As the vast majority of San Franciscans have watched their incomes rise amid an explosion of wealth that has reshaped the city, African Americans have seen their earnings decline.
Last year, median white household made $104,300, a 14 percent spike since 2011, recently released census data show. Asian and Latino households’ annual medians rose to $72,000 and $67,000 respectively, also five-figure jumps from 2011.
Yet over the same period, the city’s shrinking black population saw its median household income fall by close to 5 percent, to a meager $29,500.
In Oakland, the African American household median is $36,000; in Los Angeles County the median is $40,000. In San Francisco — one of the most expensive cities in the country — African Americans make less than those in San Bernardino County, the most affordable part of the state.
“It’s like being out on the ocean, water water everywhere and none of it to drink,” said Frederick Jordan, president and CEO of San Francisco’s African American Chamber of Commerce. “All of this wealth comes in and there are no jobs for us.”
Growing pay gap
Economic disparities between blacks and whites are not unique to San Francisco — they are just a lot worse in the city.
For every dollar earned by the median white household statewide last year, black households made 58 cents. Contra Costa and Santa Clara Counties reported close to the same ratio, with African American median household incomes of $52,200 and $67,100, respectively. In Alameda County, white households earned more than twice as much as black households.
San Francisco has by far the largest racial pay gap in the Bay Area. Last year the median income for African Americans households was between 2.7 and 5.27 times less than white households, due to the data’s margin of error.
“Even if you use the ... upper limit of what (income) could be for African Americans in San Francisco, it’s still outside the national ratio, and certainly outside the ratio for California in general,” said Ed Welniak, chief of the income statistics branch at the U.S. Census. “There certainly is a large disparity there.”
The growing discrepancy reflects San Francisco’s shrinking black middle class.
Just under 27 percent of African Americans in the city are homeowners, census data shows, compared with 36 percent of whites. About 28 percent of African American households fall below the poverty line compared with 8.6 percent of whites.
“San Francisco is a city of such glaring wealth, and that glaring wealth is magnified by the absence of a middle class,” said Frederick Haynes III, grandson of the famous San Francisco civil rights leader with the same name, and a pastor in Dallas. “If the city can fix the structures of injustice ... it can be a model for the nation.”
Thriving community gone
Things were not always so bleak for the city’s black community.
The Fillmore used to be a bustling African American neighborhood so famous for its jazz clubs that it was known as the “Harlem of the West.” In the 1950s the city began redeveloping the Fillmore. Hundreds of businesses were forced to close, homes were bought and demolished through eminent domain and between 20,000 and 30,000 residents were displaced.
There are relatively few African Americans left in the neighborhood and the last remaining jazz venue, The Addition, formerly Yoshi’s, officially shut its doors earlier this year.
Citywide, the African American community has dropped from 13.4 percent in 1970 to 5.5 percent last year. Similar trends have taken place across the nation, as a new generation of white residents has chosen to move back into cities from the suburbs where they were raised.
San Francisco has gone through one of the most severe black exoduses.
“Everything we created and developed as African Americans has been taken away,” said Barry Dow, president of Access Advocates, a construction apprentice program for black youth in the city.
On Tuesday, about 60 black activists packed into Mayor Ed Lee’s office to protest the city’s dwindling black community and its growing poverty.
The group wanted to share its grievances with Lee in person — including concerns over the income gap, which was brought to the attention of civil rights leaders by The Chronicle. The mayor did not meet them, adding to the growing sense among some activists that the city has not done enough to bolster the African American community.
Lee declined to comment for this story.
It is unclear what, exactly, politicians can do to bridge the income gap or rebuild the black middle class. Haynes and other black leaders say diversifying the tech sector — a major source of high-paying jobs in San Francisco — could be a start.
‘Excluded from boom’
The industry generates billions of dollars in the city and fuels the local economy. Its recent boom coincides with the across-the-board increase in San Franciscans’ incomes. The median income for Asians is 30 percent higher than it was in 2007, the year prior to the recession. Whites make 22 percent more than they did seven years ago and Latino households — a group underrepresented in the tech sector — even saw a 30 percent increase in the median income over the time period.
African Americans’ median household incomes, however, are more or less the same as they were before the recession.
While new money flooding into San Francisco has bypassed most black workers, the skyrocketing cost of living has not. The median rent has steadily increased citywide over the past decade, and there was a 53 percent uptick in eviction notices issued between 2011 and 2014, according to data obtained from the San Francisco Rent Board.
If present rates continue, eviction notices will hit a 14-year high in 2015.
“We have been excluded from the most recent economic boom,” said Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco NAACP and pastor at Third Baptist Church in the Western Addition. “And it has depopulated the community.”
Breaking digital divide
There is an effort to make the tech industry — which employs predominately white and Asian men — more diverse. The city runs a handful of job-training programs. One, TechSF, teaches technology and computer science skills to unemployed and underemployed residents. Seventeen percent of its members are African American.
“The city is very committed to working with communities of color to make sure they are employed and have a pathway to better jobs,” said Gloria Chan, spokesperson for the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, which runs TechSF. “We do extensive outreach ... and make sure residents are aware they have access to these programs and services.”
There are also a host of nonprofits addressing the issue.
Mission Bit runs after-school computer science classes at Mission High School, and plans to expand into public housing next year — hopefully connecting low-income residents to high-paying jobs.
“Since I grew up in public housing I’m really excited about that,” said Stevon Cook, the group’s CEO and a past resident of the Fillmore. “When I started in the spring semester we had no African Americans in the course, and now we’re at 23 percent. ...We’re really focused on ending generational poverty.”