Running for the hills: Wealth is one of society’s great dividers

Lafayette has consistently failed to achieve its quota for affordability and housing allocations

Distance photo of community

Graham Klingler

The Lafayette hills and the divides they place on Bay Area housing equity.

In the 1960s, as racial division prevailed in the Bay Area, a modern form of redlining took place. Often overlooked by most inhabitants in Lafayette, where Acalanes High School is located, this process segregated the Bay Area into populations divided by wealth. This practice has continued into modern society despite attempted equitable housing practices. 

Division among classes is ever-present. Those who possessed wealth and power lived above and looked down upon the “commoners.” While it was practical for the wealthy to live, literally, above the poor to avoid interactions and sickly conditions, this concept became ingrained into society and more apparent following urbanization.

In colonial America, colonists like John Winthrop preached utopian societies in which their colony was placed “upon a hill.” Winthrop recognized the growing wealth disparity, preaching that they, as Puritans, must give to those who are less fortunate. He imagined his colony elevated above others, assuming the role of the more prosperous side of society.

White Flight, also known as white exodus, is the sudden or gradual large-scale migration of white people from areas becoming more racially or ethnically diverse. Post World War II, Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) in the Bay Area moved to work in urban centers like Oakland and San Francisco, known as the second great migration. This wide occupancy of Black Americans in the Bay Area triggered White Flight. Because most jobs were in the Oakland ports, those who wanted to escape diversity fled to the hills.

We invite you to consider this pattern of wealth disparities in the hills throughout almost every city in the Bay Area: Oakland, Concord, Piedmont, Vallejo, Sausalito, etc. 

According to the U.S. Census, Lafayette is 81.3 percent white and about .5  percent Black. In contrast, Oakland is 35.5 percent white, 23.8 percent Black, and 27 percent Latine. 

Following this trend, the median household income in Lafayette is about $179,000 while the median household income in Oakland is $73,692. While these two cities are only a 20-minute drive away from each other, we clearly see the disparities in diverse populations and wealth as a product of white flight. Generations of white populations crowded Lafayette, and while not directly rejecting other populations, the Lafayette community established a race precedent. The hills of Lafayette became a sanctuary for the white, wealthy populations leaving the flatlands for everyone else who did not meet the mold. 

In fact, the very city we proudly call home is a product of white flight. The influx of BIPOC in the Bay Area may have terrified Lafayette’s founding fathers. The Lafayette hills we live in today served as an escape from the unfamiliarity of diverse cultures and backgrounds. This avoidance of amalgamation gave future generations the basis to carry forward the ethnic divisions and eventually develop a modern form of redlining. 

In the formative years of Lafayette, early citizens instituted policies that would eventually become a source of modern redlining, the systematic denial of services such as loans to residents of certain areas often defined by race. 

In 1968, according to the Lafayette Historical Society, 3,279 Lafayette citizens voted to incorporate the town into an established city. With that vote, the first city council drafted the General Plan, a blueprint for the future development of Lafayette. This document also outlined regulations regarding zoning and building codes.  

Regional Housing Needs Allocation  is a state-mandated policy that requires all cities, towns, and counties to plan for housing needs for all incomes. However, Lafayette has consistently failed to achieve its quota for affordability and housing allocations. Essentially, Lafayette has not met the needs of every socioeconomic class, yet never experienced the repercussions of this oppressive act. 

According to the data collected from 2007 to 2014 in Lafayette’s general plan, the city of Lafayette issued 10 percent of the building permits recommended for people of low and moderate incomes. In contrast, they issued 87 percent more building permits than recommended by regional planners for people of above moderate incomes. 

Although Congress outlawed redlining in the 1968 Fair Housing Act, there is still a vivid display of the racial division in the Lafayette hills. BIPOC who suffered as a result of redlining were unable to accumulate wealth through home equity. Due to the building codes and zoning policies outlined in the general plan, as well as the failure to meet regional standards, Lafayette’s population diversity has idled in its 53 years as a city. 

While most citizens recognize that our hilly town is overwhelmingly white, they fail to understand why. It is a direct result of the city of Lafayette’s failure to create accessible and profitable housing options for the majority of socioeconomic statuses. Lafayette residents must recognize that their town’s general plan sets up for a homogenous community that lacks to accommodate for the diversity evident in the Bay Area’s flatlands. 

The increase of white wealth in the hills not only serves as a separation of race and wealth, rather it furthers the divide in other aspects of the cities. Because of the high real estate prices in Lafayette, funding for public schools is much greater than average. The primary financing source is from property taxes. This economic boost provides citizens of Lafayette with a greater amount of resources for education and heightened learning environments. is a platform for potential homebuyers to learn about the public and private education systems around a home. Their ratings turn up on real estate listings across all major websites like Zillow, Redfin, Trulia, and Oakland public high schools all rate below Lamorinda high schools, which all score 9/10 or 10/10.

High-income families living in Oakland and Berkeley do not have the same school funding since property taxes are higher in Lafayette than there. Those who have the means will move to Lafayette, pay the astronomical taxes, receive a robust education, and continue this cycle. This process simultaneously removes wealth from the less affluent cities, damaging their educational systems. While it is not a deliberate act of constant accumulation of wealth, it is a direct product of countless years of redlining between the hills and flatlands. 

Income, housing prices, and education disparities are only a few of the major instances of modern redlining presently occurring in the Bay Area. The Lafayette community does not take accountability for the detrimental effects of their failure to accommodate every socioeconomic status in their housing. Though Lafayette’s actions are not out of conscious hate for any  race or socioeconomic class, like those taken in the 1960s, its behavior still mirrors that of its wealthy predecessors.

As Lafayette citizens sit tight on their prospering hills, they take from the lowlands and those less fortunate. They continuously improve their situation without lending support where it is most needed. To a larger extent, they fail to acknowledge the positive impact they could create if they focused their resources on places that need support instead of places that want improvement. 

Among Lafayette citizens, there is an extreme level of greed. There is a drive to constantly improve, but the issue is the meaning of improving. To many Lafayette residents, improvement is the continuous increase of wealth, but that only exacerbates the redlining problem further. The focus on advancement needs immediate change. Lafayette needs to shift from an individualized economic lens to a Bay Area community-oriented lens.

Citizens must begin to allocate Lafayette’s resources toward the affordable housing crisis. Rather than building more and more multi-million dollar homes in the Lafayette hills, the City of Lafayette needs to create affordable multi-family housing units. This process will welcome more diversity to the Lafayette community and slowly break down the institutionalized redlining Lafayette residents are so accustomed to. It is our responsibility to limit the future instances of racial and socioeconomic divide, and especially in Lafayette, the first step is to provide an environment in which wealth does not discriminate.    

While it is unfortunately not possible to topple the hills, we can turn Lafayette and the Bay Area into a collective population where hills and flatlands neither divide nor elevate a population above another, but rather both populations live organically together with one city that just happens to be “upon a hill.”