The ARD sat down with Vasudha Kumar (she/her), a resident of California’s Silicon Valley. After playing a leading role in a multi-year campaign to stop a new Google megacampus, Vasudha now studies the dynamics of economic displacement in cities around the U.S. This interview, condensed for readability and space, is the second of a six-part series investigating housing justice and community resistance to gentrification.
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Q: How would you describe gentrification?
Gentrification is real estate investment in a previously neglected part of a city or town — trying to “revitalize” it and invite upper-class workers to live there, bringing all the amenities that would attract them. White upper-class people move into these neighborhoods, and a lot of people get priced out.
But it’s not just about getting priced out. Another unforeseen impact of gentrification is people moving into crowded homes. Instead of trying to leave the city completely because the rent is too high, they want to stay there. They have roots there, or they have a job there, they have family there. The research the Lab is doing with the city of Oakland shows that many people shifted from low-density to high-density housing during the pandemic since it’s really expensive to afford a place with fewer people. Even if people aren’t being directly displaced, they’re going delinquent on financial accounts, moving into crowded homes, or forced to make other choices that may be harmful.
Q: How do rising housing costs affect different populations?
If you’re a single mom with a kid, you can no longer afford a place on your own. You might have to find roommates, but a lot of people don’t want to live with children. If you’re a single mom with a child on a single income, it’s very, very difficult to find a place in Oakland. With older people, finding senior housing is so, so difficult. The waitlists go for years and years.
And gentrification is happening in many historically neglected parts of the city, so it’s often Black neighborhoods that are being targeted with increased investment. If you try to put a real estate investment in a neighborhood where housing costs are already mid- or upper-tier, the profit margin there isn’t going to be that high. A lot of real estate projects focus on disinvested neighborhoods because they can make so much money off of just a little bit of investment in the area.
Q: Why isn’t building more market-rate housing a surefire fix?
You might think that building housing will raise the supply and the laws of economics tell us that prices will go down. But is the new housing only affordable for a certain class of people? Is any of it earmarked for low-income people or seniors? There’s a differential in the type of housing that’s being actually built — you have to look at what the target market really is.
Q: What sparked your interest in doing this work?
Part of it was living on my own for the first time and realizing how expensive it is to live here. It was shocking, as was seeing the connections across institutions that facilitate this. The government is catering to a network of private corporations that want to attract a certain kind of worker. When Google announced plans to move into San José, no everyday person I would talk to wouldn’t agree that Google moving in would be devastating for the city. But the city government only saw it as something they would make money from. Learning about the project, learning there was a potential to shut it down — there was room for me in that to grow not only as a resident of the city but as a member of the community who was trying to mobilize people.
Q: What can we do to stop gentrification?
Research and join an organization. There’s a California organization called Tenants Together that runs the state’s only free tenant counseling hotline. It’s not legal advice, just counseling, and support to tenants, and it’s always understaffed. Doing tenant counseling has helped people realize the extent of how bad it is out there, in terms of the types of people who get evicted and also how landlords treat their tenants.
Look at your positionality in the conversation and who’s going to listen to you. If you’re upper-class, white, Asian, or someone with some social power, maybe you can go to city government, and they’d take you seriously. And if they don’t, and you’re a low-income person the city does not care about, find like-minded neighbors or community groups to start organizing. The neighborhood has a say. You are the people living here. You should have a say in what your neighborhood looks like 5, 10, 20 years from now. Whatever it takes for them to listen to you or for you to make them do a certain thing, you have to make sacrifices.
I think it would take a reimagining of the current socio-economic structure. As it currently exists, gentrification is incentivized and encouraged by the market and the last 200 years of public policy. Stopping gentrification will require a mass movement where masses of people come together, pitch in, and make sacrifices in order to restructure the socio-economic system as it currently exists.
When real estate companies invest in previously neglected communities of color, legacy residents are priced out or squeezed into substandard living conditions.
Employers like tech companies hope to attract well-paid (often white workers), while local governments often hope to receive more tax revenue.
Members of a neighborhood should have a say in its future. Join a tenants union or community organization near you to help make that happen.