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Bay Area Leaders Re-Examine The Part Planning, Zoning Have Had In Racist Public Policy

Bay Area public policy heads of groups ranging from SPUR to the San Francisco mayor's office say they are reckoning with how to avert racially unjust outcomes their organizations have helped create.

Silicon Valley
San Jose

Both Alicia John-Baptiste, the president and CEO of longtime urban policy think tank SPUR, and Eric Shaw, the director of the San Francisco Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development, spoke about the need to frequently examine their respective organizations' policies and processes in a Bisnow webinar Thursday.

“The truth of an organization like mine is we have been in existence for 110 years,” John-Baptiste said. “Just as in the realm of city planning, our policies have created harm for communities over that period of time.”

By a number of measures, the Bay Area is among the least racially equitable regions in the nation. In its 2020 metro monitor report, the Brookings Institution ranked the Bay Area 49th out of 53 large metro areas in racial inclusion, largely for its continually widening income gap between white people and people of color.

In 2018, median earnings for white people in the San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley area came out to about $75K, versus just over $45K for residents of color, according to Brookings, which used data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Among the contributing factors pointed to by John-Baptiste and others Thursday was urban renewal, a federal policy that gave cities grants to redevelop their downtowns but also led to the displacement of people of color from many areas. John-Baptiste said SPUR in the 1960s was a regretfully strong supporter of the process, which was applied heavily and to disastrous effect in San Francisco’s Fillmore District.

Redlining, which, in general, is the denial of federal services like mortgage lending to minorities, thus denying people of color key avenues of wealth creation, has also had a major impact. San Jose Department of Planning, Building and Code Enforcement Director Rosalynn Hughey said facilitating homeownership for people of color needs to be a priority of Bay Area cities like San Jose.

“We know that that is an opportunity for people to begin to generate wealth,” Hughey said. “To me, when we talk about racial equity, that is a key factor — this big divide that we have in wealth.”

“When I think of racial equity … it’s about outcomes. I think every city wants good outcomes for every resident in that city,” she added.

BAY AREA EQUITY, INCLUSION & URBAN PLANNING Webinar
Clockwise from top left: San Francisco Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development Director Eric Shaw, UC Berkeley Chair and Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Louise A. Mozingo, SPUR President and CEO Alicia John-Baptiste, SmithGroup principal Georgia Sarkin, Cushman & Wakefield Director Samantha Low and San Jose Planning, Building and Code Enforcement Department Director Rosalynn Hughey

Like John-Baptiste, Shaw, who was appointed by S.F. Mayor London Breed in April, said he also must be cognizant of his office’s past role in creating racial inequities and that he reminds his staff to be so as well.

“We have to remember that these systems were created and that I exist in a space where I have to challenge or run a system that sort of created some of the situations that exist now,” Shaw said. “It takes constant reflection as a director and leader around the language, around the tools, around the processes. Am I reinforcing the structural racism and the issues that have caused the urban issues and racial issues we have in cities right now.”

Shaw said part of that reflection is ensuring the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development works with more people of color on development opportunities. He said the office is taking a top-down look at “everything from solicitation, to finance, to marketing, to anti-eviction, to also the inclusion and capacity building of Black and brown developers, and the work that we do, because we are a significant investor.”

Hughey, who has over 30 years of experience in urban planning, said San Jose is also looking to provide its services across departments in a more equitable way, and that that hasn’t happened a moment too soon. She pointed to the city council’s move last month to create its new Office of Racial Equity as one example.

“I’m very glad actually that we’re finally acknowledging that it has been our profession that has perpetuated the continued systemic racism that we see in our neighborhoods and in our cities across the country,” Hughey said. “Finally, we’re acknowledging the role that planning and zoning have played.”