moving out of Berkeley’s familiar bubble, it hasn’t been easy to find a place to live.
The current housing crisis in the Bay Area makes finding a home here difficult for nearly anyone. Securing a space that simultaneously fits your budget and is close enough to BART for your daily commute proves a record-breakingly difficult task. Tack on worrying about your social impact — trying to ensure that you aren’t displacing anybody by moving into a conveniently priced home — and you’re looking at four months of couch surfing while you try in vain to find a home, as we did this summer.
In an effort to be mindful of our impact (to “tread lightly,” so to speak), we started looking for houses in neighborhoods we already knew. Four blocks from a $6 scoop of ice cream? Sign me up. Across the street from an Ecstatic Dance studio? I’ll move in tomorrow. The last renters worked for Tesla? Maybe you could put me in touch with their mechanic. We speculated about erecting faux-walls out of styrofoam to make living rooms into bedrooms and parking spaces into patios. We could make anything work.
As it turns out, I know these neighborhoods precisely for their public appeal. Open houses here are buzzing with young professionals, cooing over the in-home washing machine and eager to hand the landlord ready-made portfolios, complete with credit scores and bank statements better than mine. As we struggled to find a landlord who would rent to us, I became fast acquainted with the feeling that I am simply a small portion of everyone else. There are, in fact, so many people like me looking for housing in these neighborhoods that I don’t make the cut. Our iron-clad intentionality and proudly held degrees withered as we realized that these features have very little sway in the real world.
Time after time we were told that the landlord had chosen another group. “If you were a landlord,” one man asked me over the phone, “Why would you rent to a group of recent college graduates who need guarantors on a lease? Why risk the wear and tear on your property when you could rent to an older couple with stable jobs?”
The answers to these questions lie in an uncomfortable realm of self-conception. In this domain, my proximity to a college degree makes me suspicious of bad habits and naivety, of the real-world growth I have overlooked during the years I spent studying instead of worrying about my credit score.
Until I transform my education into sound proof of income, Oakland doesn’t care, and I’ve started to see my degree like the landlords do: graduating from college is an immense privilege, but it doesn’t simply transform you into a useful member of society. I resent this judgement, but I fear its truth, too.
As we continued looking, we found ourselves right where we started. In West Oakland, the city’s oldest established neighborhood, houses are cheap and spacious enough for each of my housemates to have their own bedroom. The landlords we met there seemed to market to the vision of our group that made us undesirable on the other side of town. One man said that he could only put four people on the lease, but encouraged us to fill the house with as many people as we wanted. Another proudly showed a large backyard and suggested that it was the perfect size for a party. “I’m working on building a small stage over there,” he said as he pointed. “You could have a band night!”
I felt irrational love for these people because they offered hope and advertised a lifestyle that I recognize. But I was more aware than ever that these homes are just a mile west of the lake and are years behind in their development.
Because of its proximity to the Bay Area, people first began to settle in West Oakland during the Gold Rush. Given California’s new economy, it wasn’t long before the port settlement was bustling with industrial development. But in the 1960’s, the city suffered from white flight as wealthy white families left the working class neighborhood for the suburbs.
Today, the predominantly black neighborhood suffers again from an influx of young white renters, fleeing the Bay Area’s impacted housing market and displacing longtime residents in the process.
As a result, West Oakland occupies a patchy transition. Many of the houses we found on Craigslist are large and lined with flowers (“the gardener costs $200 a month unless you’re willing to care for the roses yourself”). But when compared to their surroundings, these homes look painfully new — aggressive strongholds of the future amongst the long surviving past. None come without a tall metal fence, and as we pull up outside for showings, neighbors sitting on their porches stare. Four white women in a lime green Camry. Can you blame them?
In school, we talked about food deserts and white flight and the harmful effects of gentrification on low-income East Bay residents. We did not talk about what to do or how to behave when you find that you may be part of the problem.
Last week, we found a house that is miraculously close to everyone’s job and priced inside our budget. An uncanny symbol of our long search, it sits on the street that acts as a border between Berkeley and Oakland.
The house is old, and came complete with many strange quirks: a trap door in the pantry, a long crawl-space between the living room and the kitchen and three stray cats who it seems were living here while the building was unoccupied. When we started moving furniture in, they gawked at us. Four large humans and a dusty blue couch. Can you blame them?
In my room, there is a two-way mirror built into a closet that faces my bed. Standing inside, I can look out and observe it like I’m not there — the way it’s been touched by my presence even when I appear to be absent.
I have already filled the room with things. Socks and pencils. Books and blankets. Piles of old rental applications and photos of my family home. I may not own an American flag, but from here, it seems important to recognize the difference between freedom of mobility and environmental racism, between moving into a space by choice and staying there by default, between renting a house and building a home.
Alastair Boone is a writer from San Francisco, where she has more cousins than you have toes. She currently lives in Oakland.