City Council opposes federal proposal to reduce Section 8 vouchers

Oakland City Council Meeting 10/20/15

Activists held signs and wore stickers opposing coal exports through Oakland. Photo by Kyle Merrit Ludowitz.

The Oakland City Council meeting ran on late Tuesday night as the council opposed a proposal from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to decrease the value of Section 8 vouchers, amended the city’s budget to allocate money for tenants’ rights and enforcement of the minimum wage, and gave a status report regarding the health and safety effects of coal being exported from the Oakland Bulk and Oversize Terminal.

Last week, HUD proposed decreasing the value of Section 8 vouchers for Alameda and Contra Costa County recipients from $1,582 to $1,562 for two-bedroom units. Low-income households use Section 8 vouchers to subsidize the cost of rent in eligible housing units. 

“This reduction is just inexplicable,” said Lynette Gibson McElhaney, president of the council, who introduced the resolution. “The fair market calculation is supposed to keep pace with where our rents are. Oakland has experienced the most aggressive rent increases in the country.” The resolution is symbolic, because the city cannot alter HUD Section 8 funding, which is given by the federal agency to local governments for distribution to voucher holders.

Jessica Hollie, a single mother who said she is on Social Security disability, cried as she spoke during the public comment section of struggling to stay in the city. “This is my home, and I refuse to be pushed out. I refuse to keep feeling like I’m not worth it,” Hollie said. “I am angry as hell because I can’t afford affordable housing.”

The city council also voted unanimously to amend Oakland’s fiscal year 2015-2017 biennial budget and allocate $1 million to fund programs that enforce tenants’ rights and minimum wage laws. “Many tenants in the city of Oakland are being pushed out of their homes, sometimes in ways that violate the law, but there are not adequate resources to enforce tenant’s rights,” the resolution states.

“The urgent need to enforce and educate the public about existing laws has the capacity to help protect many people from losing their homes,” said Councilmember-at-large Rebecca Kaplan. “Noncompliance with the wage laws and wage theft and related issues has also contributed to the suffering of many working families. We are prepared to support today a scaled-down request to prioritize immediate funding to these urgent needs at the request of our community coalition.”

$240,000 will go to community organizations that help enforce the minimum wage or provide legal assistance to prevent wage laws from being violated. $100,000 will be used for outreach and education about the city’s Tenant Protection Ordinance and “just cause” eviction policy.

Teresa Cheng, an organizer with Unite Here Local 2850, said many hotel workers have been scared to speak up about wage violations, such as not being paid for every hour that they work, or having benefits taken away to compensate for the city’s recent minimum wage increase. “It’s very important that we have resources for community-based enforcement so that the organizations that workers already know, and already trust, who speak their language, and know the sort of tricks that employers take, can actually help the city make sure employers follow the rules,” she said.

Representatives from Centro Legal de la Raza, an organization that provides low-income bilingual legal support, accompanied Spanish-speaking hotel workers who spoke to the council about violations they and their friends have experienced in the workplace. Ana Mira, a housing attorney at Centro Legal, said she hopes the organization will be able to apply for funding as a result of the budget amendment.

The council also gave an informational report as a follow-up to the September 21 public hearing on the potential health and safety effects of the plan to bring coal through the Oakland Bulk and Oversize Terminal to export to Asia. Claudia Cappio, assistant city administrator for Oakland, said the city is considering hiring someone with expertise in air quality to help evaluate the city’s findings related to the project.

Kaplan requested that the city include in its materials the fact that Governor Jerry Brown signed a law prohibiting some state agencies from investing in coal. Earlier this month, Brown signed SB 187, which requires the California Public Employees Retirement System and the California State Teachers Retirement System to sell off stocks that make more than 50 percent of their revenue from the coal industry.

Unlike the divided audience at the September hearing—at which some people including union workers said they supported the export of coal to bring more jobs to the city—all of the public speakers on Tuesday night said they were opposed to shipping coal through the Oakland Bulk and Oversize Terminal. The speakers said they do not oppose the redevelopment of the Oakland Army base, but rather coal being transported from Utah to Oakland.

Carter Lavin, a solar panel installer, addressed the argument that bringing coal through Oakland would provide jobs. “100 jobs does seem like a lot, but when you consider that you have all these industries that are also growing—a lot of great opportunities are already here,” he said.

Jess Dervin-Ackerman, conservation manager for the San Francisco Bay Chapter Sierra Club, asked the council to consider the scale of the proposed project. The total capacity of the terminal can be up to 9 million tons, she said. “That is 20 percent of the nation’s total export of coal,” Dervin-Ackerman said.

Carolyn Bowden of the California Nurses’ Association said pollutants from coal can lead to heart disease, cancer and chronic repertory disease. “Each step of the coal life cycle, including transportation, impacts health,” she said.

The council has until December 8 to decide if it will allow the transportation of coal through the terminal. The next city council meeting will be November 3.

Revision: Section 8 voucher funding is distributed to local governments, not exclusively county governments. This change was made on October 22.

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