A Way Forward: Addressing Mobile Segregation in the Bay Area

Earlier this year, the San Francisco Fed partnered with Northern California Grantmakers to host a program exploring new research and writing on the shifting geographies of poverty and segregation in the Bay Area and what we can do to build a more inclusive region where everyone can thrive. 

The event featured Alex Schafran (view slides pdf, 3.3 mb), author of the recently published book The Road to Resegregation: Northern California and the Failure of Politics; Miriam Zuk of the Urban Displacement Project and Dan Rinzler of the California Housing Partnership Corporation (view slides pdf, 1.1 mb), authors of Rising Housing Costs and Re-Segregation in the San Francisco Bay Area; and a practitioner panel discussion with Alea Gage from the City of Vallejo (view slides pdf, 1.0 mb), Pedro Galvao from the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (view slides pdf, 2.4 mb), Zuleika Godinez from the Ensuring Opportunity Campaign to End Poverty in Contra Costa County (view slides pdf, 608 kb), and Tony Roshan Samara from Urban Habitat.

In the commentary that follows, Sarah Frankfurth, Manager of Collaborative Philanthropy at Northern California Grantmakers, reflects on themes and key points from the discussion.


We know the Bay Area for its rich racial and ethnic diversity, birthplace of the counterculture, hotbed of new ideas that push our country forward, and an economic engine that’s 19th largest in the world. How do we reconcile that picture with the sharp increase in the number of people who are struggling to make ends meet and stay in the region they call home?

Decades of policy and planning choices have brought us to stark inequality and disparities across the Bay Area today. We live with the legacy of redlining and segregation that trapped people of color in under-resourced neighborhoods, as well as a new form of mobile segregation that forces low income people of color to move more frequently, increasing their rent burden and pushing them from neighborhoods in central cities to communities further away where resources and infrastructure have not yet scaled to meet growth.

Contra Costa and Solano counties have seen dramatic increases in people living in high poverty, segregated neighborhoods in their suburban and ex-urban areas. These communities, where philanthropic investment is often lowest, face challenges in adapting to rapid growth and supporting newly arriving people who face intense financial pressure – from a lack of middle and high wage jobs in these communities and inadequate transit infrastructure, to insufficient social services to meet demand.

How can we turn the tide to become a region of economic opportunity for everyone—especially members of our communities who’ve been locked out of asset-building by decades of discriminatory policies and investments? Our future housing and land use policies and investments must make it possible for low income people of color to live in any neighborhood in the Bay Area and share in the region’s extraordinary prosperity. This means building affordable housing in all communities, especially high resource neighborhoods, while protecting and preserving the current stock of affordable housing in places where the risk of displacement is highest.

Our regional vision needs to look beyond housing, since our current inequality isn’t just about housing, and housing alone won’t fix it. We need higher education located in more communities, better planning for our transit infrastructure to get ahead of the growth that’s happening, and increased economic opportunity and institutional support in the parts of the Bay Area that have high concentrations of segregation and poverty. People need good local job opportunities, so they can spend more time on civic participation and engagement in the community, instead of long hours commuting.    

Our systems of segregation are the result of policy and planning choices that we have made over the years. If we want to see change, then we need to confront our collective actions that have put these systems in place and make new choices that will better serve everyone in the Bay Area. As a region, we need to develop a comprehensive vision that recognizes the current reality we’ve created and responds to it with new thinking.

What can we do differently?

  • Bring together a broad set of stakeholders, including those most proximal to the issues, to develop a long term, comprehensive vision for the region and create solutions.
  • Plan regionally and invest locally, particularly in the places that people have moved to.
  • Help cities think big and test innovative ideas—and keep them accountable.
  • Build strong political engagement that will push us to try many solutions, and confront the systems of racism that have led to our current inequality.
  • Support community organizing and build the advocacy arms of service providers to inform and engage people.

The choices we make today determine our future, and we have the power to make a better future where everyone in the Bay Area has an opportunity to thrive.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or of the Federal Reserve System.