Category: Responsive Government

City of Oakland Declares Humanist Hall a Neighborhood Nuisance

Gentrifying neighborhood threatens historic venue’s survival, according to staff.

Celebration at Humanist Hall. Photo courtesy of Humanist Hall.

By Tulio Ospina

Humanist Hall, a non-theistic church that has been a cultural resource for under-served communities in Oakland since 1941, has been designated a public nuisance by the City of Oakland, based on complaints of neighborhood residents.

According to the staff at the hall, located at 390 27th Street between Telegraph Avenue and Broadway, recent gentrification in the area around the venue has led to new residents repeatedly filing complaints against its hours of operation, noise levels, presence of children outdoors and patrons “loitering” outside the building.

Humanist Hall at 390 27th St. in Oakland has been in operation since 1941. Photo courtesy of the East Bay Express

Humanist Hall at 390 27th St. in Oakland has been in operation since 1941. Photo courtesy of the East Bay Express

After nuisances are reported, the city can impose penalties such as fines and evictions if the annoyances continue. Since June of this year, Humanist Hall has been fined $4,000 due to noise complaints—$1,000 per offense—a sum that could put the hall out of business.

“We host a lot of cultural events for people who otherwise couldn’t afford them,” said David Oertel, Humanist Hall president, pointing out that the church hosts community events, which include Mexican family occasions—such as quinceañeras and baptisms—transgender weddings, cultural dances, barbecues and political meetings.

Once a year, the Humanist Hall hosts a voodoo festival that brings international patrons to Oakland from as far away as Trinidad and Puerto Rico, said Oertel.

The Humanist church is not a profit-seeking entity but is dedicated to offering its space to support the political, spiritual, cultural and ethnic values of minority communities, he said.

Greg Minor, assistant to the city administrator, states the city has had issues with the venue for the past 10 years, mostly due to noise levels during the day and especially after curfew.

With regard to steps to mediate or encourage conflict resolution between the neighbors before resorting to punitive measures, Minor responded that mediation is a usual first step for the city in these situations.

Nonetheless, he was unsure what steps had been taken in this circumstance because he has only been working in his current position for a short time.

Minor said complaining residents have been unwilling to speak publically with the press for fear of retaliation.

Oertel said he has not been able to talk to those who have complaints, claiming they have been secretive and aloof and “not very interested in being in a community with the people who they are in the community with.”

Humanist Hall entered into a settlement agreement with the city last month and agreed to start complying with the city’s conditions in order to avoid paying the fines.

Oertel claims that obeying every regulation has been difficult for the church.

“One of the agreement’s conditions is that we have to report to the city the expected number of guests that will be attending each event,” said Oertel. “But a lot of these people come to family occasions and bring their extended families and we end up with a hundred people.”

Last week, the organization launched an online petition calling on Mayor Libby Schaaf to “encourage condo owners and renters to respect the social norms of the neighborhood – our neighborhood – that they have moved into.”

“Apparently, one homeowner complaining to the city is enough to shut down Humanist Hall, even though 20,000 people per year who use our hall would have to go without it,” says the petition.

Within a week, the online petition has garnered over 1,600 signers.

Oakland City Council Set to Choose Developer to Renovate Kaiser Convention Center

Rendering of proposed hotel between the Kaiser Convention Center and the Oakland Museum of California.

Rendering of CDP’s proposed hotel between the Kaiser Convention Center and the Oakland Museum of California.

By Ashley Chambers

The Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, a historic Oakland landmark that has been shuttered and vacant for a decade, will undergo a transformation as the City Council is expected to vote next week on which of two developers will restore the building.

The convention center previously housed large-scale events, concerts, and prominent speakers – Dr. Martin Luther King who spoke there in 1962, Stokely Carmichael in 1968, the Grateful Dead, James Brown, and the Oakland school district’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Oratorical Fest.

The building includes a 45,000-square-foot arena that seats up to 6,000 people and the Calvin Simmons Theater that seats 1,900, two banquet rooms and a ballroom.

City staff is recommending that the city enter into a contract and long-term lease with Orton Development, Inc., which is based in Emeryville, to rehabilitate the convention center and its historic architecture.

Under the city plan, the developer would foot the bill for the entire project and would recoup its investment by using at least part of the building for profit-generating purposes.

The city’s RFP requires restoration of the Calvin Simmons Theater as a performance space and for the entire project to include “as many community benefits as possible,” including “local and small business participation, commitment to living and prevailing wages, commitment to labor peace and opportunities for job training and mentoring, a high number of jobs created for a range of training and education levels, and provision of high quality public facilities and amenities,” according to the city report.

Orton’s proposal, which is in accord with the city RFP, includes restoration of the Calvin Simmons Theater as an event space, and use of the arena as a “multi-floor rehab combining office, flex, public access, and food uses.”

The plan also proposes to use the surrounding outdoor space for community gardens, barbeque areas, public art and entertainment.

A coalition of community members and arts enthusiasts is opposing to the Orton proposal, saying the project would transform the arena – which is the majority of the interior of the building – into offices for private businesses.

The city’s RFP has suggested that the building could be used for offices, technology, design and private commercial use as well as entertainment, conference and event space, retail uses, performance space, and light industrial uses such as a brewery, maker spaces, and artist studios.

The alternative proposal came from Creative Development Partners (CDP), based in Oakland. It includes restoration of the Calvin Simmons Theater as a world-class performing arts center and use of the arena for sporting and other large events, and paying for the project by building a 15-story hotel adjacent to the Convention Center.

The hotel would be nestled in between the Oakland Museum and the convention center on park land that is presently a parking lot, incorporating a green design.

The CDP proposal is built around community benefits, including: creating more than 1,700 jobs and a career training program in partnership with Laney and Merritt Colleges for jobs in hospitality, culinary arts, creative arts, and landscaping, as well as a partnership with the Oakland Unified School District’s Linked Learning program.

The CDP proposal, called “One Lake Merritt,” envisions the building as a hub for local music, cultural and performing arts companies to use as rehearsal and performance space.

The proposal has garnered significant support from the local arts community. But while city staff found the CDP proposal “compelling,” they are recommending that the city go with the Orton plan and look for other potential sites for a hotel.

The City Council is expected to vote on the issue on Tuesday, July 7.

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, July 5, 2015 (postnewsgroup.com)

 

City Council Passes $2.4 Billion Budget, leaving Some Residents Angry and Dissatisified

City of Oakland Public Works employees repair potholes. Photo coutesy of Oaklandnorth.com

City of Oakland Public Works employees repair potholes. Photo courtesy of Oaklandnorth.com

By Ken Epstein

The Oakland City Council this week passed a two-year $2.4 billion budget based on a local economy that is rebounding from years of recession.

With input from councilmembers and the community, Mayor Libby Schaaf and Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney put together a budget that closes an estimated $18 million annual funding gap without making cuts to city services or staffing and pays for 40 new police officers.

The council also set aside $617,000 to pay for a new Department of Race and Equity.

In the final discussions leading up to the council vote on Tuesday night, the money was spread around so a lot of local needs ended up receiving a little of the city’s growing resources.

Mayor Schaaf praised the budget, saying it benefited from the collaborative input of many people.

“We closed that deficit. We kept our promises. We increased compensation for our workers and were able to make some strategic investments,” she said.

Six councilmembers voted in favor of the budget. Noel Gallo voted no, and Desley Brooks abstained.

Some people in the community were happy that the new spending plan is funding all or part of the programs that are important to them.

But the final budget left some of the hundreds of residents who spoke at council hearings over the past few months dissatisfied and angry that their neighborhoods and their needs are still being neglected.

“It is heartbreaking the number of things we cannot fund,” Council President McElhaney said.

Among the major issues were the inequitable division of services among the city’s neighborhoods, lack of resources for jobs for the long term unemployed, youth and the formerly incarcerated, the need for more staff to aggressively enforce the minimum wage ordinance and an affordable housing crisis that is impacted by tenant protections that are not enforced.

Speakers at the hearings called on the city to focus on the desperate conditions facing the most vulnerable residents: meals for some of the 200 Oakland seniors who go each day without food; shelter and support for homeless girls and sexually exploited minors; and funding for Central American children living in Oakland who need lawyers to help them win refugee status to avoid being forced to return to homelands they fled to escape violence and death.

Others called for brush removal to prevent wildfires like the firestorm that devastated the Oakland hills in 1991. Supporters of the Oakland Animal Shelter pushed the city to fund services to protect dogs and cats.

Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who supported the budget, was pleased with some of the programs that were funded .

“I’m glad we were able to support some very important things in this budget including enforcement of laws that protect people’s rights: tenant protections and wage protections,” she said, also praising the decision to fund her proposal to go after illegal guns and illegal gun dealing.

A major problem, Kaplan said, is that city’s tax income is not going up very much despite increasing rents and growing numbers of rental properties.

“If we don’t fix the revenue situation, we’ll be constantly in the situation where different vital needs are pitted against each other,” she said.

When councilmembers ask the city’s revenue department why revenue is not going up, she said, “They are told they can’t give us the data because the computers don’t work.”

“Why is it that the amount of money (staff) says we will be getting in rental property tax is lower than what we got in 2011?” She asked.

Councilmember Gallo said he opposed the budget, in part because of its failure to provide more resources to help sexually exploited girls and young women.

The council set aside $500,000 to build a shelter where the girls can stay,” he said, “But we need the services that go with it. “

“What the council offered was a good step, but it was a small step,” Gallo said. “We have to get serious about dealing with human trafficking in Oakland. “

“Everybody cries about it, feels sorry about, but it’s still there – every day in the city.”

Not waiting for the council to move ahead on this issue, Gallo is holding meetings with Catholic churches in the area to ask them to open their doors so girls will have a place to stay.

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, July 5, 2015 (postnewsgroup.com)

Brooks’ Victory for Oakland’s New Department of Race and Equity

Community support for historic measure garnered council’s unanimous support

By Ashley Chambers

After months of debate, the City Council unanimously voted this week to create a Department of Race and Equity to address systemic racism and inequality in the City of Oakland.

Desley Brooks

Desley Brooks

The council voted at its special budget meeting Monday for full funding of the department, $520,730, to pay for the hiring of a director, program analyst and administrative assistant.

Authored by Councilmember Desley Brooks, the proposal came before the council earlier this year to create the new city department to begin to come to grips with the systemic racism and inequity in city policies and practices that adversely impact communities of color.

Over the past few months, hundreds of community members have come to council meetings to speak in favor of the proposal. They talked about the desperate need for the city to take action to deal with gentrification and the displacement of families, the lack of minority contractors on city projects, failure to enforce tenant protections and persistent underfunding of job programs for reentry, youth, and unemployed residents.

Over 50 organizations and 700 residents have expressed their support for the new department.

Speaking at the Council meeting Monday, Post Publisher Paul Cobb called for the councilmembers to endorse, support and fully fund the Department of Race and Equity.

Cobb read a text message sent to him from community advocate José Dueñas who died last weekend. Backing the new department, Dueñas wrote:

“I think we need to create a coalition of Latinos, African Americans and Asians to discuss how to deal with the inequities in this city and this county.”

“This is just a first step, and the next step to what started out as affirmative action… I still remember how tenacious you (Paul Cobb) were with me (during that time)…We must do that again now.”

Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who endorsed the department and fully funded it in her proposed budget, said, “Oakland is changing and we need to have a department to ensure that we continue to respect and honor our diverse population and that we are able to do that proactively.”

She added, “The focus is really about how the city delivers its services to ensure that (local) government is serving all sectors of its residents, and all geographic sectors of the city.”

This victory for the Department of Race and Equity makes Oakland one of few cities around the country, along with Portland and Seattle, that have created departments to ensure equality and fairness for all residents.

Among other issues, the Department of Race and Equity will need to look at unequal enforcement of city zoning policies, said Brooks.

“It’s the planning and the zoning decisions that have allowed for auto body shops to be next door to somebody’s house, that allow for environmental issues to impact communities of color, that allow for West Oakland to have (a higher) asthma rate because of the bad conditions,” she said.

“We need a Department of Race and Equity because we have normalized the conversation of race,” Brooks said. “When you think about the incidents that just happened in South Carolina…we need a Department of Race and Equity because there are systemic issues that unless we address them we will never get to where we need to be.”

 Courtesy of the Oakland Post, June 28, 2015 (postnewsroup.com)

Barbara Parker Cites Confidentiality, Refuses Comment on Sale of Property for Luxury Apartment Tower

By Ken Epstein

A local community group has not yet received a reply from City Attorney Barbara Parker about their complaint that the City of Oakland is violating local, state and federal laws in going ahead with the sale of public property to developers to build a luxury apartment tower at the East side of Lake Merritt.

Barbara Parker

Barbara Parker

“There are serious unanswered questions about the city’s compliance with federal, state and local laws governing disposition of this property,” according to a letter to the City Council on May 4 from lawyers for Public Advocates on behalf of the neighborhood group Eastlake United for Justice.

The lawyers urge the council to remove the agreement to sell the property at the corner of East 12th Street and Lake Merritt Boulevard from its agenda “until the city has publicly demonstrated that it has complied with all legal requirements.”

City Attorney Parker or her representative is generally present in all public and closed session meetings of the council. Her office was appraised of the decisions leading to the council decision to offer the property for sale and the proposed agreement with Urban Core Development and its financial partner UDR.

Parker’s officer has also received the letter from Public Advocates.

Reached for comment by the Post, Alex Katz, Parker’s chief of staff, said she does not respond to questions regarding her legal advice to the City Council, citing attorney-client privilege.

Rendering of Lake Merritt Boulevard Apartments, courtesy of UrbanCore.

Rendering of Lake Merritt Boulevard Apartments, courtesy of UrbanCore.

“We can’t talk out what advice we give the City Council or whether we’ve given them legal advice,” he said.

According to the letter from Public Advocates, the East 12th Street parcel qualifies as “surplus land,” and “disposition must therefore comply with all procedural and substantive provisions of the (California Surplus Lands Act).”

Under the law, the lawyers wrote, “All public lands no longer needed for public use (must) be made available for affordable housing, recreation, and other state priorities.”

In addition, the law provides that if property is sold to a developer, the city should seek to assure 25 percent of the units are reserved for affordable housing and at a minimum, “no less than 15 percent of the total number of units (are) developed on the parcels at affordable housing cost… or affordable rent…to lower income households.”

“There are no exceptions,” the letter said.

Members of Eastlake United for Justice also have repeatedly alleged that the city has violated its own procedures in this land deal. At several city meetings, they accused the council of making the decision to sell the property in closed session – without the public – and that the request for proposals only went out to three developers.

Further, the lawyers argued that the decision to sell the property violates the federal Fair Housing Act’s and California Fair Employment and Housing Act’s protections against reinforcing or perpetuating “segregated housing patterns…. regardless of intent.”

Approving an agreement with the developers “that allows for 100 percent luxury housing on a publicly owned site without including affordable housing, would disproportionately impact people of color and individuals with disabilities, perpetuating segregation in the city,” the lawyers said in their letter.

David Zisser, staff attorney for Public Advocates told the Post that the City Attorney’s office has received the letter, but, “They have not directly responded t it.”

“If the council had gone along with the provisions of the state Surplus Lands Act, 25 percent or 75 units out of the 298 units (in the project) would actually be affordable for Oakland,” said Zisser. “If they could not find a developer to do the 25 percent affordable housing, they still could do 15 percent or 45 units of affordable housing.”

“Everyone knows there’s a housing crisis in this city, and this crisis is causing the exodus of Oakland families. The council has talked about favoring a diverse, inclusive city and has the opportunity to do something about it,” he said.

“This not a technical legal maneuver. It’s the moral thing to do, it’s good policy, and it’s also legally required.”

Zisser emphasized that Public Advocates and community members are not picking a fight with Urban Core Development and its owner Michael Johnson. “This is not about blaming the developer. “It’s about what the city’s obligations are.”

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, May 22, 2015 (postnewsgroup.com)

OUSD Consultant Lance Jackson’s Company Sued in Corruption Scandal

By Ken Epstein

The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is paying consultant Lance Jackson to head its Facilities Planning and Management Department

Lance Jackson

Lance Jackson

through the district’s contract with Seville Group Inc. (SGI), while Jackson continues working as an executive of the company, whose owner, along with school board members and a superintendent of schools, pleaded guilty in a corruption scheme in a Southern California school district.

The criminal prosecutions are over, but lawsuits against Seville that came out of the case are slowly moving ahead. Sweetwater Union High School District and San Diegans for Open Government are suing Seville, along with another company, to return $26 million on the grounds that their contracts with the school district were “tainted,” by bribing public officials, and therefore invalid.

In the widely publicized case, which finally concluded last year, a school board member went to jail and a number lost their positions. The district’s superintendent went to jail and paid a fine.

The former superintendent Sweetwater Union High School District was sentenced in April 2014 to jail. Photo courtesy of San Diego station ABC Channel 10.

The former superintendent of Sweetwater Union High School District  in Southern California was sentenced in June 2014 to jail. Photo courtesy of San Diego station ABC Channel 10.

According to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, “Between 2008 and 2011, the defendants frequented San Diego-area restaurants with contractors and others racking up hundreds of dollars in food and drinks at a time, in some cases reaching more than $1,000 per outing. Defendants were given Los Angeles Lakers playoff tickets, concert tickets, theater tickets, Rose Bowl tickets, Southwest Airlines tickets and trips to Pebble Beach and Napa Valley.”

The owner and president of Seville, Rene Flores, cooperated and testified for the prosecution. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was on informal probation until June 20, 2 014.

In addition to his interim consulting position in the school district, Jackson serves as Chief Operating Officer of Seville, part of the company’s seven-member executive leadership team.

School construction project in OUSD

Oakland Unified School District school construction project

Seville receives $30,000 a month, an equivalent of $360,000 a year, for Jackson’s services to OUSD, part of the company’s contract to provide construction management services to the district.

Jackson’s position with the company goes back to 2002, according to Bloomberg.

Seville has a nearly $11 million, three-year contract to provide project management oversight of OUSD’s construction projects. Jackson was hired by the school district as the interim replacement for Tim White, who was forced out of his $156,000-a-year position as head of Facilities Management in February after 14 years in the district.

Seville is being paid for Jackson’s work from school bond funds for what the district estimates is 75 percent of the work that Tim White was doing. As head of Facilities Planning and Management, Jackson oversees the expenditure of at least $435 million in taxpayer bond money.

The Southern California lawsuits are seeking the return of $26 million that SGI of Pasadena and Gilbane of Providence, R.I., received to oversee the Sweetwater district’s $644-million, voter-approved Proposition O bond program and a part of an earlier bond program.

“It was filed to recoup some of the bond (management) fees that we paid,” said Manny Rubio, public information officer of the Sweetwater school district in an interview with the Post.

State law – Government Code 1090 – prohibits officials from entering into a contract in which they have a financial interest and nullifies contracts made in violation of that law.

“The facts really aren’t in dispute. The people that received the gifts admit receiving them. Those that gave the gifts admit giving them,” said John Moot, outside legal counsel for Sweetwater, speaking in an interview with the newspaper U-T San Diego.

Responding to the lawsuit, lawyers for the contractors, Gilbane and Seville, said the district attorney’s charges were inflated, and the gifts to public officials were constitutionally protected free speech.

“Despite the rhetoric and rampant media coverage, the meager slaps on the wrist that flowed from the prosecution utterly belie (the D.A.’s) claims and prove the criminal charges were overblown and lacked evidentiary support,” the lawyers for the two companies said in court papers.

In rejecting one of the defendants’ claims, a San Diego judge in December 2014 ruled that the meals, trips and gifts were criminal acts and not constitutionally protected free speech.

Judge Eddie Sturgeon said that law the contractors cited did not apply if the conduct was illegal. He wrote that the gift were clearly meant to influence the decisions of the school officials, and the guilty pleas of the contractors and officials confirmed that what they did was illegal, according to UT-San Diego.

OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint responded to the Post’s questions about the hiring of Lance Jackson and the payments to SGI in light of the ongoing Southern California lawsuits.

“When we appointed Lance to his current position, we were aware of the investigation in San Diego,” Flint said. “We reviewed the matter to the best of our ability, and we determined that Lance was not involved in any way.”

He continued: “We retain our confidence in Lance based on that review and the caliber of work he’s done for us. We won’t hold what appears to be the actions of a few bad apples against Lance.

“Our work with SGI in general, and with Lance in particular, has been above board and extremely satisfactory. What the owners of the company may or may not have done in Southern California is not reflected in the work with OUSD or in Lance’s performance.”

Attorney Cory Briggs of San Diegans for Open Government told the Post that a trial or settlement to the case may be a year-and-a-half away. “If there’s a conflict of interest, (the companies) have to repay everything they’ve been paid,” he said.

The Post requested but at press time had not received comments from OUSD Board President James Harris or other board members, Lance Jackson or Supt. Antwan Wilson. General Counsel Jacqueline Minor was contacted but was out of the office.

Lynette McElhaney Puts Damper on Tagami’s Coal Plan

Demonstrators rallied Thursday morning out the Rotunda Building in downtown Oakland where Phil Tagami's office is located, calling on him to keep his promise not to ship coal through the Port of Oakland. Photo by Ethan Bruckner.

Demonstrators rallied Thursday morning out the Rotunda Building in downtown Oakland where Phil Tagami’s office is located, calling on him to keep his promise not to ship coal through the Port of Oakland. Photo by Ethan Bruckner.

By Ashley Chambers

News has spread of developer Phil Tagami’s plan to negotiate a deal with four counties in Utah to ship coal to a new export terminal at the Oakland Army Base that could begin operation as early as 2017.

However, opposition by city officials and community activists indicate tat they are many in the city who have no intentions of allowing the greenhouse gas producing material to be exported from the city’s port.

Last month, the Utah Permanent Community Impact Fund Board approved a $53 million loan to the four counties – Sevier, Sanpete, Carbon and Emery – to lease a large share of the Oakland terminal to export five to six million tons of coal each year.

Moving forward with this project would directly conflict with a resolution passed by the Oakland City Council last year “opposing the transport of coal, oil, petcoke (a byproduct of the oil refining process) and other hazardous materials by railways and waterways within the city.”

Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney, whose district includes West Oakland, the Oakland Army Base and the Port of Oakland, has voiced her opposition to the export of coal from city land, saying, “West Oakland cannot be subjected to another dirty industry in its backyard.”

“We were told that this new terminal on city property would increase economic growth, but I see coal exports as the Trojan horse in the development of the Oakland Army Base. It is not the type of economic development that we want – no thank you!”

McElhaney said, “Since coal was not contemplated to be exported when the Army Base Development project was approved, the community has not yet had the chance to make their voices heard on this subject. This is unacceptable.”

Last year, Port Commissioners voted to reject a proposal to construct a coal export terminal.

Activists rallied Thursday across from Oakland City Hall in front of the Rotunda building – where Tagami’s California Capital & Investment Group (CCIG) is located – demanding that the developer keep the promise he made to bring no coal into Oakland.

“CCIG is publicly on record as having no interest or involvement in the pursuit of coal-related operations at the former Oakland Army Base,” Tagami wrote in a 2013 newsletter.

Coal is one of the largest producers of carbon dioxide. The health impacts of bringing this fossil fuel to the city would affect residents, workers at the port, and disintegrate the global environment.

Photo by Ethan Buckner.

Photo by Ethan Buckner.

Former Port of Oakland executives Omar Benjamin and Jerry Bridges, who were supporters of the failed coal terminal proposal in 2014, are involved in the project with Tagami and recently met with the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP) and explained their plans to use “clean” coal.

They said they would use clean, contained cargo shipping train cars that will be unloaded inside contained warehouses. Clean coal refers to the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions underground.

It has also been said that coal would be covered on the trains to reduce the spill of coal dust.

However, these efforts will not eliminate the health effects that the West Oakland community will be exposed to, according to many.

Jess Dervin-Ackerman, Conservation Manager of the Bay Area Sierra Club, said harmful health impacts would take effect immediately “in a community already overburdened with air pollution, and diesel particulates from trucks, trains, and ships.”

Residents would experience higher risks of asthma, heart and lung disease, and cancer from “one of the dirtiest energies on the planet,” she said.

Local residents would be exposed to coal dust and diesel particulates in the air that they can easily breathe in, even through walls, and enter into their lungs and blood stream, explained Dervin-Ackerman, a resident of Emeryville.

“We have to be moving away from these fuels if we want to have food and a world to live in that isn’t blazing hot, or flooded under rising sea levels, ” said Brian Beveridge of WOEIP.

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, May 16, 2015 (postnewsgroup.com)

Vote on Luxury Apartment Tower Postponed, As Councilmembers Seek Improved Community Benefits

By Ken Epstein

A number of Oakland residents have been waiting to see what the City Council will do next after protesters shut down the May 5 council meeting where the council was scheduled to authorize the sale of a piece of lakefront property to a private developer.

Abel Guillen

Abel Guillen

The issue was not on the May 11 council agenda and is not scheduled to be discussed next week at the May 19 council meeting.

In interviews with the Post, councilmembers said they are extending the time before bringing the motion to a final vote to allow staff and Councilmember Abel Guillen – who is leading the effort – to negotiate with the developer for more community benefits, including the possibility of affordable units on site.

At their May 5 meeting, councilmembers were stunned when well-organized protesters chained themselves together, seized control of the meeting and forced the council to adjourn without conducting any business.

The protesters – a coalition that included a neighborhood group called Eastlake United for Justice and black seed – produced a bullhorn and turned the meeting into a rally for their demands, calling for public property to be developed for affordable housing and other public uses – not sold to private companies to build luxury apartments as a one-time boost to the city’s budget.

The council is set to sell the piece of city-owned property at the corner of E. 12th Street and Lake Merritt Boulevard for $5.1 million to build a luxury apartment tower.

The proposed developers are Michael Johnson and his company Urban Core Development and Johnson’s financial partner UDR, a self-administered real estate investment trust (REIT) based in Denver that owns, operates, buys, renovates, develops, and manages multifamily apartment communities located throughout the country, headed by CEO and President Thomas Toomey.

Councilmember Guillen told the Post that he and city staff are having productive talks with the developers, and the final proposal should come to the council in June.

“We’re still in negotiations with the developers, trying to get the best deal possible for the City of Oakland.” he said.

Thomas Toomey

Thomas Toomey,  CEO of UDR

He continued: “I’m working on having affordable housing on site or offsite and other community benefits. We’re looking at all options.”

But Guillen cautioned affordable housing advocates not to expect too much.

“At the end of the day, we’re not going to please everybody here in Oakland,” he said. “We need both affordable housing and market-rate housing, and this project is really about market-rate housing.”

One-bedroom apartments at the proposed building will rent for about $3,100 a month.

Michael Johnson  of Urban Core Development. Photo by Ken Epstein

Michael Johnson of Urban Core Development. Photo by Ken Epstein

Council President Lynette McElhaney, who backs the property sale, said Guillen was prepared to make a motion at the disrupted May 5 meeting asking for additional time to negotiate with the developer.

“We haven’t scheduled (the issue) yet,” she said. “I´m not sure yet when it will come to council. I’ve been leaning on Abel’s leadership.”

“It’s his district, and there are concerns he has had that he wants to be addressed,” she said. “We needed the time to get in touch with the developers to discuss things he thought would enhance the project.”

At a recent Community and Economic Development Committee (CED) meeting, Guillen requested that the city seek a new appraisal on the property. He said he believed the property was worth about 25 percent more than what the city is selling it for.

Committee members, including McElhaney and Larry Reid, rejected this proposal.

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, May 16, 2015 (postnewsgroup.com)

Commentary: Oakland Needs a Department to Address Institutionalized Injustice

By Kitty Kelly Epstein

Two-thirds of the people who live in Oakland are not white and Oakland has a long history of struggle for racial justice.

Dr. Kitty Kelly Epstein

Dr. Kitty Kelly Epstein

Yet the situation of most whites is quite different from the situation of many Latinos, African-Americans, Asians and indigenous people.  In fact, Oakland has the seventh worst income inequality of any major city in the country. (Statistics on wealth gaps for Asians and indigenous groups are not available from those doing these calculations.)

We need to put changing this at the center of the city’s efforts. In the one place where we have some real power, local government, we need to say that we understand institutional racism still exists and we want to do something about it – officially

It won’t be easy. The whole country is full of policies that uphold racism, but there is a lot more we could do if we focused and strategized, especially on the policies and practices that produce the racial wealth gap.

We need a city Department of Race and Equity because the racial wealth gap in the U.S. is 13 to 1 between the median white and the median African-American family and 10 to 1 between the median white and the median Latino family.

These gaps in wealth and income result from a national history of overt and covert racial discrimination – slavery, U.S. seizure of Mexican land, share-cropping, red-lining; English-only policies; bracero programs; immigration policies and a thousand other events and policies.

And these gaps contribute to housing, health, and policing inequities as well. Here are just a few current local specifics which a department of Race and Equity might look into:

African Americans are 28 percent of the Oakland population. Yet they were hired for only 5 percent of the hours on city-funded construction projects last year;

Latinos are 41 percent of Oakland students, but only 13 percent of its teachers. A city department would, of course, need to work collaboratively with the school district if it were to help in rectifying this imbalance.

Oakland is lauded for multi-cultural music and art. Yet city support for minority-owned venues is often lacking;

Oakland has lots of new fancy restaurants, but not many Black or Latino or Asian folk earn the fancy tips at the front-end of these houses.

Some city departments seem to have many employees of every ethnicity. Yet the department that plans the city’s economic future seems to be overwhelmingly white.

The last “disparity study” commissioned by the city showed statistically significant underutilization of “minority” owned and women owned firms in both construction and professional services contracts.   There was also a significant underutilization of Asian, Latino, and African-American firms in construction sub-contracts.

Non-white contractors have reported a good-old-boys network, difficulty in receiving information on the bid process, difficulty in obtaining financing, and other issues.

Oakland is blessed with dozens of activist and non-profit organizations that work on these issues, but we often feel that we are fighting a multiple-headed beast, winning in one place, only to lose again when someone forgets that a new policy or procedure is supposed to be in place.

We need an official department in city government that is responsible for caring whether two-thirds of the residents receive the same economic, political, and social benefits as the other third.

We need a Department of Race and Equity

Kitty Kelly Epstein, PhD is author of “Organizing to Change a City” (2012), Peter Lang, and host of Education Today on KPFA 94.1 FM.

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, May 16, 2015 (postnewsgroup.com)

Protesters Shut Down Council Meeting , Demand Affordable Housing Not Luxury Apartments

Jos Healey was one of the spekers on the bullhorn when protesters  shut down the City Council meeting Tuesday. Photo by Ken Epstein

Jos Healey was one of the speakers on a bullhorn Tuesday when protesters shut down the City Council meeting. Photo by Ken Epstein

 By Ken Epstein

Oakland City Council chambers became ground zero for protests against gentrification and displacement this week as young activists chained themselves together to keep the City Council meeting from taking place, instead holding a rally for several hours in the chambers to voice their anger and frustration with the city’s leadership.

At the close of a public hearing on the proposed city budget for next year, but before the city council meeting could get underway, activists entered the well area behind the low barrier between the council dais and the public.

Some chained themselves together, standing in a line below the shocked council members. Others produced a bullhorn and began speaking about their issues and invited others to speak.

Many members of the audience stood, chanted and shouted in solidarity with the protesters. Police made no moves to intervene, but police and security attempted to keep more people from entering the chambers.

While people spoke, a projector flashed the group’s issues on an overhead screen:

“You can fight city hall,” “Development without displacement;” “A people’s budget, not a policing budget;” and “Public service, not lip service,” the projected signs said.

The focus of the protest was the seeming willingness of most council members to vote Tuesday night to approve the sale of a one-acre, city-owned parcel on East 12th Street across from Lake Merritt to build a 24-story luxury apartment building.

The proposed building includes no affordable housing and will have a median rent of $3,150 for a one-bedroom apartment, making the units affordable only to households that make $120,000 or more a year, according to activists who say the median household income in Eastlake around the proposed building is $38,363.

The coalition against the high rise is led by a neighborhood group, Eastlake United for Justice and includes Causa Justa/Just Cause, East Bay Housing Organizations, Black Seed, SEIU 1021, Oakland Rising, and the Oakland Tenants Union.

Calling for public land to be used only for affordable housing and other public needs, the groups are concerned that the development will lead to displacement of working class residents on the east side of Lake Merritt, as well as the development’s inadequate community engagement process.

At a rally in front of City Hall before the council meeting, members of Eastlake United for Justice and others spoke about their concerns.

Huan Bao Yu spoke at a rally in front of Oakland City Hall Tuesday opposing the E. 12th Street highrise. Mari Rose Taruc held the bulllhorn. Photo by Ken Ken

Huan Bao Yu speaks at a rally in front of Oakland City Hall Tuesday opposing the E. 12th Street highrise. Mari Rose Taruc held the bulllhorn. Photo by Ken Epstein.

“We are here because there are people in there (City Hall) who are trying to sell out our land,” said Josh Healey, also part of the Eastlake group.

“We’ve been here to talk to the mayor and city council, and they haven’t been hearing us,” he said.

Mari Rose Taruc, also of the Eastlake neighborhood group, said, “Oakland is 62 percent renters. We don’t want luxury condos at Eastlake. We want affordable housing.”

Asked Huan Bao Yu, a senior citizens speaking for Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), “Who is (this development) for? “Is it for us? No, it’s to kick us out.”

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, May 9, 2015 (postnewsgroup.com)