Black History Month: Fighting for Community

Black politics in 1990s Alameda

In 1989, Clayton Guyton and Modessa Henderson sued the City of Alameda for discriminatory housing policies. The two Black residents of the Buena Vista Apartments were among hundreds who just two years earlier faced massive rent increases.

In the last three decades of the 20th century, Black migrants to Alameda fought for increased political representation and power. These struggles led to the first Black elected officials and efforts to transform the Alameda Police D e p a r t m e n t , school district and local housing policies.

In 1970, Alameda’s population was 90 percent white. Three years later in 1973, voters approved a ballot measure that banned construction of apartment buildings, known as “Measure A.” Measure A was a color-blind, exclusionary zoning initiative that created a “chain of exclusion” which has helped discourage Black homeownership.

While there appears to be no documented evidence of racist intent, there is circumstantial evidence that suggests there was awareness that the policy would have racial impact. For example, two Black civil rights leaders, Albert DeWitt and John Ware, both endorsed the No on Measure A campaign and made statements about the need for racial equality and fair housing. The fair housing group Alamedans with HOPE (Housing Opportunities Provided Equally) opposed Measure A because multiple-dwelling units was considered the primary method of increasing affordable housing.

Measure A was subject to multiple lawsuits. In 1980, Alamedans with HOPE and three low-income tenants sued the City of Alameda for for alleged attempts to “frustrate the development of low-income housing” and “to perpetuate the non-Black character of Alameda.” The lawsuit was dismissed, but without prejudice.

In the 1980s, a series of efforts to increase protections for tenants, like rent control and “just cause” evictions were proposed, but discouraged (“The ‘Real’ History of Rent Control,” Nov. 1, 2018). In some ways, these efforts continued the work of the Alameda Tenants Union of the 1970s.

In 1987, Alameda tenants at the Buena Vista Apartments — then the largest private for-profit apartment complex in the East Bay — protested the conversion of their subsidized rental units to marketrate housing. Residents negotiated with the owner to phase in the rental increases.

Less than half the low-income residents were later able to qualify for federal housing vouchers, but it was uncertain how long the vouchers would be honored. Other residents’ incomes did not qualify for the Section 8 vouchers. Those 325 families were not poor enough to qualify for Section 8, but were too poor — and not the right race — to find housing elsewhere in Alameda.

All this occurred right after the city had defunded Alamedans with HOPE. The plans to double and even triple rents in the Buena Vistas would displace hundreds of families. After pleading with city government and the owner, Section 8 vouchers were acquired for all but 325 residents.

In the Guyton and Henderson lawsuit, a judge found Alameda’s land use policies discriminated against poor people. The lawsuit was settled prior to a judgment on racial discrimination. The lawsuit settlement saved Measure A but granted a 325-unit exception to the ban on multiple-dwelling units. The city would also need to replace the affordable housing units lost by the conversion and create an affordable housing development fund. This was just one of the ways in which the Alameda Black community reformed Alameda’s institutions towards the end of the last century.

In 1991, Alameda was embroiled in a racist controversy involving the police department. News broke that five police officers used the computers in their vehicles to transmit violent and racist messages targeting Black people. Black Alamedans used this moment to rally for political changes and make Alameda more welcoming.

Alameda was 70 percent White in 1990. The non-White population had grown to 19 percent Asian Pacific Islander and 6 percent Black. Besides Hadi Monsef, there had yet to be any non-White residents elected to any citywide positions. Clayton Guyton was the first Black candidate for Alameda City Council. He ran in 1989. Pastor Lawrence VanHook ran for school board in 1992.

Upset with the response to the police scandal from then-Mayor Bill Withrow, Black residents began calling for district elections. Noting that most people of color lived on the West End, they viewed district elections as an opportunity to provide political representation for people of color predominantly living on the West End.

In 1994, Al Dewitt became first Black member of the City Council. Two years later, Berresford Bingham was elected to the school board.

While the election of these individuals marked a change in Alameda politics, many Black migrants to Alameda still experienced racism in schools, with police and in housing. West End resident Vickie Smith launched the Coalition of Alamedans for Racial Equality (CARE), a group that helped launched Team Diversity in the school district in the 1990s. In 1998, Black residents of the Buena Vista Apartments — then called Harbor Island — formed the West Alameda Tenants Alliance in order to organize residents to force the owner to improve the conditions of the property.

With the closure of the Naval Air Station in 1997, the West End of Alameda would experience a decline. Renewed attention and investment in the West End in the new millenium would lead to the forced removal of hundreds of Black families from Alameda and forever change the Island City.

Editor’s note: This column is part three of a four-part series commemorating the 2019 Black History Month theme, “Black Migrations” focused on Black migration to Alameda during the 20th century. 

Rasheed Shabazz is a writer and West Alameda resident. He is currently writing a history of African Americans in Alameda, titled “Alameda is our Home.” To support his current oral history project, contribute to the Kickstarter at bit.ly/rootedinalameda.