Greenlining’s aim is to keep Oakland’s palette vibrant


SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
BY OTIS TAYLOR

As downtown Oakland speeds toward an economic transformation, there’s a group that wants to ensure that demographic changes in the city aren’t as rapid.

The Greenlining Institute, a social justice organization that fights discriminatory redlining practices and advocates for equal opportunity, recently relocated to downtown Oakland from Berkeley, renovating a former bank building on 14th Street.

“It’s really worrisome when you can’t keep people in what are considered centers of opportunity,” said Orson Aguilar, the institute’s president.

Greenlining works to drive economic investments into communities of color to improve job, housing and education opportunities.

It’s an effort to keep people of color from leaving Oakland, where displacement is eroding the city’s proud cultural vigor. Black people were the largest racial group at about 28 percent of the city’s population, according to 2010 census data, which showed that nearly a quarter of the black population left the city between 2000 and 2010.

One of Greenlining’s solutions is to push companies to broaden their supplier networks and seek out businesses run by people of color and women. This is an updated approach to erasing redlining, the illegal practice of withholding and refusing services to communities of color.

Decades ago, redlining was clearly visible on geographic maps, as banks wouldn’t give loans to people who lived in certain neighborhoods. Because of this institutionalized segregation, people of color were excluded from the country’s economic system. The redlining mentality still exists, but since it isn’t as deliberate and calculated as it once was, some businesses have to be nudged to consciously expand their networks.

And the impending arrival of a tech giant has Greenlining seeing red.

“We want to make sure that there’s opportunity — that people of color are part of that narrative and it’s not the same story that we’ve seen in San Francisco or throughout the Peninsula where the growth of tech means the decline of people of color and working-class people,” Aguilar said.

In 2015, Uber, the ride-hailing company, purchased the former Sears building for $123.5 million to be its East Bay headquarters. When the office opens in 2018, Uber is expected to bring some 2,000 to 3,000 workers, and many will inevitably be looking for places to rent or buy, adding a crushing weight to an already strained housing market.

How many more businesses, renters and prospective home buyers will be priced out of Oakland? Is it too late to put the brakes on displacement?

While Uber has held outreach meetings, saying it will seek to hire people and businesses for maintenance, food services and security work, there’s been no explicit commitment to hiring locals for the high-paying tech jobs — jobs with the salaries that will allow people to afford to live in Oakland. Company spokespeople could not be reached for comment.

Greenlining has been vocal about how Uber can negatively impact Oakland. Soon the companies will be neighbors.

“We know that those jobs are not going to go to people from Oakland,” Aguilar said. “Uber won’t even disclose its diversity data. A lot of Silicon Valley companies are at least doing that.

“That’s not the kind of company that should be welcomed in Oakland. The opportunity is there for them to change. Up until now, we haven’t seen that willingness.”

Greenlining purchased its building before Uber did. And once Uber made its announcement, Aguilar told me Greenlining was contacted by several brokers who wanted to buy the building at an increased valuation. He said no.

More than half of the contractors used to renovate the Greenlining building were local and minority-owned. Two floors have been leased to nonprofits committed to diversity and working with underserved communities. The Post News Group, which publishes the Oakland Post, a black newspaper, has office space in the basement near the bank vault that is now used as a conference room.

The project took three years to complete, and cost a total of $10 million to purchase and renovate the building.

“Usually when you see revitalization, it means people of color being pushed out,” Aguilar said. “Here, we’re adding a little bit to Oakland’s revitalization by making sure people of color stay here, especially the nonprofits that are serving low-income people and people of color.”