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Gentrification and Racial Bias in San Francisco Research Paper


The issue of gentrification has been subject to heated debates with regards to its perceived unfair attitudes towards representatives of marginalized and stereotyped communities who are forced to leave their rental homes so that property owners can create residential neighborhoods for more upper-income citizens. As such, gentrification can be viewed as being directly linked to bias towards representatives of low-income communities who have a history of racial and economic segregation. This paper focuses on the process of gentrification in San Francisco within the context of racial bias and the theory of ‘broken windows’, and how that exacerbates the problem of segregation within American society today. The government, along with developers and property owners, has been caught in abusing the Ellis Act, a law that plays a fundamental role in the process of gentrification by allowing the eviction of tenants to convert apartments into condominiums and renting them out at increased rates to the more wealthy. One of the main conclusions of this paper suggests that gentrification is closely related to racial stereotyping and a lack of respect for the needs of the lower layers of society, especially non-White communities, who are forced to leave their long-term homes in search of more affordable housing.


Gentrification is usually defined as the upward change in the usage of land to middle and upper-income residential neighborhoods; in other words, it is the process that creates land space for more affluent users (Paton, 2016). In essence, gentrification captures the class inequalities and injustices of society that emerged from capitalist urban land markets and policies (Slater, 2012). With the increasing burden of housing expenses for working-class and low-income citizens, along with associated issues such as homelessness, eviction, and displacement, the creation of land spaces for the upper classes presents a problem that governments and communities should eliminate. For many politicians, developers, and financiers, the language of gentrification has become unacceptable due to its direct association with the class shift included in the ‘regeneration’ of the city (Slater, 2012). Therefore, there is a need for discussing the reasons for the process itself, how it impacts on society overall, and the housing crisis specifically, the role of the government within the process, as well as how marginalized and minority communities deal with the issue themselves.

Is Gentrification Racist?

Typically, discussions about gentrification are mainly connected with a specific set of players; developers, landlords, tenants that face eviction, and well-off newcomers. However, these conversations usually do not take into account the police and the legal system that also potentially contribute to the marginalization of minority groups that commit petty crimes. Therefore, discriminatory and punitive practices of the police can be seen to aid the process of gentrification, San Francisco is a prime example. One of the indicators that highlight such a phenomenon is the increased number of 311 calls (non-emergency calls during which citizens report quality-of-life issues, such as damaged sidewalks or graffiti). Notably, 311 calls showed an exponential increase in those areas of San Francisco where gentrification had reached its peak (e.g. the Mission District, South of Market, and the Downtown/Civic Center). It is important to note that the 311 emergency hotline was developed for diverting non-emergency calls from 911; nevertheless, the city witnessed an increase in the rate of calls from well-off newcomers reporting poor and homeless citizens in the area. Very often, professionals in gentrified areas call the police when they have a suspicion of marginalized groups committing petty crimes. More often than not, these professionals are prioritized to receive the attention of the police; this results in increased policing in specific areas, and thus the enhancement of gentrification efforts. For instance, although there are a significantly larger number of murders occurring in the African American Neighborhood of Bayview in San Francisco, the murder cases actually seen in court, where an offender was charged, are often from other, ‘gentrified’, regions of the town.

It has also been shown that long-time inhabitants of the mentioned areas tend to call 311 to report loud behavior and the police appear to directly assume that the perpetrators are from the minorities and marginalized communities. Alongside a history of violence towards African Americans, thus, many representatives of these communities develop distrust towards law enforcement. More often than not, the 311 hotlines have been referred to as the policing of order-maintenance used by the majority of police departments, including those of San Francisco. The phenomenon of order-maintenance police efforts contributes to the increase in lower-level crimes (e.g. graffiti or loitering) but decreases the likelihood of more severe crimes. This results in the “broken windows” theory, which is centered on the more aggressive behavior of law enforcement, such as the increased rate of arrests and stops, and shows some correlation with the lower rates of crimes in an area (Harcourt, 2001). At the other end of the spectrum, the theory also proposes that if a broken window is not fixed in time, it will invite more window-breaking and property damage, which, subsequently, will provide a safer space for criminals. As mentioned by Wilson and Kelling, “disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence […] one unrepaired broken window is a signals that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing” (as cited in Stephens, 2014, p. 83). Therefore, the theory of broken windows postulates that any signs of public disorder encourages the appearance of criminal elements in these residential neighborhoods and, thus, increases the likelihood of more severe crimes being committed within these areas.

Hence, the punitive policies of zero tolerance and the reports on the quality of life have become routine for many police departments in San Francisco. Each year, the SFPD makes up to twenty thousand arrests, of which approximately half are for small offenses. Nevertheless, there is little to no empirical evidence supporting the proposal that the broken windows theory works. Arresting more citizens for petty crimes in San Francisco does not seem to affect preventing more severe crimes; although, one could argue heavy policing significantly contributes to criminalization and marginalization of already-marginalized groups of citizens. According to Professor Dorothy Roberts, one of the most challenging tests facing American society is differentiating between lawless and law-abiding citizens based on their race. Many Americans believe that Black citizens are much more likely to be violent and are perceived as dangerous (as cited in Harcourt, 2008). There appears to be a widely held misconception that the criminality of African Americans is a component of the belief systems deeply integrated into the culture of the United States that has a history of Whites being superior to Blacks. Thus, the myth that Black citizens are more likely to be criminals goes back to the roots of American culture that used to support the marginalization of African Americans.

According to the findings of Kelly Welch (2007) in her article “Black criminal stereotypes and racial profiling”, the stereotyping of criminals has become a feature of American culture, and the stereotyping of Black criminals tends to prevail over any other misconceptions. Bias and inaccurate representations of racial minorities in the news and media contribute to the perpetuation of the myth that Latinos or Blacks are much more prone to criminal behavior. There is a disproportionate focus on reporting crimes committed by minorities and exaggerating their severity. On the other hand, offenses committed by White citizens tend to be under-reported and are presented differently. One of the clearest examples of this is when a White person commits mass murders; the entire White population is not blamed for it, nor is there a profile made for the crimes of those people. The media coverage of the offense has a significant impact on the public’s opinions about who commits a crime and triggers biased reactions to the representatives of minorities, which, in turn, could contribute to the increase in rates of minor crimes in gentrified areas. It is crucial to mention that only six percent of citizens of San Francisco are African American; however, they constitute fifty-six percent of the jail population. On the flip side, around forty-two percent of the city’s population is White, but this group makes up only twenty-two percent of all prison residents. Such a disparity can be explained by the biased attitudes of the White and wealthy residents in gentrified areas towards marginalized groups.

The Ellis Act: Abuse of Legislation to Gain Profit

The Ellis Act has also been a contributor to the development of gentrification in San Francisco. According to the Act, landlords have an indisputable right to evict residents in order “to go out of business”, i.e. stop renting their property. However, generally, evictions under the Ellis Act are predominantly used for changing the usage of buildings; for instance, converting rental units into condominiums for wealthier residents. The Ellis Act has been referred to as the weapon of gentrification and is felt to have had a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities and residents of color, as well as those unable to afford the rising prices of San Francisco living. Due to the enforcement of this Act, and because of the loopholes in the law, many have faced eviction. Also, the government did not specify a particular timeframe during which an owner can ‘go out of businesses’, neither did they limit the number of times owners can evict tenants. This is a tremendous problem and, too many are totally unacceptable in dealing with families and individuals’ homes. Moreover, after these renovations and conversions of rental spaces into condominiums, previous residents, inevitably, do not have enough money to rent the new apartments, thus contributing to the housing crisis of affordable homes in the city even further.

Urban developers and investors use the Ellis Act to their advantage: maximizing profit and avoiding confrontations with previous tenants of buildings with no other choice than to free their rental spaces in a search for other apartments or rooms. While the Act is legal, there are many concerns regarding the use of investors and developers, particularly about minorities. According to many reports that have reached the attention of the media, the majority of property owners involved in the moving of old tenants are simply real estate speculators that are trying to turn apartments into an easy profit, even at the expense of those who have lived in the apartments for decades. In many cases, groups of investors are abusing the Ellis Act by combining their forces to buy up a property from owners who have either genuinely gone out of business or have just chosen to sell out. These speculators can evict tenants under the Act’s protection; highly unethical but, unfortunately, legal. Furthermore, it has also been reported that these property speculators abuse the loophole in the law to avoid the moratorium on renovating small apartments into condominiums (enacted for ten years since summer 2013, in San Francisco). Instead, investors establish the so-called ‘tenancy-in-common,’ in which tenants have shared ownership of a building. This means that residents do not possess exclusive ownership of one particular unit, but there is a ‘grey’ agreement that gives every owner a right to use a specific unit exclusively. Recently, the Rent Board of San Francisco has witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of people in rental units who were evicted under the Act. Tenancy-in-common properties are inferior to condominium ownership and are more likely to cause disputes arising from partnerships and co-ownerships. Put simply, neighbors of tenancy-in-common properties can find it much easier to argue with each other. Despite this, the prospective buyers opt for the option of tenants-in-common ownership because of the impossibility to convert residential housing into condos.

Experts advise not to buy out the property since the abuse of the Ellis Act can hurt raising rents and contributing to the housing crisis overall. Here, the following question regarding the use of the Act arises: “Why does the government allow buyouts at all?” There is a significant difference in what the owner of a property can decide to do in cases when a tenant accepts the buyout or is evicted under the Ellis Act. If the property owner chooses to evict, then there is a requirement to pay relocation fees with additional charges in cases when a tenant is elderly or disabled. If the property owners decide to rent out the housing unit, they are required to offer it to the original tenants at a controlled price (for 5 years). Thus, in cases when tenants agree to take the buyout, which is typically twice as high as the relocation fee, the owners of the property are allowed to rent out a housing unit not at a controlled, but a market rate, without offering it to previous tenants.

On the other side of the debate, some experts say that it is also unfair to limit the opportunities for those property owners that use rentals as an opportunity to make money. In cases where there is a tremendous shortage, prices can rise through bids, with no limit to how much these prices can increase. Thus, there is no point in blaming the investors who sought to gain a profit based on long-term investments. The abuse of the Ellis Act remains an issue, even though it is also the only tool readily available to property owners to exercise any control over those tenants that refuse to leave their rented apartments. For those tenants who reported that they had been forced to abandon their long-time apartments, there is a need to consider the human effect within the whole process of eviction. Many experts believe that the Ellis Act has become a dangerous trend that is killing the unique housing landscape for which San Francisco has received praise. The landscape is beginning to die out, and the government should not let this happen since it destroys neighborhoods and, thus, destroys the lives of those living there. There are fears that over time, only certain generations and races of citizens will be able to afford new housing in gentrified areas, which opposes the idea of diversity fundamental to American society. For many tenants that have lived in San Francisco for decades, gentrification, along with the enforcement of the Ellis Act, means that they have to leave their city because the rent prices are too high. As wealthy tenants move in, less fortunate tenants move out, leading to enhanced marginalization of the already marginalized communities of San Francisco.

The issue remains whether the government will do something to limit or completely stop the evictions under the Ellis Act or conversions of the tenancy-in-common housing. Most importantly, it is unknown whether the actions of the government and tenant activists will withstand the scrutiny of the legal system. It is crucial to remember that the Ellis Act is a state law and the rights of tenancy-in-common housing are supported by the federal legislation of the United States.

Role of the Government in Contributing to Marginalization and Segregation

Understanding the issue of gentrification is impossible without understanding the role of the government in contributing to the marginalization of certain societal groups and aiding the wealthy and fortunate on the higher steps of the social ladder. From the very beginning of the development of the United States, neighborhoods have constantly evolved, with citizens moving in and out, buildings being destroyed and renovated, amenities being removed, and added. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, American neighborhoods started experiencing segregation due to the mass migration of African American populations. Most notably, the economic separation of communities has shown a steady increase since the beginning of the 1970s and was closely associated with racial discrimination, i.e. the segregation of income was growing more quickly among Black families compared to White families, as mentioned by Lichter, Parisi, and Taquino in their article “The geography of exclusion: Race, segregation, and concentrated poverty” (2012). Such increases in income segregation were especially noticeable in wealthy neighborhoods. Theorists of public choice have long been associating economic segregation with the preferences of consumers for specific public services such as schools, parks, and transportation. As different areas in cities provided those public services at various levels, consumers with similar economic backgrounds were attracted to different areas. Nevertheless, the causality of this phenomenon remains understudied because it was the government’s policies that contributed to the development of preferences and the free market. Therefore, the transportation policies that supported the usage of automobiles, along with other policies that reinforced the ideas of segregation, severely limited the choices of marginalized and disadvantaged groups and lay the foundations for future marginalization practices, such as gentrification.

It is also important to take into account the fact that the income segregation of neighborhoods within the areas of major cities was directly linked to income inequality; particularly higher wages for the top layer of the society and the lack of jobs for the bottom tier. Consequently, the inequality of revenue causes income segregation because the highest incomes, alongside government-enforced housing policies, allow a particular set of households to satisfy their preferences, disregarding the continuing political processes that favored the exclusion of marginalized communities, especially the representatives of the African American population. Therefore, if income inequality stopped decreasing, the number of segregated neighborhoods could drop.

According to the study conducted by Owens (2012), the following neighborhoods have shown some sort of upgrading in recent years: minority urban, diverse urban, affluent, new White suburbs, no population, upper-middle-class White, booming, and Hispanic enclave neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the cause of these upgrades remains unknown, and there is a lack of empirical evidence that may suggest that the upgrades were associated with economic and racial changes in neighborhoods with low incomes. With regards to gentrification, the government played the role of the supplier at local, state, and federal levels. In this context, the government is seen as a contributor to the political economy of the country that is trying to acquire a profit by using, managing, and developing the land. On the other hand, experts have linked gentrification to the historical patterns of racial and residential segregation of specific areas in large cities. The proponents of this opinion underline the role of governmental policies in developing an inequitable distribution of resources by class and race across the U.S. metropolitan areas. It can be concluded that the process of gentrification represents the efforts of the government, targeted at differentiating between the wealthy and the poor. To look at the process of gentrification from the perspective of racial transition, the evidence of this connection is scattered. Nevertheless, researchers found evidence supporting trends such as the movement of affluent Whites into poor neighborhoods where non-Whites live; this influenced a drastic change in the racial composition of some neighborhoods.

Impact of Gentrification on Marginalized Communities

The process of gentrification in the United States has become a problem for the minorities of lower-income. Even though gentrification had an impact on the improvement of some economically deprived Black and Hispanic Neighborhoods, the majority of them remain profoundly disadvantaged and marginalized compared to the White middle-class neighborhoods. The study conducted by McKinnish, Walsh, and White (2010), highlighted the impact of gentrification on the representatives of the African American community based on the level of education. The researchers concluded that educated Blacks usually benefited from gentrification; furthermore, a third of the increase in the income of gentrifying neighborhoods appeared to originate from the progress and development of that same demographic, which might be unexpected. This finding could, in effect, make gentrifying neighborhoods more in-demand for Black families on a medium income. Nevertheless, gentrification has a severely negative impact on the less educated majority of Black families.

Displacement of residents is a tremendous problem in those areas where gentrification seems to be occurring at an uneven and often accelerated, pace. In cities such as San Francisco, the risk of displacement has reached a disproportionately high level, with many communities being put in danger of complete displacement, an even larger issue in those bigger cities, with the accelerating pressure for living in urban areas. Because such cities attract more and more new businesses, corporations, and big developers, the demand and cost of housing increases significantly, and directly impacts on low-income households who cannot afford to pay any more. This results in the mass movement of whole neighborhood residents seeking affordable housing.

It is also important to mention that those areas that have not been touched by gentrification cannot report an improvement in the level of poverty. In reality, the displaced households are getting pushed away from the neighborhoods that are considered good enough to attract investment from middle-class families, but the poorest, and the most marginalized neighborhoods, remain surrounded by poverty.


Gentrification has become a symbol of the scarcity of resources provided within the urbanization. Along with the lack of governmental efforts to create more inclusive cities that accommodate all citizens regardless of race or income, marginalized communities are experiencing unfair evictions by developers and investors, supported by the Ellis Act, who use this law to get rid of old tenants and develop the property to fit the needs of wealthier citizens. Apart from contributing to the further marginalization of minorities, such as African Americans citizens or low-income families (the two characteristics can often coincide), gentrification plays a significant role in exacerbating the crisis in the housing sector, where new apartments are created and renovated to be sold or rented to wealthier members of society, leaving those less fortunate no other choice than to look for more affordable housing or leave the area altogether.

Due to racial segregation and stereotyping, people of color suffer from gentrification the most; this is particularly the case in the instances of enhanced policing that actively looks for petty criminals in the areas, ‘preying’ for Blacks that have been heavily criminalized. Gentrification, thus, ties in with the “broken windows” theory that implies the aggressive behavior of law enforcement. As many citizens, especially Whites, associate crime with African Americans and Latinos, many gentrified areas (especially in San Francisco) have shown an increase in 311 calls in which people report ‘quality of life’ crime in their area.

The Ellis Act is another significant contributor to the issue of gentrification; the law enforced by the government allows developers and property owners to evict tenants of housing units to change the usage of those units and offer them to more affluent citizens. The abuse of the Act is unethical, although it is not considered illegal – it remains the only tool in the hands of property owners that want to acquire a profit at the expense of their less fortunate tenants. Overall, gentrification is a process that exacerbates the housing crisis in San Francisco and can be seen to directly force many marginalized and stereotyped communities to look for new places to live.


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Lichter, D., Domenico, P., & Taquino, M. (2012). The geography of exclusion: Race, segregation, and concentrated poverty. Social Problems, 59(3): 364-88.

McKinnish, T., Walsh, R., & White, T. (2010). Who gentrifies low-income neighborhoods? Journal of Urban Economy, 67(2), 180-193.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Gentrification and Racial Bias in San Francisco'. 24 September.

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