A couple of years ago, Catherine Bracy was sitting on her couch in Oakland watching TV and scrolling through Twitter when a headline came across her computer screen. Uber announced that it was buying the Sears building right across the street from where she lives, and bringing 2,500 employees there.
“I’ll admit my initial reaction was one of dread,” said Bracy, the CEO and co-founder of TechEquity Collaborative. She began building out the nonprofit startup about a year ago.
“I was picturing what it would mean for all of those Uber employees to be parachuted into my neighborhood, where the median income was about $25,000 a year,” said Bracy, whose expertise is in civic technology. “What would it mean for my neighbors? What would it mean for my rent?”
Bracy didn’t have to look very far for the answers. Just across the bay in San Francisco was what her neighbors feared was a classic example of what happens when tech companies move into an economically depressed urban center: rising inequality and gentrification. In many ways they thought it was a glimpse into what would likely be Oakland’s future, she said.
“People would say, ‘No, don’t come … we don’t see that this is a valuable addition,'” she said. “I grew up in Detroit in the ’80s, and if a company had made a similar announcement it would have been met with fanfare. Instead, my neighbors in Oakland were against it.”
The rise of the creative class in San Francisco, Oakland and the surrounding areas has long been a point of contention for members of the local community, many of whom have watched as property values skyrocketed, making their neighborhoods unaffordable.
Bracy and her team at TechEquity Collaborative want to bridge the gap between the tech industry and the local community. “I decided we need to do something about it, at least from a very local on-the-ground perspective … because literally this is my neighbor and personally it’s very real for me,” said Bracy.
“In sort of a bigger picture way it’s just not a great sign for our economy and what it symbolizes in terms of where wealth creation is happening and who it’s going to,” she said.
“Any industry that is growing as fast as tech is in this context is going to create the same dynamic. There’s nothing specific about tech that makes this crisis worse except maybe the fact that there is a perception that they don’t care,” said Bracy.
While the tech industry did not cause the deepening housing crisis in the Bay Area, it is driving growth there. “So, they have some responsibility … in fixing the problem. They also have some outside political power and privilege that by and large goes unused on local issues like this,'” said Bracy.
“A line that is stuck in my head is from a housing activist who said, ‘Everyone is at the table; tech is not at the table,'” said Bracy.
It isn’t uncommon to see tech employees walking to work along streets where people are living in tents. “They’ve been seen as living in their parallel universe and not really caring about the community. That feeds this perception that tech is the cause and that they’re the enemy,” she said.
“I think it’s unfortunate and it’s a missed opportunity because people in tech and folks who are working to protect the most vulnerable communities are on the same page as far as policy.”
The first thing TechEquity Collaborative is focused on is raising awareness among its members about the fundamental challenges low-income communities face when tech companies move in, and how to reduce harm and maximize opportunities for everyone.
“The second is organizing things they can do, using their skills and resources to support the community and community organizations that are working on these issues every day,” she said.
TechEquity members often reach out to their local officials, “actually raising our voices around policies that need to change,” she said.
The group advocated for the city of Oakland to include $5 million in its budget for the next two years for anti-displacement services. “[We recognize] that we need to build more units of affordable housing, but that those units won’t come online for several years,” said Bracy. “In the meantime, Oakland is losing its low-income and communities of color at a really rapid pace. So we need to do what we can in the short term to help protect those communities and keep them in place while we create more housing.”
Since starting the organization Bracy has seen rapid growth in its member base and interest, all signs that tech workers want to bring about change, she said.
“Tech does want to be a part of the solution, and tech isn’t the underlying cause of the crisis,” she said. “I am a part of the creative class that has some responsibility for contributing to the conditions in the first place. … I think it’s incumbent on us to create a new political narrative about the role that tech and the creative class can play in driving growth in big cities and doing that in partnership with community organizations,” said Bracy.
“So, the next time an Uber announces they’re moving to Oakland it’s greeted with applause and not concern.”