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West Oakland: From Black families to tech geeks

Aarti Shahani Oct 16, 2013

West Oakland: From Black families to tech geeks

Aarti Shahani Oct 16, 2013

Homeowner turned Renter

Marilyn Williams moved to West Oakland in 1983, and she’s never left.

Williams takes me on a driving tour, starting with her block. She points to a row of century-old Victorians and interrupts herself, realizing she’s made a mistake.

“My house was built – look I’m still calling it my house. I’m so silly!”

It’s a “silly” mistake because Williams doesn’t own this white duplex anymore. She just rents the ground floor.

In 2010, at the exact same time banks took a zero tolerance approach to anyone falling behind on their mortgage, Williams fell behind. She was getting a divorce and lost her husband’s income.

“It wasn’t like ‘Oh, I don’t have the money, I won’t pay anything,’” she says. “I started making half-payments.”

In just a few months, her house went on short sale and sold for about one-third the price she’d bought it for.

At that rate, she could’ve afforded to keep the home. But her bank wouldn’t write down her principal because the investors who owned the loan hadn’t authorized that.

Now sixty years old, Williams sometimes forgets she’s become a tenant like so many others and she can’t leave this home to her daughters.

At least, Williams says, “They’ve never not had a roof over their heads.”

Rent vs. Buy: Which is Cheaper for You?

by Trulia.

My Community?

West Oakland was once a stronghold for African-American homeowners. Now the neighborhood is losing its Black families. And Williams, a teacher and long-time community activist, is trying to figure out if this is still her community.

She points across the street, to a seven-foot-tall mural of a young father and remembers their last meeting.

“I gave him a big hug,” she recalls, “And I said, ‘I’m really proud of you.’”

The next day, he was shot during a cross fire. He died.

When the house with his mural was foreclosed, the new owners nearly painted over it. Williams was outraged.

“I flew out of the house screaming ‘NO! That mural has brought about a change in this whole community.’”

In the 1980s, Williams says West Oakland was a crack den. But out of respect, drug dealing stopped at that corner.

Around the next corner, Williams points to Willow Park.

“It’s one of my first park efforts,” Williams says. “We got a nice basketball court.”

Improvements spearheaded by Williams continued. When a double-deck freeway collapsed in the 1989 earthquake, she organized against Caltrans to replace it with a tree-lined boulevard.

“We got a beautifully landscaped corridor named after Nelson Mandela.”

All this activism by Marilyn Williams is not the kind of ‘metric’ that mattered to her bank, but it did make her neighborhood more inviting.

Vladimir Levitansky moved into the neighborhood around the same time Williams lost her home.

Levitansky used to be a clown in the circus. Now, he’s the owner of a new organic restaurant.

Like the neighborhood, his menu is a work in progress. Levitansky is starting with fish and chips and po’boys, but he plans to “slowly introduce some crazy exotic food to the neighborhood like carrots, something that was not deep-fried.”

No Bubble Here

Most economists agree that the housing market is going through a healthy recovery.

Jed Kolko, chief economist at the real estate company Trulia, says, “There’s no sign yet of a housing bubble.”

I went to Kolko to get his expert take on homeowner-turned-renter Marilyn Williams and her personal investment into West Oakland. Is there any economic argument that the market loses when individuals like her lose?

Kolko begins to answer, “Sometimes what we see what an individual is going through is a clear sign of bigger problems in the macroeconomy but…”

He doesn’t have the heart to finish his thought: sometimes personal pain is a sign of systemic failure. But in this instance, as Kolko later told me, it’s not.

Meet the Neighbors

Williams says West Oakland isn’t as tight knit as it used to be.

Tech geeks priced out of San Francisco are moving into homes in the area. “A lot of them are introverts,” Williams says. “They’re not getting out into the community and just walking, getting to know people.”

Williams does recall one exception. A young blonde woman came by the other day, looking to do volunteer work. Williams was so surprised, she gave her a hug.

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