One after another, Oakland residents approached the City Council podium Tuesday night to share their horror stories in dealing with the Building Services Department, part of the city’s Community and Economic Development Agency.
One man complained that his parents were ordered to undergo $181,000 in fixes for a house worth $100,000. Another said he had been cited for an illegal concrete floor that didn’t exist. An 86-year-old woman had her home foreclosed, she said, and bulldozed because of blight.
“We know (CEDA) are bad actors,” said Joe Russack, who found there was no appeals process after he was denied an extension to fix his West Oakland property. “I hate to say it to the council, but you know they’re bad actors. You’ve heard these stories.”
The council, back from its summer recess, convened Tuesday for the first time since July. The meeting lasted more than six hours and featured a loud and impassioned audience that interrupted the meeting with applause or comments. One speaker was removed from the council chambers after Council President Larry Reid (District 7) directed police officers to do so.
The anger and passion were mainly directed at two items on the agenda – more local jobs for the Oakland Army Base development project; and how the council would respond to the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury’s report of systematic problems with the Building Services Division.
In July, the grand jury released a scathing report on the Building Services Division that found numerous problems with the organization, including a lack of process – owners often aren’t notified of possible violations, liens are imposed before there is an opportunity to appeal, and penalties imposed don’t fit the improvements needed. “There is a perception by property owners that the fees are simply a way to generate funds for the city without regard for the residents’ due process,” the report said.
After listening to the heated stream of complaints – which included speakers yelling and pointing at councilmembers – the council responded to the report for the first time.
Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan (At-large) said the Building Services Division has “systematic problems.” Ignacio De La Fuente (District 5) called for an independent investigation. Patricia Kernighan (District 2) said residents’ complaints were “truly shocking” and “worse than I could have imagined.”
“The department needs to be redesigned, the processes need to be redesigned, the fee structure needs to be rethought,” Kernighan said. “It’s worth talking about starting from ground zero.”
Jane Brunner (District 1) introduced a motion that included recommendations to create an appeals process with a non-Building Services Division officer, conduct hearings for any house that has been demolished in the past five years, and order that any property owners who address blight and pay the original fine in the next month will have any additional penalties forgiven and liens on the property removed. “Listening to all of you, it’s heartbreaking,” Brunner said.
Councilmember Nancy Nadel (District 3) added that an independent investigation should be conducted by a task force appointed by Reid and the appeals process needs to be fixed. Applause rang through the council chambers when the resolution passed unanimously.
The council spent the bulk of the rest of the evening discussing the Oakland Army Base project, and how to get more Oakland residents working on the project. Councilmember Desley Brooks (District 6) raised concerns that the firms contracted to work on the project weren’t from Oakland and weren’t living up to their end of the deal to hire Oakland residents. Last week, Brooks led a “we want jobs” chant before a Public Safety Committee meeting, and demanded that any contractor for the project hire at least one-third of the workforce from Oakland.
“This is a project that should be transformative,” Brooks said. “We should not just have buildings built at the end of the day, but that we should have transformed this community.”