With her young daughter held at her hip, Zenzi Moore-Dawes walked up the driveway to her childhood home — a small, unassuming house in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood.
She lived there until 2008, when her mother lost it in the recession.
“I’ve thought about finding out if they were selling this,” she said, pointing at the home. It can’t be seen from the street and is barely visible through a fence at neighboring Temple Park, where she spent much of her youth playing.
“Oak Park for me is very much like home.”
But even though Oak Park has long been considered Sacramento’s historically Black neighborhood, more Black people are moving out of the area entirely, whether because of displacement or something else.
In the past decade, Oak Park saw a more than 24% decrease in Black residents, according to a CapRadio review of U.S. Census data. No other racial groups saw a decrease. This happened as Sacramento experienced a nearly 2% increase in Black residents overall.
With massive changes on the horizon in Oak Park — including the billion-dollar UC Davis Aggie Square project and political shake-ups due to redistricting — current and former area residents alike wonder if Black residents will stay much longer.
Moore-Dawes now lives in Tahoe Park, for instance, a neighborhood that’s close to her Oak Park childhood home but in a different City Council district. She says it feels distant.
“Ideally, we would be able to move back, because I just have a very deep emotional connection to the neighborhood,” she said while her young daughter played in Temple Park’s jungle gym. “This is where I grew up. ... My little brothers and sisters — everybody.”
A decade of Black displacement and erasure
Zenzi Moore-Dawes has been trying to buy a home in Oak Park for years.
Just before her mother lost her childhood home on 34th Street during the height of the recession, Moore-Dawes left for the U.S. Navy, hoping to find a way to save the house.
After serving in Afghanistan, she says she moved back to Oak Park — this time renting a three-bedroom, two-bath bungalow-style cottage near Fourth Avenue Park. In 2015, the homeowner decided to sell, but they gave her the chance to buy it.
Moore-Dawes says she felt more than qualified. She worked at the DMV and received disability because of her time in the military.
“I have like $60,000 yearly income. ... It was doable,” she said.
But she didn’t get it.
The home was sold for $280,000 in October 2016. It’s current estimated worth is nearly $515,000, according to Realtor.com.
“I’m a combat veteran, and I can't even buy in my own neighborhood,” she said. “Who are the people who can afford these things?”
In the past decade, Oak Park saw a more than 24% decrease in Black residents.
Anita Russell moved to Oak Park in 2007 after years of commuting back-and-forth from Elk Grove to work and church. But the retired childcare worker lost her home a decade later, and now is a renter in Greenhaven.
She says the years she spent living in Oak Park, with its tight knit Black community and smaller cottage-style homes, felt more like her childhood growing up in the South than any other place in California.
“I grew up around being able to go over to your neighbor's house and spend the night and play with their kids,” Russell said. “We would walk to church just so we can talk to our neighbors on Sunday, because we haven't seen them Monday to Friday, right? Those things help to build a community.”
But that feeling in Oak Park has faded — and fast.
Within years, Russell says she saw massive changes — modern apartments, new stores and restaurants, streetscaping, murals — that often left longtime Black residents priced-out and displaced, a historical neighborhood erased.
“Oak Park is such a rich community,” she said. “And to see it just snatched away from us as if we don't matter, is another blow.
“We've been fighting all our lives just to be a part of something, and once we establish that something, it gets taken away. So it's like the fight is never-ending, right?”
Sacramento’s affordable housing issues don’t help. Zillow economist Nicole Bashaw told CapRadio in November that rent has shot up in the past year, and Black residents are feeling the impact.
Bashaw says Black households are “spending over 50% of their income on rent.” That rent burden is higher than any other race or ethnic group in Sacramento.
Black households are spending over 50% of their income on rent. That rent burden is higher than any other race or ethnic group in Sacramento.
When Chema Salinas moved back to Sacramento from Arizona in 2016, Oak Park was on their mind when they began looking to buy.
Salinas, who has Mexican and white heritage and identifies as Hispanic, says the neighborhood was a natural place for them to move. They’d lived in the neighborhood 20 years prior, had friends and family nearby, and it was well within their budget.
The house Salinas bought was previously used for people on federal housing assistance and wasn’t in the greatest shape. But that’s what they wanted: a home to fix and create a life in.
Since, Salinas says “I’ve sat on my porch and watched my block gentrify in front of me.”
Salinas says they bought their house for $115,000. At the time, the home next door was being rented until the landlord decided it was time to flip. Salinas says it sold years later for $375,000.
That has had them looking inward: Are they also complicit in gentrification?
“That can be a really challenging sort of thought process when you feel personally blamed for forces that are beyond your control,” Salinas said. “I recognize my complicity, but I'm not displacing people. … Corporations, profit-oriented corporations, house-flippers — those are the things that are causing it.”
Several other residents — Black, Latino and white — who spoke with CapRadio for this story said they considered gentrification and their role in it before moving to Oak Park in recent years. However, many still opted to relocate to the neighborhood.
Alesia Lewis, who works at UC Davis Medical Center just north of Broadway, moved to Oak Park in October. While she’s new to the neighborhood, she’s worked nearby for years and went to church in Oak Park as a child.
Her thoughts on gentrification mirror that of other Oak Park residents who’ve lived in the neighborhood for decades.
“It's kind of a double-edged sword,” she said. “This revitalization is going on and making it much more palatable for everybody.”
But, she added: “I feel like my Black face in a building of all white people means something in terms of representation of what Oak Park has been: Black and Brown folks.”
‘That’s the beacon for white people’
Michael Benjamin II has an idea why the community has seen an exodus of Black residents in the past decade. It begins, in part, with a Starbucks.
The Oak Park Neighborhood Association board member says the national coffee chain, which opened in 2003 as part of former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson's 40 Acres redevelopment project, was one of the first signs of gentrification.
“That's the beacon for white people,” Benjamin said. “Next thing you see, they're walking their dog to Starbucks. They're sitting down.”
He continued: “Gentrification and displacement, it's a 15 year process, right? It's a feast. Somebody thought about this a long time ago.”
Michael Benjamin II near his Oak Park home, Oct. 22, 2021.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
In the early 1900s, Oak Park was economically thriving as Sacramento's first suburb. A streetcar shuttled working class residents downtown. But these residents were mostly white.
The Great Depression, World War II and an influx of Black residents laid the groundwork for white flight. Homeowners began to sell or rent, and started to move to newly built suburbs, taking with them a higher tax base and political influence.
Black residents and other people of color flocked to Oak Park. And unlike many neighborhoods in Sacramento, Oak Park didn’t have racial covenants that restricted home and land ownership for non-whites.
“Through redlining and things of that nature, you can only live in certain spaces, and Oak Park was that space for Black people,” Benjamin said. “So we move here, you know. Then they take all the resources out. We develop it, keep it afloat.”
As Oak Park became more known for crime and poverty than its rich, cultural history, Johnson’s 40 Acres project broke ground. For many, it signaled that investment in the neighborhood was possible and that its future was bright.
But Ryan Lundquist, an appraiser and housing analyst in Sacramento, says neighborhoods like Oak Park were hit hard during the recession. According to his data from 2010, about 66% of the homes sold in Oak Park were distressed sales, which means the owners had to sell urgently due to financial hardships. In East Sacramento, 21.5% of the sales were distressed that same year.
“There's just this huge disparity between neighborhoods that were really decimated by the foreclosure crisis, and had really no choice but foreclosure and banks seizing properties,” Lundquist said, “and then other neighborhoods that were able to weather the storm.”
Black homeownership peaked in Sacramento County in the years before the Great Recession. According to census estimates, in 2006 nearly 43% of Black householders in Sacramento were homeowners. But as most of the country struggled to get through the market collapse, Black people lost their homes — and fast. By 2015, just 27% of Black householders were owners.
In 2006, nearly 43% of Black householders in Sacramento were homeowners. By 2015, that number was 27%.
Home-buying is one of the surefire ways people can build generational wealth, something that Black Americans have been blocked from doing through centuries of systemic racism. And even as they made inroads in the 21st century, they were simply never able to catch up after the recession.
Black homeownership in Sacramento County has increased modestly since the recession, but hasn’t reached 2006 levels. In 2019, the most recent census data available, about 33% of Black householders were owners.
At the same time, housing prices have soared, especially in Oak Park. At the height of the foreclosure crisis, the median price for a single family home in Oak Park was about $69,000. In 2021, it is $375,000.
Lundquist says current numbers are largely inflated by low mortgage rates, cash-driven sales and not enough inventory to match demand. Since the summer of 2020, there’s been a “perfect storm for this insane market.”
“It’s sort of the record-breaking stuff where buyers are paying more over asking price than they have before,” he said, “and inventory is hitting the lowest levels we’ve ever seen or properties are literally selling faster than they ever have.”
Buyers who had enough cash to offer thousands over asking price could compete. Those who couldn’t were stuck staring at housing websites, waiting for the market to slow down.
So far, it hasn’t. Roughly 83% of total home sales in Sacramento County in October were over $400,000, and the median home price is around $500,000.
For Black people, who’ve seen the wealth gap spread wider year-after-year, the opportunity to catch up continues to be out of reach.
“I'm always aware that this isn't just some academic exercise, but this represents people, and you have people that simply haven't been able to recover from this,” Lundquist said. “And I'm definitely concerned as just a citizen — not just a data nerd — when I see the homeownership rate going in the wrong direction for the Black community.”
‘Pretty radical’ change in Oak Park
City Council member Jay Schenirer, who’s represented Oak Park and the surrounding district since 2010, says he’s not surprised by the significant decrease in Black residents. Nowhere else can you see a more dramatic shift than in North Oak Park, he said.
“You can see anecdotally by walking down Broadway, going to dinner at La Venadita or getting coffee at Old Soul,” Schenirer said. “It simply looks different than it used to when I started. And that change has been pretty quick, and I would say it seems pretty radical.”
It simply looks different than it used to when I started. And that change has been pretty quick, and I would say it seems pretty radical
The change isn’t only happening in Oak Park. The neighborhood and surrounding communities that represent Schenirer’s district saw a more than 18% decrease in Black residents.
While the reasons behind those changes are complicated, Schenirer says that housing costs and the recent pandemic-induced influx of Bay Area residents play a huge role.
Still, he says he wants to see more data — including age, income level, education — before coming to specific conclusions about why Black people are moving.
“Let's say that the 18% decrease was primarily elderly, that says something about what's going on and their ability to afford, right?” he said. “If it was more younger folks — do they want to move downtown? I don't know.”
His district wasn’t the only area in the city that lost Black residents in the past 10 years. The city’s review of census data shows two districts in south Sacramento had decreases between 6% and 12%.
The district that includes Sacramento State, Tahoe Park and the Power Inn corridor had a 1.4% drop.
All other districts saw increases, with the district that includes Natomas being the highest at 29%.
Some worry it may be too late for those who’ve been forced to leave.
Schenirer believes the city has a way to prevent future displacement in Oak Park: UC Davis’ billion-dollar science and tech hub, called Aggie Square, which is slated to bring thousands of jobs to the area and give Sacramento an economic boost. A lot of this could go directly to neighborhoods like Oak Park and Tahoe Park.
“The work that we're doing around Aggie Square, to me, seems like the right path,” he said. “And it's not … a silver bullet. It's not the answer. But I think there are answers within it.”
After pushback from organizers and community members, the city forged a community benefits agreement with UC Davis. That plan would require the city and Aggie Square developers to put $40 million toward affordable housing projects in surrounding communities, as well as mandate UC Davis and the project’s developer hire thousands of locals for construction work and permanent jobs. The agreement also calls for $10 million to be invested toward preventing the displacement of residents impacted by gentrification.
But Michael Benjamin with the Oak Park Neighborhood Association still isn’t convinced. He says there’s a thin line between development and gentrification, and Aggie Square is on the wrong side.
“You can have development without displacement, but you can't have gentrification without displacement,” he argued. “It just don't work. … That's why you see the term gentrification used: because it's not development.”
Even sooner than Aggie Square is redistricting.
Every 10 years, local governments redraw the lines that determine the elected officials that represent neighborhoods. In Sacramento, the process is happening now.
Because of redistricting, District 5 — which includes Oak Park — will go from losing more Black residents than any other area in the city to having more than any except District 8.
The new lines will keep Oak Park within the district’s boundaries for at least the next 10 years.
But the people who’ve lived in Oak Park for decades — currently on the brink of displacement — know the historically Black neighborhood will never be the same.
CapRadio Data Reporter Emily Zentner contributed to this reporting.
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