Nana was one of my favorite storytellers.
The one that stays with me most is her traveling the backroads of Greenwood, Louisiana, with siblings in tow. Before they could continue on the path home, they’d have to spend a few minutes looking directly at the bodies of lynched Black folk. Looking away meant that you’d be beaten, raped and/ or killed. There were always groups of white people “on watch”. They were not always members of the KKK. Babies were forced to watch, too.
Once, when Nana was 8, she was caught in a neighbor’s yard, clearly trying to skip out on the view of old and new bodies hanging from trees. Her siblings had been walked home earlier by their eldest brother. After the neighbor saw Nana, he promised to personally hang her from one of the trees if she was seen in it again.
Black folks’ relationship with and to the land is often fraught and complex.
Nana and Deady Stafford (my great grandfather) left Shreveport, Louisiana for California in the late 1940s. Nana was recruited as a nurse and decided that her family would re-locate. Deady, Nana and their 4 kids settled on Mare Island in Vallejo.
Papa and Granny Butts left Clayton, Alabama in 1960. They came to California after graduating high school. Papa was a basketball star.
Papa, granny and his 3 sisters lived in a high rise on 9th and Broadway when downtown Oakland was an all/ mainly Black neighborhood. They lived with each other until each family had enough for their own apartment in the same building.
The dreams of the Staffords and Butts’ were common for many Black folks living in and/or from the South during this time period. They moved to California for “better opportunities”.
During “The Great Migration” over 6 million Black people re-located from the South coast to the Northeast, Midwest and West Coasts where between 1916 and 1970. The incentives to re-locate included escaping segregation/ “Jim Crow”, the promise of more money in “freer” states, and the need for more industrial workers.
In 1934, Congress also passed the Federal Housing Association, which insured banks against mortgage losses. The FHA directly encouraged banks and lenders to discriminate against people of color by providing color coded maps that outlined the level of risk of giving out mortgages. Communities of color were almost always outlined in red as the highest level of risk.
Black folks were systematically denied mortgages and homeowners were discouraged from selling their homes to Black buyers. This effectively kept Black folks out of the newly created suburbs of the 1940s and 50s and restricted them to redlined areas. Redlined zones were intentionally discriminated against and made to be places with low property value, inadequate resources and the houses were often left in disrepair due to the denial of loans.
In Oakland in particular, the “Urban Renewal” programs between 1940s-1970s destroyed several thousand housing units that were seen as centers of Black cultural life. The units were replaced with transit systems, post offices and freeways. Entire neighborhoods were demolished to make room for these programs.
In the 1990s and 2000s, subprime predatory lending was on the rise and specifically targeted people of color. Some folks would have qualified for a prime loan but the incentive to offer subprime loans was greater because folks who took out subprime loans were far more likely to end up in foreclosure. The banks and lenders profited over this because they could then pull these homes out of foreclosure by purchasing them at a fraction of the price.
Often times, the previous owners (usually Black and/or brown) would then transition into the position of renters, stay in the home and begin paying rent to the bank that actually gave them the predatory loan in the first place. The price of rent skyrocketed and tenants were paying more than their mortgage payments to these banks.
There’s a totality of not having dignified housing and how it impacts the spirit.
Imagine a home being in your family for five generations. It is the only sanctuary you know. Your grandmother died in the home. Her ashes spread around the garden. And now, through no fault of your own, you have to pay rent for a home your family owned. Imagine the burn that all of this was calculated and planned on.
Imagine your neighborhood changing. Imagine how intentional low property value and hundreds of foreclosed homes mean cheap land and gentrification. Imagine developers coming into your neighborhood, fencing land off and still making money, though no structures are built. Imagine the government policies that support the profit over people narrative.
Or that you now have no home. You sleep on the street, cardboard keeps you warm. Everyone in the neighborhood thinks you don’t belong, thinks you don’t deserve housing but you’ve been here for 60 years. You owned a home 15 years ago. You helped build a home down the street. You’ve built an altar in your new home, this cardboard and dirty street. The altar has two photos, 3 plants and a news article. You sleep next to an empty parking lot. Your new home is moved or burned or pissed on. The residents say they don’t want trash in their neighborhood. They mean you. You go grab some food, come back to a burned or burning altar. All of your belongings are trashed.
I keep thinking about the bodies that were stepped over to get to this place. The bodies that were still warm but not yet alive who wanted (and didn’t want) to touch the soil. The horror walks across borders, states and nations. The water travels that made sick, made suicidal, made strong. The train rides made possible by the brown folk who built the tracks. All these terror stories no one talks about. The smell of body rot, of impenetrable greed, of destruction. The belief that we will make it. Despite. Beyond.
My family has lived in Oakland for 70 years. Though over 100 of us were born and raised here, only 5 of us currently live in the city. Two of them own their homes and dozens of realtors have dropped by asking if they’d sell. The rest are in Richmond, Union City, Antioch, Sacramento, Bakersfield, Stockton, Tracy and San Leandro.
The Black population in Oakland has dropped by more than 25%. In some areas, it’s as high as 60%. These numbers rarely take into account the homeless/ houseless populations on our streets. On a larger scale, Black displacement and dispossession continues to run rampant around the world.
At the core of the racist, heteronormative and capitalist “foundation” of America as both a body and a frame of reference is a profiting from the blood and labor of Black, brown and Native folks locally and globally. America and whiteness in particular, fuel their institutional structures by commodifying land and housing. It also intentionally wields its sword by perpetuating state sanctioned violence, criminalization and anti-blackness, which is strengthened by the housing crisis, displacement and gentrification.
On March 21st, 2014 Alex Nieto was killed at a park while waiting to work his night shift in the same neighborhood he grew up in. White neighbors had called the police because they believed he was acting suspiciously. Alex was sitting eating a burrito and was wearing his security uniform, which included a red jacket and a taser. Police and the neighbor who called them assumed that the red jacket was a sign of gang involvement. 14 bullets ripped through Alex’s body. The four officers were cleared of all charges, though their descriptions of the killing were inconsistent. No charges were filed against the neighbor who called them.
On June 18th, 2017 Charleena Lyles, a mother of four with on the way, was killed by two police officers in front of her home. Charleena called police because she suspected that someone had attempted to burglarize her home. Charleena had a small knife in her hand when police arrived and had a history of mental health concerns. Her three children were inside the home when she was shot and killed. Her fourth child died inside of her.
These stories are common and inescapable. They’ve happened in every state/ city. In every time period. All of these stories are racially and geographically coded.
The historical analysis of why housing has not served the spirit of the people, along with the literal and metaphoric deaths that Black and brown folks experience at the hands and terrortories of whiteness is infinite. The ways that police and other officials interact with our communities without ever living in them impacts the ways in which its inhabitants are perceived. This especially impacts children who have to navigate these conditions while also attending school, having unstable housing, experiencing multiple mental health crises (due to the harassment and conditions of their homes) and are still expected to learn.
Though safe and dignified housing is a right, predatory developers, landlords and agents of the state harass, surveil and intimidate Black and brown folks on a regular basis. This harassment is multiplied when community members are poor, disabled, monolingual Spanish/ Cantonese speakers and/or illiterate. The myth of housing and land scarcity coupled with the constant harassment negatively impacts renter’s mental and physical health.
Housing (in)stability forces tenants to start imagining their lives in other cities, states and/or countries. They have to make choices between safety and housing, and typically have to give up one for the other. For long term tenants contemplating re-location, they are met with steeper requirements to access housing including credit checks, pet deposits, first and last month’s rent + a deposit and positive rental history. These intentional barriers are produced and strengthened by landlords, Wall Street and the current housing market which allows legal discrimination against poor and working class communities.
Landlords often promise tenants positive references if they leave their units but end up reneging and giving negative feedback, preventing tenants from accessing new, stable units.
When tenants have children, the harassment they tolerate is multifaceted. Section 8 tenants for instance, are coaxed into giving their landlord’s additional side payments on top of their rent, though it’s a violation of both the tenant and landlord’s agreement with Section 8. One of the reasons tenants do this is because they don’t want their children out on the streets and they’d rather pay and overpriced, illegal amount of rent (It’s considered a felony to pay or receive extra payments outside of the Section 8 contract) than face eviction. Tenants also make/ pay for their own repairs because landlords make them believe they are doing tenants a favor by addressing habitability concerns instead of it being required by law.
Housing structures are strategically depleted and/or ignored altogether in order to get tenants out of their units. Furthermore, it reinforces the incentive for market rate housing by dehumanizing renters in order to make it easier to push them out. Along with the loopholes that these tenants have to jump through to, they’re also navigating unsafe conditions outside of their homes. Toxic dumpsites, refineries and hyper polluted areas are prevalent in lower income neighborhoods. This, coupled with food deserts, lead particles in water and the traps of economic dislocation, increases health risks, mortality rates and crime.
America, in all its promises of bettering and belonging, has failed us. My family didn’t “migrate” to California from Louisiana, Texas and Alabama. They were pushed out underneath the guise of economic and educational prosperity. Under the lie of humanity and equity. The drain of resources, dignity, housing stability and justice in Black and brown communities is intentional. It pits tenants, families and people struggling to survive against one another and prioritizes profit over people.
In order to combat the spatial and social segregation and shame that our communities experience, we have to continue to revise and re-envision what housing, land and development looks like when it is lead by and for the people. This includes ensuring that houseless folks are in those conversations and are trusted to lead townhalls, brainstorming sessions and action when we challenge the institutions that keep us un and underhoused, underfed and silenced.
The fight to decommodify housing began a long time ago and it continues. While we are fighting, may we continue to envision and act on decolonizing gender and decommodifying health care. We must define the structures, systems and paths of our communities. These are all preconditions to human development and self actualization. Now is the time to arm ourselves against this monster that is capitalism, anti-Blackness and white supremacy.
This is for all of us who live in homes that are no longer homes. Those that have to travel miles to see someone who looks like them. Those whose homes are burned by gentrifiers and/or are moved two streets down in an attempt to “clean the city” without ever asking you. Without ever holding your humanity at the center.
Puerto Rico. Texas. Florida. Dominica. Mexico. Caribbean. Everywhere.
Towards belonging. Not to a city. Not to land. To each other.