Community Archive

As part of my book, I’ve created a library of documents about the Bay Area, focusing on race and housing. Over the coming months, I’ll be creating a community archive showing how the Bay’s cities were planned and real estate markets structured.

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1937: Oakland Real Property Survey.

In 1936, the Oakland City Planning Commission submitted an application to the Works Progress Administration for Federal help in preparing a "Real Property Survey." I.S. Shattuck, then Oakland's city planning engineer, directed this substantial task involving "supervisors, field foremen, field enumerators, and office employees" that took most of the fall of 1936. Shattuck held that the importance of the survey  "can scarcely be over-emphasized." Housing was at the root of many of the issues of a growing city, and "to remedy existing conditions, definite and accurate information must, first of all, be made available." This report Shattuck submitted contained that information. Data was amassed on every single block of the city: Total number of dwelling units, percent of residential structures built in 1919 or before, percent of dwelling units owner occupied, percent of residential structures needing major repairs or unfit for use, number of structures having business uses, percent of dwelling units with no private bathroom, percent of families that are non-white (negro or oriental). The report would be “the basis for choosing districts where existing conditions are the worst, and undertaking for these districts more intense studies dealing with suggestions for bettering existing housing," Shattuck wrote, "and even, in some cases, for replanning the physical appearance of these districts in conjunction with a program of clearance and rehousing." 

“These districts” meant West Oakland, particularly the racially mixed western part of it. As the area had been zoned for heavy industry, despite its large residential populations, Shattuck was sure that West Oakland's housing units would decrease as businesses took property from residences. This “crowding out” would help get rid of some of Oakland’s bad housing, but he admitted, “living conditions in the dwellings remaining will certainly fall further and further below a decent standard.” This admission should be astonishing: the city intended to displace some people and hurt those who remained. But that was not Shattuck’s only plan. He also suggested that a freeway be cut right through the heart of West Oakland, creating an infrastructural division between the mixed-race (western) and white (eastern) parts of the neighborhood. “The housing advantage of this diagonal highway route is that it would segregate that portion of the district under discussion where non-white families are largely concentrated from the portion where they are relatively few in number," Shattuck argued. "A plan of housing could take advantage of this physical division by providing a unit or units for mixed race occupancy west of the East Shore Highway, and units for all-white occupancy east of the highway." 

The data from this report also underpinned the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation maps that formalized government disinvestment in Oakland’s racially mixed (or likely to become racially mixed) neighborhoods. It also factored in to the Federal Housing Administration’s discriminatory approval of mortgage insurance.

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1938: Need for a Low-Rent Housing Project

The Housing Act of 1937, known commonly as the Wagner-Steagall Act, was signed by FDR. It created the first public housing program, organized under the U.S. Housing Authority, which could make grants to local authorities to bulldoze" “substandard” housing and rebuild public units. Many states, including California, passed legislation that allowed cities to create local housing authorities, and so in Oakland, that became a question to be answered.  

The new U.S. Housing Authority meant the possibility of grabbing a slice of the $500,000,000 in Federal funds dedicated to slum clearing and public housing. All they'd have to do was pay 10 percent of the upfront costs and 20 percent of the subsidy necessary to bring the rents in new housing within reach of poor people. But, first, the city planning department had to prove that Oakland needed “slum clearance” funds.

Oakland was at a disadvantage for getting Federal dollars. It was "a young city" that did not show "the more acute manifestations of 'slums' found in Eastern cities." Did the Oakland of 1938 even have slums? City Planning Engineer John G. Marr drew on a Harvard University Press publication, Slums and Housing, for his definition: "The slum is a residential area in which housing is so deteriorated, so sub-standard, or so unwholesome as to be a menace to the health, safety, morality, or welfare of the occupants." 

By this definition, "Oakland does not have slum areas," Marr admitted, "but it is evident that there is much bad housing to be found in the city." More importantly, other areas were "definitely on the downgrade," and so the "revivification of certain of those areas of incipient decay is essential." Drawing on the Real Property Survey that fueled the HOLC and FHA's risk-rating, Marr assembled data on Oakland's bad housing in an "attempt to eliminate all emotional arguments so frequently resorted to in an attempt to justify an improvement in the housing of persons of low income." 

The upshot of this report was the creation of the Oakland Housing Authority and the construction of Peralta Villa and Campbell Village in West Oakland and Lockwood Gardens in East Oakland.

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1946: Oakland Zoning Laws

In the 1910s, hundreds of cities rushed to adopt zoning laws of some kind, even though no one was quite sure if they were legal. Oakland created an industrial zone in West Oakland in 1912, then barred businesses (and apartment buildings) in residential districts near Lake Merritt in 1918. After a series of state Supreme Court decisions, the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of zoning in the landmark 1926 case, Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Company. Thereafter, the Federal Housing Administration required that cities develop comprehensive zoning plans in order to access mortgage insurance.

Oakland passed its first comprehensive zoning plan in 1935. This document shows the Oakland zoning laws as they existed in 1946, after 11 years worth of revisions.

Nationally, zoning became a powerful way both to keep black people out of white residential neighborhoods and to concentrate profitable, polluting business in the areas of town where black people were able to find housing. “Zoning's founders fashioned a powerful new rationale for residential exclusion: the claim that exclusion of any 'incompatible land use,' be it apartments, factories, or occupancy by black people, was motivated not by ideology but by economics," summarized David Freund in Colored Property

Federal officials kept locals disciplined about the enforcement of zoning, as Oakland racist Real Estate Board reminded city officials in a late 1930s letter. “You will recall that at the time the Zoning Ordinance was being considered, Federal Housing Administration was keenly interested, and that, as a first result of your adoption of the ordinance, many thousands of Oakland residence properties were promptly made eligible for FHA mortgage insurance; properties which had not previously been eligible and would not now be eligible for such insurance but for this ordinance," the letter began, before unveiling a barely hidden threat from the FHA. "We have recently been advised by an officer of Federal Housing Administration that that institution is again watchfully observant of Oakland's official attitude toward the Zoning Ordinance, and is appraising the sincerity with which it is maintained.”