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Documentary Review: “You A Nomad”

While attending Netroots Nation in New Orleans last month, I heard about the short film “You A Nomad: Deconstructing Urban Displacement” from producer and director Shirah Dedman. The film was being screened there and she also shared details about the project in the Filmmaker’s Caucus.

She hopes eventually to transform the film into a feature-length documentary. Currently, it can be viewed in five installments on the project’s website or YouTube.

You A Nomad poster

You A Nomad
Director: Shirah Dedman
Release Year: 2018
Running time: 23 minutes
Watch trailer

The film is about gentrification and displacement in Oakland, a topic that I am especially interested in as someone who has worked on issues of housing and homelessness in King County for the last decade.

Many issues related to housing in the Bay Area are very similar to those happening in the Puget Sound, especially King County.

Displacement and gentrification in particular are issues that have greatly impacted Emerald City neighborhoods like the Central District and Columbia City, which historically have had very large black populations, but which over the last few decades have become almost as white as the rest of the city.

I was eager to watch “You A Nomad” to learn more about how these issues were playing out in Oakland and how comparable conditions are to King County.

Track 1 is titled “What Happened to the Black People in Oakland” and opens with onscreen text noting that Oakland has lost almost 40% of its African American population in the last generation. It then features real estate developer and Oakland native John Guillory.

He discusses how historically, West Oakland had a predominantly black population, and East Oakland was mostly white, with black people unable to rent or buy homes there due to racial discrimination.

Guillory also explains that most affordable housing uses the Low Income Housing Tax Credit to get investors to fund the project.

Text at the end of the episode notes that Donald Trump’s massive corporate tax cuts (which at the time of the film’s creation had been proposed but not yet passed into law) were reducing private investment in affordable housing developments.

Track 2, “Unhoused Because of their Skin Color,” features fair housing advocate Angie Watson-Hajjem, who highlights displacement and racial discrimination in housing. She also talks about predatory lending that targeted people of color and led to many people losing their homes during the Great Recession. This stripped wealth, and the ability to build future wealth, from the black community, she said.

Watson-Hajjem also brings up the Federal Housing Choice Voucher program, commonly referred to as Section 8, in which households have a portable subsidy that helps pay a portion of their rent in market rate housing.

She notes how landlords will sometimes not take the vouchers, often because of bias. They think that people with Section 8 “won’t take care of my property” or have other harmful stereotypes about people living on low incomes.

She points out that voucher holders are not a protected class in Oakland or California law, so it is not illegal to deny people housing based on their status as a voucher holder (whereas attributes like race or sex are protected classes and to deny someone based solely on one of these things would be illegal).

This has been an issue in the Pacific Northwest as well. Fortunately, the City of Seattle and other nearby cities have laws naming Section 8 voucher holders as a protected class and prohibiting landlords from denying their housing applications based on their use of a voucher, but until now, the majority of jurisdictions in Washington State did not provide this protection to renters.

Thankfully, after many years of organizing and advocacy by affordable housing and tenant advocates, Source of Income Discrimination legislation was finally able to be enacted thanks to the new Democratic majority in the State Senate.

Under the new law, going into effect September 30th, landlords in Washington State cannot deny a potential tenant’s application based on the fact that all or some of their rent may be paid with a subsidy such as Section 8 or another type of voucher or with assistance from a non-profit agency, or because a person’s income comes from public benefits like Social Security or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families as opposed to income from employment.

Watsom-Hajjem also explains that vouchers have rent limits, so voucher holders can only live in rental units with a price under this limit, thus limiting the pool of potential housing for voucher holders.

According to the film, the average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Oakland is $2,300, and the average monthly income of a Black household is $2,700, making it clear why some black families are having to move out of the city.

People with Section 8 vouchers in Oakland surely face very similar problems to voucher holders in the Seattle area where rents are also rather high: only a few apartments are available within the voucher rent limits, and there is a lot of competition for these units from other voucher holders and other people with lower incomes who are looking for affordable rent.

This has been my experience over years of working with low income households struggling to find and maintain stable housing in King County.

“The Black Panthers Held Back the Drug Trade” is the title of Track 3, which spotlights urbanist author Dr. Benjamin Bowser.

He recounts the history of Oakland and how the economy suffered when industry moved out of the area. The Black Panther Party, he says, would not allow the drug trade to become the new economy in Oakland. He then explains how drug trafficking impacts the housing patterns of a community.

Track 4, “We Migrating from Spot to Spot,” features the voice of Nisaiah Perry, (who is currently incarcerated), talking about growing up in Oakland and how it was normal for people to move around a lot.

The name of the film is taken from his impactful testimony.

“Life happens in relationships,” he said. “We migrating from relationship to relationship. Migrating from spot to spot. You a nomad.”

The films concludes with Track 5: “That’s Why Black Homeownership Matters.” It features clips from a presentation by real estate broker Mark Alston.

He explains how homeownership stabilizes neighborhoods, and puts people in a position to start moving forward with their lives. It allows people to support local businesses, which hire local people. For the black community, he says, “loss of homeownership has created a transient community.”

All five episodes combined take just twenty-three minutes to watch, so it’s a relatively small investment of time with a big impact. Especially if you are not highly familiar with issues related to gentrification and affordable housing, this film will provide you with some good basic information and examples.

If you are interested in helping make the vision of this project becoming a feature-length film a reality, you can make a donation here. To learn more about housing affordability issues in our region and how you can get involved, check out the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and some of their member organizations.


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  1. By Documentary Review: "You A Nomad" on September 16th, 2018 at 3:34 AM

    […] Documentary Review: “You A Nomad” NPI’s Cascadia Advocate (blog) […]

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