As he drove through East Palo Alto, Mayor Ruben Abrica pointed out the markers of change: the recently renamed grocery store; multimillion-dollar homes that used to be moderately priced; new businesses at the Edgewood Plaza.. 

There are other signs of the passage of time: It’s not just rising housing prices or the presence of large retailers. The people have changed too. 

In the 1950s, when East Palo Alto was still decades away from being its own incorporated city, the area became a haven for Black residents shut out of white-only neighborhoods throughout the Bay Area. From then until the city was incorporated in 1983, and up until the 1990s, that Black population continued to boom. 

But, since the 2000s, the Black population has significantly shrunk. At the same time, the Hispanic population has steadily grown, and today Hispanic residents make up the vast majority of the city’s population.

“We are still one of those majority-minority [cities],” the mayor said. “It just flipped the two largest groups.” 

Within this tiny stretch of land, just 2.5 square miles, is a story of how historical forces, ranging from the ongoing housing crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic, shaped – and continue to shape – a young city.

An internal struggle

“This is Mi Pueblo,” Abrica said as he pointed out his car window to a large storefront with red lettering. Mi Pueblo, now known as Cardenas Markets, opened in November 2009. Abrica has lived in the city since the 1980s and remembers the years before there was a large grocery store within city limits. 

For more than two decades, large chains refused to set up shop in East Palo Alto, making the small community a food desert. Cardenas was – and still is – the city’s first and only full-service supermarket. 

Getting a grocery store in East Palo Alto was not easy, the mayor said. And even once that first full-service grocery opened, conflict remained, just this time it was not between community leaders and corporations — it was internal. 

At the time of its opening, some non-Hispanic residents expressed concerns about whether the store would accommodate their needs. Residents told Palo Alto Online they worried the store’s workforce would not reflect the diversity of the city and they hoped the store would hire people of all different backgrounds. 

These are the “growing pains” of a young, majority-minority city experiencing massive growth and demographic change, Abrica said.

It all boils down to a series of difficult questions: “Who controls what – the politics, the economics, the resources, the cultural projections, all these things? It’s just a different kind of multi-ethnic, multi-racial democratic process vying for power,” Abrica said. “How do you use the power? Who benefits? Who doesn’t? Who’s most vulnerable? And how are you trying to make it work for everybody?”

The changing demographics of East Palo Alto

In the 1990 census, the first since East Palo Alto was incorporated in 1983, Black residents made up more than 40% of the city’s overall population, Hispanic residents made up about 33%. In the census, Hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race, meaning people who identify as Hispanic can be of any race. 

Today, East Palo Alto is home to nearly 30,000 residents. Hispanic residents make up more than half of the population. Black residents now make up about 11 %.

Since the 1990s, the Hispanic population has increased by more than 150% while the Black population has fallen by about 65%. At the same time, the Asian and White populations, as well as the city’s overall population, have steadily grown.

East Palo Alto’s demographics are different from the rest of San Mateo County.  Unlike East Palo Alto, the county as a whole is primarily White and Asian.

The Affordable Housing Crisis

East Palo Alto was established in response to a number of social and economic problems. Residents wanted to develop the local economy, establish their own police department, and address the housing shortage, Abrica said.

“There was a little bit of that feeling in the community that people who were running our area didn’t really understand us,” Abrica said.

But the city almost didn’t come to be. There was internal conflict from the very beginning. 

In the early 1980s, Gertrude Wilks, a longtime East Palo Alto resident and community activist, filed a lawsuit against the city’s incorporation along with Pete McCloskey, a former U.S. Congress Member from California, claiming that East Palo Alto did not have an adequate tax base to become independent. The fight ended with the California First District Court of Appeal, allowing East Palo Alto to pursue incorporation in 1983. 

That same year, the city’s incorporation was approved by a margin of just 15 votes. After years of pro-incorporation campaigning, Abrica became one of the first members of the East Palo Alto City Council. 

For the newly elected local government, many challenges awaited. 

“That year, the housing crisis became worse,” Abrica said. “There was a big problem with many renters being displaced.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, anti-housing discrimination and harassment laws, such as the 1968 Fair Housing Act, were passed, but the social and economic impacts of redlining policies lingered. 

“If the local city government passes a law, that would be the only way you can offer protection for tenants,” Abrica said.

So once the city was incorporated, Abrica and his fellow council members started working on housing issues. In 1988, they adopted the Rent Stabilization and Eviction for Good Cause Ordinance to protect residential tenants from unreasonable rent increases. In 2010, they passed a more comprehensive law, Rent Stabilization and Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance, which governs residential tenancies in the city.

As recently as 2019, the city enacted its Inclusionary Housing Ordinance policy, which requires the development of affordable housing intended for households whose income does not exceed 35% of the area median income. 

And in December 2021, the city also proposed a new housing policy called the Opportunity to Purchase Act, which gives tenants, qualified nonprofits, or the city the first opportunity to purchase a residential property before it is put on the market.

Today, East Palo Alto has some of the strongest tenant protections in the Bay Area. Yet, the city has still struggled to prevent the displacement of its low-income residents. 

“There’s just a lot of pressure on the housing market in East Palo Alto because people everywhere in the Bay Area are seeking housing,” said Rachel Horst, the Housing and Economic Development Manager at City of East Palo Alto. “When you have such an income gap as we do in the Bay Area, you have people with really high salaries, particularly in the tech sector, seeking out a place to live, and you don’t see a big increase in the number of housing units coming into the region, then they’re the ones who are going to be who are going to be setting the price.”  

The COVID-19 pandemic has created even more housing and job insecurity.

“If you’re working in the service sector, if you’re working in any job where you’re required to show up, the pandemic has most certainly taken its toll either in the form of being temporarily laid off, completely losing your job or getting sick and not being able to work,” said Horst. “So, there are income losses from that, too, that people are so reeling from.” 

As East Palo Alto becomes less affordable, low-income Black households are moving to parts of the East Bay, especially Contra Costa County, or out of state. In 2015, the Urban Displacement Project – a collaboration between the University of California Berkeley and the University of Toronto – documented this pattern in a descriptive study.

“[This is] what we kind of call the re-segregation process, where these households were being pushed to or moving to parts of the region that often didn’t have as many resources,” said Philip Verma, the lead researcher and author of the 2015 report. 

While low-income renters are the most susceptible to displacement, others, like homeowners, may have different reasons for leaving the city. As home values in East Palo Alto increase, some long-term Black residents who owned a house in the city are choosing to sell their properties and move elsewhere, Abrica said.

The “growing pains”

The decline in the Black population may be a sign of losses to come for the Hispanic population. That same UDP report suggested that low-income Latino households are still “vulnerable to gentrification and displacement,” especially undocumented and mixed-status immigrant families. 

And East Palo Alto has a large percentage of immigrant residents, based on American Community Survey data published by Data USA. In fact, the foreign-born population in East Palo Alto was about 39% as of 2019, which is higher than the county, state, and national averages.

“I call it growing pains because it happens everywhere,” Abrica said, referring to the city’s demographic changes and social tensions. “I’m just saying we have gone through that. We’re still going through that, you know.”