The double doors of the council chambers swung open for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who was heralded by the sound of trumpets. Taking center stage in a room swelling with applause and music played by her Skyline High alma mater marching band, Schaaf began her first State of the City address.
The mayor’s speech optimistically outlined what she sees as the top four issues the city must address: “Holistic community safety, equitable jobs and housing, sustainable infrastructure, and responsive, trustworthy government,” she said during her Wednesday evening address.
“Our challenge today is to welcome growth in Oakland with actions that ensure it promotes equity,” she continued, “that it lifts up, and does not push out that uniquely Oaklandish ethos and soul.”
After recognizing Oakland’s rising prosperity, Schaaf turned her attention to the inequities faced by lower income communities as rent rises, thanks to the arrival of new, more affluent residents. Comparing the income and health outcomes of an average Grand Lake resident to an East Oaklander, the mayor said, “It’s hard for us to celebrate the overall health of Oakland knowing that two people can live just one mile apart, and be nearly twice as likely to be unemployed, and live 15 years less.”
On crime and policing, Schaaf said “Oakland is getting safer,” citing a double-digit reduction in shootings, successful interventions by the anti-gang violence campaign Ceasefire, and a decline in residential burglaries and home invasion robberies by 15 and 54 percent, respectively.
“But I am not going to sugar-coat the state of safety in Oakland,” said the mayor. “This year, we’ve lost 71 of our loved ones to murder, and I cannot accept improvements while overall, the levels of fear and harm in this community remain unacceptably high.”
Schaaf reaffirmed her pledge to increase staffing at Oakland’s police department from the current 722 officers to 800 by 2017, which she hopes will bring stability to the city, and to help combat the sexual exploitation of minors.
“Oakland has an affordability crisis,” said Schaaf in the part of her speech about housing. She said “Oakland is the city with the second fastest rise in rent in the nation,” and that she believes that “Oaklanders are getting priced out of their own home-town.”
In discussing the city’s efforts to stem the effects of gentrification, Schaaf leaned on the city’s newly passed Housing Equity Roadmap, citing it as her method for creating more affordable housing and protecting Oakland residents from being financially displaced. The roadmap aims to evaluate problems facing economically vulnerable people and families, and presents policy strategies for the city to prevent the displacement of long-time residents, build new affordable housing, and improve housing habitability and tenant health.
To bring these plans to fruition, Schaaf said she has reconvened her housing cabinet, and says they will “bring forward an implementation and funding plan by the first part of 2016.”
“We have to have new housing at every income level so that the people moving into Oakland don’t push out the people who are already here,” said the mayor.
This could prove to be difficult considering that major tech companies, along with their workers, have been flocking to Oakland in recent years, and there are worries that the arrival of companies like Uber will increase rental values and housing demands around their offices. Schaaf said she believes these companies have a responsibility to prepare an “opportunity pipeline” for Oakland’s young people, to help them acquire tech jobs in the future, and to maintain a workforce as diverse as Oakland itself, in a “cradle-to-career strategy” the mayor coined as “techquity,” a play on the word “equity.”
For her upcoming 50th birthday, Oakland’s 50th mayor said she wants nothing more than to start a fundraising campaign to financially support 50 Oakland students through the entirety of their college educations. “A college degree is the number one ticket out of generational poverty,” she said. “There is nothing more transformative that we can do for Oakland.”
Through improving community safety, housing security, infrastructure projects, and governmental outreach programs, Schaaf promised to confront the long-standing problems facing Oakland.
“The fears right now are real,” she said, “that today’s dramatic changes could white-wash our rich, cultural heritage; that new residents will suppress the free expressions of the old.”
“We must turn towards each other, not against each other,” she concluded to thunderous applause.