Will San Francisco’s Black Population Vanish as City’s Wealth Rises?

San Francisco's Fillmore District. Photo by Total13.

San Francisco’s Fillmore District. Photo by Total13.


The Fillmore District of San Francisco once housed so many Black people it was known as the “Harlem of the West.” Jazz clubs lined the streets and African-American businesses thrived in the early 20th century.

That’s a far cry from today, as Blacks find themselves largely priced out of the Bay Area. In fact, a new report indicates that while income for white, Latino and Asian-American San Franciscans has risen in recent years, income for Blacks has dropped.

The median household income for whites reached $104,300 last year, according to the census. That’s up  14 percent since 2011. During the same time frame, the median household income for Asian-Americans rose to $72,000 and for Latinos, it rose to $67,000.

While income for Asians and Hispanics rose by about five percentage points since 2011, the median household income for Blacks actually dropped by roughly 5 percent to just $29,500. The San Francisco Chronicle points out that African-Americans throughout the state make far more than this, with Blacks in nearby Oakland earning a median household income of $36,000 and Blacks in Los Angeles County earning a median household income of $40,000. This finding raises even more eyebrows, given that San Francisco is typically a more expensive place to live than others in California.

The cost of rent in San Francisco rises every year, with a 53 percent surge in eviction notices issued between 2011 and 2014, the San Francisco Rent Board has found. The Chronicle anticipates that by the end of this year, the eviction rate in San Francisco will reach a 14-year high. And Blacks in San Francisco can’t rely on homeownership to protect them from rising rents, since only about 27 percent of African-Americans own homes, while 36 percent of whites do.

Concerned about the growing income gap between African-Americans and other racial groups in San Francisco, dozens Black leaders recently descended upon Mayor Ed Lee’s office to demand that he take action about falling Black incomes and the city’s waning Black population. In 1970, Blacks made up 13.4 percent of San Francisco. In 2014, they made up just 5.5 percent. This lines up with the growing amount of Black San Franciscans living in poverty—28 percent—compared to 8.6 percent of whites.

“It’s like being out on the ocean, water water everywhere and none of it to drink,” Frederick Jordan, head of San Francisco’s African American Chamber of Commerce, told the Chronicle. “All of this wealth comes in and there are no jobs for us.”

Black leaders believe the key to increasing African-American wealth in the city is routing more tech sector jobs to the Black community. Companies headquartered in Northern California, such as Google and Facebook, have been criticized for having few Black staff members. The tech industry has been credited with boosting the income of whites, Latinos and Asian Americans, all of which have grown since the economic recession of 2007, while Black income has largely remained the same. But Blacks have been traditionally underrepresented in the math and science fields.

Blacks have faced historical challenges to maintaining wealth in San Francisco as well. For example, the city redeveloped the Fillmore District in the 1950s, resulting in the closures of countless Black businesses. In addition, the city used eminent domain to purchase and tear down houses in the then mostly Black neighborhood. Accordingly, up to 30,000 Fillmore residents found themselves displaced in the city.
It’s proven difficult for Blacks to bounce back from this challenge. Blacks in the neighborhood are anomalies today and their businesses have disappeared as well. The last Black jazz club in the district recently closed down.

Barry Dow, president of Access Advocates, a construction apprentice program, described the fate of Black San Franciscans as follows: “Everything we created and developed as African Americans has been taken away.”

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