For most Oakland residents, homeownership is an outlandish daydream.

This year, after a decade of steady growth, average house prices in the city brushed up against a once-unfathomable $1 million. Neighborhoods long known for affordability have seen rapid turnover as wealthy buyers or investors scoop up much of what’s on the market. 

But there was a time, not too long ago, when it was feasible for the average working person to purchase a place to live in Oakland. And many did, establishing roots in a neighborhood and beginning to build intergenerational wealth. 

The current generation—their children and grandchildren—needs a lot more to achieve a lot less. Most can’t buy houses in the areas where they grew up. Some of these areas—West Oakland, Fruitvale, Eastmont—were once the only places where residents of color were able to buy homes, and now they’re out of reach for most non-affluent buyers.

For residents whose families once owned or still own houses in Oakland, there’s an extra sting to the realization that they won’t be able to do the same. We spoke with seven such people, who lived seven distinctive childhoods in this city.

Some of them grew up playing at West Oakland parks; another got his first job at a Laurel café. A couple graduated Oakland Tech bulldogs, others Bishop O’Dowd dragons. One of them lived by the bustling shops along Lakeshore Avenue, and another next to Eastmont Mall in its heyday. 

Their parents had come to Oakland from far and wide—the South, Omaha, a Lake County reservation—and found a range of work as bookkeepers, performers, cable-company reps, and public servants.

But these families had one thing in common: the stability that comes with owning your home. When that security in a community diminishes from one generation to the next, legacies are lost and social networks disintegrate.  

Even with a recent slight decline in Bay Area property prices, houses are hardly affordable for most Oakland residents. 

“Conditions are making it hard for entry-level buyers,” said Shawneequa Badger, a local real estate agent who holds educational sessions for people who face barriers to homeownership. Badger works with many people who are born and raised in Oakland, but who end up buying in Antioch, Fairfield, or Stockton after taking one glance at local listings. 

The people we spoke with and others like them are left with an often agonizing decision. Stay, precariously, in the place where their lives and loved ones are located? Or leave that all behind to carve out a more comfortable future for themselves somewhere else?

Rashida Chase / West Oakland

Credit: Amir Aziz

It’s still the family house, for now.

Rashida Chase and her children live in one unit of the West Oakland duplex her mother has owned for decades; her father lives in the other. They’re some of the few constants in an area that’s undergone deep transformation.

“I’ve described it like walking around your own neighborhood and feeling like a visitor,” said Chase, a vocalist who organizes cultural events around the city. “It makes me really sad. I grew up seeing all these Black people with businesses—just hardworking people who spoke to you, people who helped you out, people who watched your kids.” 

It was the middle of the 1980s when Chase’s family bought a building a few blocks from the 7th Street post office. New homes were going up and the purchase seemed like a good investment. 

“But crack had just hit,” she recalled. “There was a shooting every night. It got to the point where we could tell the difference between the police siren and the fire siren. But our block was a little sanctuary. We all knew each other, these families.” Chase’s first job at 15 was at a neighborhood daycare, and she’d run into some of the kids she looked after at the nearby park. 

As a young adult, she left the city and bounced around: Los Angeles, Indiana, Berkeley, Ohio.

“But I always thought I would come back and buy a house and live here for the rest of my life,” said Chase, 42. “I always wanted to raise my kids in Oakland, especially after I left and realized how special it was here.” 

The idea now seems “impossible” in West Oakland, she said. “I could not buy a single family home in my own neighborhood. Frustrating isn’t even a good word to describe it—it’s maddening, disheartening.” 

The average home price in her ZIP code is around $775,000.

Like many families, Chase’s let go of now-valuable real estate decades ago, not fathoming that prices would climb so steeply in future Oakland. Her father sold a place on Courtland Avenue in East Oakland in the ‘80s for around $70,000, she said. A few years ago, the same property—a big two-story house with a yard Chase remembers sprinting around as a child—sold for $799,000.

Rashida Chase in the West Oakland neighborhood off 7th Street where she still lives in the duplex where she grew up—for now. Credit: Amir Aziz

“I remember seeing the for-sale sign go up and crying,” said Chase. She and her father realized that someone else would be making a massive profit from the house they’d casually relinquished. “He said, ‘If I only knew, I would have just kept it.’ But it wasn’t the culture I grew up in. People didn’t teach me to hold onto things and just rent it out,” she said. 

They avoided the same pitfall with the West Oakland duplex, turning away real estate agents who used to knock on their door trying to get them to sell.

Chase is holding onto hope that someone like her can benefit from the forces that have permanently altered her surroundings. She’s enrolled in a program for “emerging developers,” dreaming about building affordable artist housing. She’s also looking to buy a multi-unit property so her children will always have a home in Oakland, offsetting the price with rental income.

But as an artist who’s struggled for too long, she’s not sure she’ll stay herself.

“Any of my friends will tell you, I’m like Oakland ride-or-die, Oakland to the bone,” she said. “But this city is like being in an abusive relationship—it doesn’t feel good to keep loving something that won’t love you back.”

Ledah Duncan / East Oakland

Credit: Amir Aziz

East Oakland all the way, Ledah Duncan grew up in her family’s house near Eastmont Mall, and never even considered moving west of the lake for most of her life, let alone leaving the city.

But the pandemic changed everything. 

In 2018, Duncan, her husband, and their two children had moved to Lake County temporarily to take care of family business after her grandfather died. Duncan is Native American, a member of the Robinson Rancheria Pomo tribe, and many of her relatives had stayed on the reservation. 

As COVID-19 threw everything into flux, “I decided I needed some kind of stability for my kids,” said Duncan, 44. Her daughter, now 14, had attended a different elementary school each year in Oakland because they’d moved so frequently. Her son, now 6, was just starting his formal education.

Counting on stable housing in Oakland was tough, and the idea of buying a house was out of the question. Just the cost of moving their whole family back to the city would be burdensome. 

Ledah Duncan in the East Oakland neighborhood near Eastmont Mall where she grew up. She still visits her family there but longs to buy a house of her own in the area. Credit: Amir Aziz

Almost to prove to herself that she could, “I took the steps and we bought a house near the reservation,” Duncan said. For $260,000 they got three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a wraparound porch, and a two-car garage. The cheapest Oakland home currently listed on Redfin and Zillow is a 500-square-foot one-bedroom house and it costs $320,000.

The space, security, and increasing value of their home is comforting. Duncan now works for her tribe and gets the benefit of tribal health insurance. But the whole family longs for Oakland. Even though she did this for her kids, Duncan wishes they could grow up around the diversity she did, first in a mostly Black neighborhood that’s become increasingly Latino, and later at Skyline High School, where she met white and wealthier students from the hills. 

“Although everywhere I go I’m the minority, I can feel comfortable or make other people comfortable because of how I grew up,” Duncan said. Her daughter is mixed-race and she’s gotten comments at her new school that make her feel out of place. 

The family visits Oakland most weekends, and they still go to church in Hayward. Even Duncan’s son, who was quite little when they left for Lake County, talks about East Bay landmarks often.

“It really hurt that I couldn’t buy a house in Oakland—I always wanted to,” Duncan said. “I haven’t let go of that yet.”

Amelia McGowan / Lakeshore

Credit: Amir Aziz

When Amelia McGowan left for college in the early 2000s, she picked a school on the East Coast, taking the opportunity to explore a different part of the country before inevitably coming back to Oakland. Back then, she assumed she’d follow in her parents’ footsteps, eventually buying a home and settling in the city that raised her.

“It felt like in my upbringing that’s what you do—you buy a house,” said McGowan. “It didn’t cross my mind until I was older that it could not be an option.”

Now, at 36, she’s coming up on a decade in the same rent-controlled apartment in Temescal.

“Beyond not feeling like I can’t buy, I feel like I can’t even move within the Bay Area,” she said. McGowan works as an assistant director of special education for a charter school network and has student loans from social work school. It’s a challenge to find a spot that’s both affordable now and unlikely to bring steep rent hikes in the future.

“I’ve lived here so long and accepted that this is the reality,” McGowan said. “My family and community are here so I don’t feel like moving anywhere else. I’m adjusting to this idea of permanent renting.” That means any children she might have would grow up in a very different environment than she did near Lakeshore Avenue, in a spacious house by parks and the lake.

As for the possibility of buying her own house in Oakland, as a single person it “seems completely absurd that I’d be able to do it without two incomes,” she said.

Amelia McGowan in the hills around Lakeshore, where her mother still lives in the family house. Credit: Amir Aziz

A couple of years ago, McGowan applied to AC Boost, Alameda County’s down payment assistance program for first-time homebuyers who live or work in the county, or have been displaced from it. First responders and educators are prioritized, but she still received a low lottery number. The city has a mortgage assistance program too, but it’s currently “suspended for lack of funds.”

Even so, McGowan feels relatively lucky.

“I am a white woman, and I think this type of situation is much more detrimental and impactful for communities of color in Oakland that have been pushed out,” said McGowan. Her mother, a former OUSD teacher, still owns her childhood house. But even with that privilege, there isn’t a clear answer. 

“My mom’s living in a house that’s worth a ton of money, but what would the practical option be?” McGowan said. “For her to sell it and live in a condo somewhere?” That still wouldn’t set her daughters up to be able to afford homes in Oakland.

“It’s an asset, but it doesn’t feel like a solution,” McGowan said. “Unless our whole family wanted to move to Florida and each buy a house there,” she mused. 

For now, she’s biding her time and putting her paychecks toward rent.

Brett Marsh / East Oakland hills

Credit: Amir Aziz

Brett Marsh didn’t grow up thinking much about buying a house in Oakland as an adult. Mostly because he expected the option to be there should he want it.

His parents, who worked in government and software, purchased their house around 1980, moving from San Francisco to a neighborhood near the Oakland Zoo.

“At the time, Oakland was a very affordable city, and of course they wanted to buy a house and build equity and create an opportunity for wealth,” said Marsh, 35, a journalist. 

He and his brother made their way through both public and private schools in Oakland, with “the expectation that working hard and getting a higher education would be a straight pathway to the ability to own a home,” Marsh said. “You follow a prescribed trajectory that society expects you to embark on.”

That trajectory took a turn—and then several more—when Marsh graduated from college in Boston in 2009, thrust into a recession that had decimated job opportunities. Occupy Wall Street protests erupted around him, with his peers denouncing a system of wealth distribution that had enabled a select few to weather the economic downturn.

Brett Marsh in the East Oakland hills, where he currently lives with his parents in the house they own. Credit: Amir Aziz

“There was this sense that our entire generation’s hard work and dreams were being shattered,” he said, “when there are no jobs that reflect the amount of money you and your family invested in your education.” 

An international relations major, Marsh packed up and moved to Egypt, where he worked as an English teacher and freelance writer. Then Washington, D.C., Boston, and Colombia. 

“When you feel there’s nothing to offer at home, it makes it easier to imagine life elsewhere,” he said. By the time he moved to Colombia in 2014, jobs had returned to the Bay Area—mainly in the booming tech sector. But rents were on a steep incline.

“Housing costs and rent had become dinner table conversations and divisive issues,” Marsh said. Six months in South America turned into three years.

“Coming back to the states in 2017 was an incredible culture shock, and not just because Trump was in office,” he said. “In four or five years Oakland had changed so much. There was so much development, and tension around who gets to live in what part of the city, and where resources were allocated. You’d find out people you knew growing up were gone, having moved out to Antioch or Sacramento. It hurts knowing so many people who helped make the city great are losing that connection.”

“It compounded the question: What’s my connection to Oakland now?” he said.

For Marsh, who ended up sticking around to get his master’s of journalism from UC Berkeley, the literal answer to that question now is that he’s living with his parents. Despite the large-scale changes, East Oakland, he noted wryly, still seems to be last in line for city investment. 

Existentially, and looking to the future, the answer is hazier. That’s in part because he’s entered an industry not known for high salaries or job stability.

“I have very little faith that homeownership is a prospect for me in the Bay Area,” he said. “But what happens if I leave, or my family leaves, and we come back and the connection feels broken in a way? That’s hard because I think everyone needs to root themselves in the world somewhere.”

Susan Katherine Smith / North Oakland

Credit: Amir Aziz

Susan Katherine Smith’s family came to Oakland in 1967, through what she calls their “moving-on-up story.” Her mother, stepfather, two brothers, and Smith had been living in the infamous “Pink Palace” public housing in San Francisco, until they secured a loan to buy a $37,000, three-bedroom house on 39th Street in Oakland’s Longfellow neighborhood.

“When we moved into this neighborhood, it was almost all African Americans with intact families—mothers and fathers and children,” said Smith, 64. The kids would play football in the streets and swim at the Temescal pool in the summers, staying out until the sun set.

“In the Black community, when the streetlights come on, that’s when you know you need to go home,” she said. Plus there was Mrs. Washington, the lady who served as the de facto neighborhood watch, making sure the children didn’t get up to any mischief. 

The community suffered with the arrival of crack, which led to addiction and associated crime, she said. 

“It stabilized, but as time went on, folks started passing away,” Smith said. “The face of the neighborhood has changed completely, it’s become gentrified. Most people buying homes in this neighborhood are white folks, because Black folks can’t afford those home prices.”

Her mother is one of three old-timers left on the block. A Japanese woman who bought her house some years after Smith’s family arrived, and became close to them, just sold her place for over $1 million, Smith said. A duplex on the block was just turned into an Airbnb.

“I never thought I’d see the day when people would want to come stay in our neighborhood!” joked Smith. “I mourn the loss of our community in the sense that it’s still physically here, but it looks completely different.”

Susan Katherine Smith in the Longfellow neighborhood where her parents bought a house for $37,000 in the 1960s. Credit: Amir Aziz

A therapist who works with youth, Smith once owned a home herself. But even 25 years ago, she couldn’t afford a place in Oakland suitable for her three kids and then-husband, she said. They bought in Pittsburg. In 2007, after her divorce, she came back to Oakland, renting a place.

She wishes condo developers were required to set aside more units at moderate prices, or that the city would make it easier for homeowners to build expansions onto their properties. 

Now, Smith lives with and cares for her 93-year-old mother in the house where she grew up.

That house has appreciated tremendously—likely more than twentyfold—since the family purchased it in the ‘60s. For a while, real estate agents would come and pressure Smith’s mother to sell.

“I have to tell her, don’t answer. There’s predators out there that try to take advantage of older folks who might have cognitive issues,” Smith said.

It’s not that selling the house eventually isn’t tempting. But it’s a complicated question for Smith and her brother.

“We both have children and we’ve talked about having the ability to leave something to them,” she said. “Once we sell it, that’s it, we won’t ever be able to see Oakland again. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Andrew McMaster / Laurel

Credit: Connor Hayward

Living in Brooklyn, Andrew McMaster has to temper how much he brags about Oakland.

“I’ve gotten better about trying not to be arrogant about it,” joked the 27-year-old, who grew up in the Laurel district but has worked in media and marketing in New York for six years now.

“I had a pretty amazing childhood” in Laurel, said McMaster, though he acknowledges “there were harsher aspects I was shielded from.” World Ground Café on MacArthur, “a meeting place for the neighborhood,” gave him his first job. He’d bike, skate, and walk to friends’ homes in the Dimond and Redwood Heights areas. Many an airsoft gun was purchased at the old “Laurel 99” dollar store.

“At the time I was growing up, the area was a great representation of the diversity of Oakland,” said McMaster. Lately, that diversity has morphed into stratification, with wealth and poverty existing side by side, but little in the middle.

“There’s super expensive real estate—and poverty-stricken neighborhoods down the road,” he said. “I’m a white guy, but watching my neighborhood turn into all white people is really strange.” The changes make the area “feel a bit more transient.”

“There’s beer gardens on MacArthur!” he added, incredulously. “In some senses it’s good—for a lot of people who grew up there, especially homeowners, there are benefits. But there’s a sterility that’s creeping in. There are aesthetic changes that are uncomfortable to see, but a lot of that represents real people’s lives”—people who’ve been priced out or no longer feel they belong. 

McMaster’s parents are among those who’ve benefited from the newfound widespread desirability of Laurel. Academics who bought a house there—their first—in 1994, they recently decided to sell and retire in Monterey.

“I think at a certain point it became clear that the value of the house was going to offer them a lifestyle they weren’t going to be able to have otherwise,” he said.

It’s a bittersweet move for McMaster, who tries to come home and spend a few months a year in Oakland. “I wanted them to take advantage of that, but I’m losing a foothold in the Bay Area,” he said. 

McMaster has long assumed he’d eventually settle and buy in Oakland, offering his future children the “healthy perspective on community” the city instilled in him. But the idea seems farther-fetched now.

“Yes, I would love to own a home, but like a lot of people in my age group and projected income bracket, I’ve kind of made peace with the idea that it might not be attainable in the place I want to live,” he said. “It’s almost something I’m avoiding thinking about because it hurts to dream about it.”

But his idyllic Laurel childhood has left him with a feeling of “tremendous responsibility” to focus on helping others access the same opportunities. He thinks about the art that surrounded him in his neighborhood, and the city and summer programs that encouraged youth creativity.

“Those types of things are really important to maintaining a similar feel in the community,” he said. “The bottom line is equitable development and affordable living. The goal now is finding ways to protect that.”

Briahn Badelle / North Oakland

Credit: Amir Aziz

Briahn Badelle is shopping for a house in New Orleans.

“Money goes further here,” she said on a recent phone call during a trip to Louisiana, where she’d found herself drawn to more than just affordability.

“I’m walking down the street and elders are like, ‘Hey baby, how are you?’ she said. “That’s what I miss—being nurtured by community.”

Badelle, 39, grew up in North Oakland in the 1980s and ‘90s, under the collective watchful eye of the older generation in the then-Black, working-class neighborhood.

“One time my cousin, who lived next door, walked off. One of the folks who struggled with drugs said to my aunt, ‘Is this your baby?’” she recalled. “And the one time I cut school, I saw a neighbor walking and thought, ‘Oh God, I gotta avoid her.’ People knew and looked out for each other.” 

Badelle or her brothers could stop by King’s Market, near their mother’s house on 55th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, with a note asking to buy cigarettes for their mom, and the shop owner would know it was okay.

Badelle’s mother owned a six-plex where they lived with relatives and renters, and the backyard was connected to her Aunt Belinda’s duplex. The children grew up surrounded by family and friends. Then Badelle’s mother sold the building and moved the family to Antioch. The stairs had been getting harder on her aging body, and the comfort of a large suburban house was appealing. 

A former medical social worker who recently started working in tech, Badelle knows she couldn’t afford a house in the part of Oakland where her family was once able to buy two neighboring multi-family properties. And even if she could she wouldn’t. The area has changed too much to feel like home.

“Some of these folks moving in come to Oakland because they like the culture—but they’re pushing out the culture,” she said.

Briahn Badelle in the North Oakland neighborhood where her family used to own multiple properties. They sold them years ago, and now the area has changed too much to feel like home. Credit: Amir Aziz

Badelle did end up buying a home in 2016—a duplex in Fruitvale.

“It felt the most Oakland to me still,” she said of the neighborhood. “There were Black, Indigenous, and Latinx folks living on that street, and they looked out for one another. One neighbor ended up taking care of my mom until she passed.” 

But she sold the place, because the costs of owning became too burdensome. The mortgage was so high that the rent she needed to charge for the other unit prevented the type of renters she was seeking—people from that community—from living there. All the while, investors were “champing at the bit” trying to buy and flip her home. She ultimately sold it to a man from the area and moved to an apartment she rents.

Badelle’s father was from New Orleans, so a return there would be a different sort of homecoming. But other families like hers should get a chance to stay in Oakland if they want to, she said.

“If Grandma needs repairs on her house, what’s going to happen is it will sell for a low rate or get condemned,” she said. 

“What are we doing,” Badelle asked, “to make sure it can be passed down to the next generation?”

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.