Backers of “Public Land for Public Good” Challenge City’s Commitment to Market-rate Housing
Jun 29, 2019
Supporters of utilizing all public land for community benefit, especially for affordable housing, speak Tuesday at the council’s Community and Economic Development (CED) committee. Photos by Ken Epstein.
By Ken Epstein
A citywide coalition of community organizations and nonprofits stepped up pressure this week on the Oakland City Council and the Mayor Libby Schaaf’s administration to adopt a policy that prioritizes “public land for public good,” calling for building affordable housing rather than continuing the city’s business-as-usual backroom deals that force out Oakland residents to make room for market-rate, high-rise development projects.
At Tuesday’s crowded meeting of the council’s Community and Economic Development (CED) Committee, councilmembers heard three proposals that will that will be debated in coming months as the council grapples with possible future restrictions on public land sales.
However, perhaps indicating their attitude on the issues, members of the CED committee was unwilling to pass a resolution this week that would have required the city to place a moratorium on the sale of public land while the council debates and adopts a public lands policy.
By blocking new sales of public land, the moratorium would have increased the incentive for the council to adopt a binding lands policy and would have prevented the city from selling off all the most valuable parcels of land before a policy was finalized.
Councilmembers Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Annie Campbell Washington opposed the moratorium. Only Noel Gallo supported it.
But Councilmembers did agree to bring the moratorium back to the next CED meeting on July 17.
One of the speakers in favor of the moratorium was Towanda Sherry of the Beloved Community Action Network. “We are being sold down the river. Every time, we turn around, land is being given away or sold off. We need to put a halt to it right now,” she said.
“We need to have a moratorium because we need to talk. We need to seriously talk so the people’s voice is heard,” she said.
Councilmember McElhaney said she opposed the moratorium because she was unsure of its legality. She said she wanted to hear an opinion of the City Attorney in closed session.
However, the City Attorney had already signed off on the legality the resolution, and the City Attorney’s representative at CED said she was unsure that it was appropriate to address issues about the moratorium in closed session.
One of the three proposals was developed by the city administration, while one alternative was presented by Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Abel Guillén. The third was a “People’s proposal” developed by the Citywide Anti-Displacement Network.
The staff proposal would sell some public land to market-rate developers in order to raise the money to pay for as many as 746 affordable units. The administration has decided it does not want a policy with teeth but instead seeks to pass a “Public Lands Strategy,” which allows the administration the “flexibility” to ignore its strategy when it wishes.
The staff strategy also opposes creating a community advisory board to provide input and oversight on public land sales.
Speaking for the administration, Mark Sawicki, head of the city’s Department of Economic Workforce Development, said, “One percent of the (property) is where we have focused our strategy,” explaining that only 20 of the city’s many parcels are suitable for housing.
The numbers of units that can be built on these sites are limited by zoning and other regulations, he said, and staff is proposing that 14 of the 20 sites be utilized for affordable housing, while six be set aside for market-rate housing and commercial development.
Vanessa Riles of East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO) spoke for the “People’s proposal” developed by the Citywide Anti-displacement Network, which is a comprehensive statement of community values, calls for 100 percent of public land to be used for affordable housing and making city decisions with the full-on inclusion of community voices, particularly African Americans and others who have been most severely impacted by the housing crisis.
“The Citywide Anti-Displacement Network is concerned about the astronomical rate of displacement of individual families in Oakland and the rapid rate of development without transparency, accountability or community engagement,” she said.
The proposal developed by Councilmembers Kaplan and Guillén proposal would require that an average of 50 percent affordable housing be built on all sites and 100 percent of land sale proceeds go to an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which would be overseen by a standing Community Advisory Committee.
This proposal also would require a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) with construction unions on large projects that have an estimated cost of at least $40 million.
Kaplan said she supports sending the labor proposal to the city’s Department of Race and Equity for analysis before it is adopted.
“We have an opportunity to use our land for public good, both for what is put on it and also who gets hired, who gets contacts and how we make sure there are decent jobs that benefit our local community,” she said.
“In a time of gentrification, cities can use can use public land as a resource, in addressing high demand for affordable housing and public services to benefit low-income residents who face displacement or even homelessness,” said Sarah Ting, a member of Councilmember Guillén’s staff.
“It’s critical that the way we use public land not exacerbate displacement,” she said.