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'The Oakland I'm From'

Like a lot of other places, the California city is struggling to grow without leaving longtime residents behind.

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On a cool, clear morning a couple of months ago in Oakland, Calif., a crew of city workers cleared away a homeless shelter. The space had caught fire a few months earlier, threatening the plywood structures all around it, a row of makeshift dwellings for homeless people hidden behind some warehouses along Wood Street in West Oakland. About 75 of them live in that row, in shanties that are fronted by tires and cast-off furniture, as well as the inevitable shopping carts. 

The fire didn’t spread, since most residents have fire extinguishers. Many also have generators. The city has supplied a port-a-potty, which doesn’t get cleaned too often but at least gives people a facility to use. This particular grouping of homeless individuals -- afforded some loosely defined but locally respected personal space and accepted as a de facto community by the police -- is better off than many in Oakland. All over town, it seems as if all the highway underpasses, plus many sidewalks and street medians, are filled by rows of torn tents, with stray garbage drifting about.

Homelessness is an issue in every major West Coast city, but it’s particularly acute in Oakland. The number of homeless people there has shot up by at least 25 percent over the past two years. There’s a real irony in this: It is happening as the city undergoes its biggest economic boom since the 1940s, when tens of thousands of workers arrived to take factory jobs during World War II. 

Oakland, which sits directly across the bay from San Francisco, has always been that city’s gritty working-class neighbor. Prior waves of tech industry that sent big money sloshing around the Bay Area always managed to bypass Oakland, put off, perhaps, by its crime-ridden reputation. But nowadays, with property prices in San Francisco having reached truly insane levels, tech companies and tech workers are discovering it. Health and business remain the city’s leading employment sources, but there’s a booming startup scene, with new companies and workers attracted by a city with a beautiful setting and a practically perfect climate. The fog that shrouds San Francisco seldom makes it across the bay.

Downtown Oakland is now seeing 30-story office towers go up on lots that sat empty for three decades. The office vacancy rate is actually lower than San Francisco’s. Between 2010 and 2016, Oakland -- which has 420,000 residents -- gained more than 26,000 jobs. Last November, its unemployment rate dipped below the national average for the first time in more than 20 years. “The moment I decided to run for this office,” says Mayor Libby Schaaf, “I recognized that for the first time in decades, the opportunity for revitalization was right on our doorstep.” 

But like rain falling on a parched land, the sudden gush of money into Oakland seems to be creating at least as many problems as it solves. Prosperity is passing many longtime residents by. While the unemployment rate for African-American residents has fallen over the past few years, median income for blacks -- along with that of Hispanics -- as stagnated. It’s certainly not keeping up with the pace of recent growth enjoyed by whites and Asians. Oakland is now the eighth most expensive city in the country, according to the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness, a nonprofit research group. That’s no help to people living in neighborhoods where the median income still hovers around $25,000. “Oakland’s renaissance is not touching those folks who lived through its period of neglect,” says Fred Blackwell, CEO of the San Francisco Foundation and a former Oakland city manager. “That has become a threat to those people, rather than an opportunity.” 

Now, when major companies such as Uber promise to bring lots of high-paying corporate jobs to the city, they’re sometimes met with protest. Newly arrived young tech workers have been spat at or shot at with pellet guns. “Oakland represents both the promise of urban America and the fundamental problems,” says David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University. “It’s the Whole Foods generation vs. the traditional Oakland population of African-Americans, those with middling job skills who depended on a manufacturing base that has long since left.”

Just a couple of blocks from the homeless encampment on Wood Street, rows of new condominium buildings have opened up or are currently under construction. This is in a neighborhood long forgotten by the city as a whole, with practically nothing to offer by way of retail shops or other amenities. A three-bedroom condo -- made out of wood that doesn’t appear all that much better quality than what’s lying around the homeless camps -- will easily fetch more than $1 million. Exorbitant housing prices have become a fact of life in Oakland, a city where before and during the last recession it was easy to live in an affordable apartment on a modest income. Today, the average market rate for a one-bedroom apartment in the city is $2,400 per month. 

Oakland has its share of teenage runaways and people who have ended up on the street due to some form of addiction or another. But a majority of the unhoused -- 57 percent, according to a census taken last year -- are living on the streets or in their cars for purely economic reasons. Put simply, they can’t make the rent. Oakland’s homeless problem is worse than it was during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1990s. “Most of these people in these homeless encampments are living on the streets in the neighborhoods they grew up in,” says Needa Bee, who does volunteer work with the homeless and is facing eviction herself.

American cities have found what amounts to a new lease on life over the past two decades, but no city has discovered the formula that will allow newfound success to be widely shared. There have been complaints for years now that cities are being divided between the upscale and the poor, with little room for the middle class. That’s becoming even more true now. Public officials throughout the country keep talking about equity and inclusion, but no one has found a way to counter the overall trend of winners taking more than their share. “We want to welcome new jobs coming to Oakland,” says City Councilmember Dan Kalb, “but we want to do it in a way that works for everyone. We haven’t figured out the best way to do that.”

In Oakland, not only are longtime low-income residents living on the streets, but many have left the city altogether. As recently as 1980, Oakland was nearly half African-American (47 percent). Today, blacks comprise only about a quarter of the population, with whites, Asians and Hispanics each accounting for roughly another quarter. “We’ve had a definite loss of our African-American population, which so defined our city,” says Schaaf. “It has been painful to watch the impact of extreme market forces, the displacement and the housing crisis.”

Both the city’s current success and its mounting frustrations have more to do with the regional Bay Area economy than with the city’s public policies. Any mayor of Oakland has limited tools to address some of the most crucial issues, with the schools controlled by a separately elected school board and homelessness nominally a problem for the government of Alameda County. But Schaaf is a smart enough politician to recognize that if there’s a problem within Oakland’s city limits, she’s going to get the blame. When you’re the mayor, it doesn’t matter if an issue lies outside your jurisdiction or authority. People expect you to deal with it. 

Despite the high-profile problems on her watch, Schaaf is a strong favorite to win a second term this fall. But she knows she’s leading a city where many residents feel the social fabric is being ripped to shreds. “When you get this job, you represent authority,” she says, “and people have lots of good reasons to be angry at authority.”

Oakland has always been divided. Its steep hills are luxurious and leafy even in drought years, their winding streets lined with large homes that boast dramatic views of San Francisco Bay and the city it’s named for. (When he was mayor of Oakland, California Gov. Jerry Brown liked to describe San Francisco as a nice amenity for his residents.)

Down in “the flats,” the low-lying areas that fan out from the shoreline around the bay, high poverty and crime rates have been a fact of life for decades. Along International Boulevard, a major street running south out of downtown, sex trafficking of children and teen girls has reached near-epidemic proportions. And there are less dramatic but continually troublesome issues to worry about. “I have a problem, I have a big, big problem,” Schaaf tells a group of high school students who petitioned the city about trash piling up in their part of town. “I have more garbage and illegal dumping than I have capacity to pick up.”

Schaaf, who is 52 years old, grew up in Montclair, one of the upscale neighborhoods in the hills. She hasn’t lived there since she was a teenager, but she represented one of the city’s wealthier districts on the city council. To some extent, she suffers from a perception problem based on the simple fact that she is a white woman running a city swiftly shedding black people during a time of significant change. There’s definitely a divide, says John Jones III, a community organizer who works on housing and criminal justice issues. “The Oakland the mayor’s from,” he says, “is not the Oakland I’m from.”

Still, even Schaaf’s critics generally give her credit for being a loyal and loving daughter of the city. She loves to brag about the diversity, the Vietnamese banh mi shops alongside taquerias and barbecue joints. She admits that, growing up where she did, she might never have known much about the struggling sections of Oakland had her mother’s volunteer activities not exposed her to other aspects of the community. As a kid, she started a Girl Scout troop for refugees at a downtown middle school. Earlier this year, in the face of federal attacks against sanctuary city policies, Schaaf said that it would be “an honor” to go to jail in their defense.

Schaaf served as a top aide to Brown when he was mayor. She went on to work for the Port of Oakland, won a council seat in 2010 and was elected mayor herself four years later. Following a pair of one-term mayors and inheriting a city workforce that had been decimated during the recession, Schaaf has generally been credited with improving morale and performance at a city hall sometimes described as dysfunctional. She’s installed quality hires, mostly women, in senior leadership roles. She created the city’s first Department of Transportation, seeking to lend coherence to street repair, bus rapid transit projects and infrastructure in general. Last year, she named a public safety director to come up with crime prevention strategies and help oversee the city’s troubled police department.

But the mayor of Oakland has to address most of her challenges from a relatively weak political position. During his time in city hall, Brown pushed through changes to the city charter to enhance the mayor’s ability to govern, but the job remains constricted compared to truly strong mayoralties in other big cities. The mayor proposes a budget, but holds no veto power over legislation passed by the council. Much of the day-to-day management remains under the purview of an appointed city administrator. The only agency head who answers directly to the mayor is the police chief. “There were definitely things about the true strong mayor format that I missed in Oakland,” says Blackwell, who ran city departments both there and in San Francisco. “What the strong mayor form of government does is provide crystal-clear direction of where accountability is, and also provide authority commensurate with that accountability.” Oakland still does not have that.

Even if the mayor enjoyed direct authority over more city functions, she wouldn’t have much money to play with. Oakland’s government is perpetually low on funds. Its deferred maintenance backlog is approaching a half-billion dollars. Finances aren’t as dire as they were during the recession, when more than a quarter of the city workforce was laid off, but revenue tends to run short by about $50 million a year, and there are combined deficits in the pension and retirement health benefit accounts in the neighborhood of $3 billion. A dispute over wage increases led to a seven-day strike involving 3,000 city employees last November. Following the disastrous Ghost Ship fire in 2016, which killed 36 people in a warehouse, Schaaf pledged to hire more fire inspectors and step up enforcement, but internal reforms have moved at a snail’s pace. “We have all these challenges, but we don’t have the same magnitude of resources other large cities have,” says Kalb, the councilmember.

Schaaf has looked for ways to ameliorate the economic disparities laid bare by Oakland’s growth spurt, championing increases in the minimum wage, first to $12.25 per hour locally and then $15 statewide. She has worked with a nonprofit called Kiva to crowdsource zero-interest loans for more than 500 small businesses in the city, most of them headed by people of color. She campaigned for a city bond measure approved in 2016 that will raise $600 million for infrastructure, including $100 million for affordable housing. The city council recently approved cash bonuses for landlords who accept tenants with federal Section 8 housing vouchers, many of whom have nowhere to go. She promoted the idea of imposing impact fees on developers, charging builders of market-rate properties as much as $24,000 per unit. As with many of Schaaf’s policies, the impact fees drew criticism from both sides, with housing advocates complaining that she’s still giving too many breaks to developers, and developers warning the fees would dry up new construction.

Her signature initiative, known as the Oakland Promise, provides modest scholarships and savings accounts to low-income students. It’s part of the mayor’s stated long-term goal of tripling the number of residents who graduate from college. In recent years, only 10 percent of ninth graders in Oakland public schools have gone on to finish college in a timely manner.

Still, Schaaf draws criticism from activists and even some members of the city council that she’s not doing enough to address inequality. The rising and highly visible number of homeless people has been a persistent sore spot, one that Schaaf did little to ameliorate with her suggestion during her State of the City address last November that people who had spare bedrooms or Airbnb units should consider taking in someone who is homeless. Schaaf is engaged in serious collaborations with nonprofits to provide additional shelter and ongoing services to the homeless, but those receive less attention than the encampment close to downtown that offers transitional shelter in large tool sheds, or what Schaaf prefers to describe as “cabin communities.” 

Schaaf may not have taken in the homeless herself, but her house has been the repeated staging ground for protesters angry about police shootings and misconduct. In 2016, Schaaf ran through a series of three police chiefs in nine days, due to a scandal involving more than a dozen officers who had slept with the daughter of a police dispatcher -- several of them while she was underaged -- in exchange for tipping her off about prostitution stings. The Oakland Police Department has been under federal oversight since 2003, the result of a settlement involving charges of abuse and racial profiling. “There’s been scandal after scandal,” says Cat Brooks, cofounder of the Anti Police-Terror Project. “They are so mired in corruption and ineptitude that they can’t even get themselves out of receivership.”

The police department absorbs half of the city’s general fund budget. Brooks and other activists have been pressuring Schaaf to “defund” the police, redirecting resources toward the homeless and other problems. That’s clearly not going to happen, but it’s indicative of a dynamic that makes Oakland a very difficult city to govern. It sometimes looks as if Oakland leads the nation in progressive nonprofit activist groups. Representing every issue and every racial and ethnic community, they are a highly vocal presence at city hall. Former city workers talk about having PTSD from dealing with them. “No matter what decision is made,” says Jones, the housing advocate, “there are going to be three or four groups vehemently opposed to it.”

The near-constant disagreements over policy are symptomatic both of real challenges and of the fact that Oakland is suffering through an identity crisis. A city that had a clear, if imperfect, view of itself is changing quickly in areas that are tangible, such as the built environment, and in ways that are less visible and harder to understand. There’s a lot of talk locally about whether Oakland is losing its soul. Schaaf has spent her entire life waiting for Oakland to be ready for its comeback. Now that it’s happening, success may have come too fast for the city to handle.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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