District 4 candidates share views on affordable housing, community projects at forum

District 4

District 4 candidate Pamela Harris speaks to the audience at Montclair Presbyterian Church. The six other candidates (seated at table from left to right), Joseph Simmons; Charlie Michelson; Matt Hummel; Sheng Thao; Joseph Tanios; and Nayeli Maxson, look on.

On Thursday, the staff at Montclair Presbyterian Church held a candidate forum for the only city council race in Oakland without an incumbent in the line-up. District 4 candidates—all seven of them—answered questions about homelessness, affordable housing, and a streetscape project that needs funding.

After current District 4 Councilmember Annie Campbell-Washington announced she would not be seeking reelection and cited “toxic” council meetings as her reason for stepping down, candidates lined up to take her spot. They include Charlie Michelson, owner of West Oakland Shipping Supply; Nayeli Maxson, a former staffer for Campbell-Washington and executive director of a nonprofit that helps underrepresented people obtain business loans; Sheng Thao, chief of staff for Councilmember-at-large Rebecca Kaplan; Pamela Harris, the District 18 delegate to the California Democratic party and a former Fulbright scholar; Joseph Tanios, a supervisor of construction management in Oakland’s Bureau of Engineering & Construction; Pastor Joseph Simmons, pastor of Greater St. Paul’s Church; and Matt Hummel, chair of the Oakland Cannabis Regulatory Commission.

The questions were written by a working group of co-sponsors that included the League of Women Voters, Make Oakland Better Now!, and Montclair business and community organizations. The chair of the Montclair Neighborhood Council, Michael Tigges, collected and organized questions from the working group. These questions were handed off to the moderator, Pastor Ben Daniel, one of the church’s two pastors.

Audience members could ask a question by giving a note card to Daniel. Because of the lengthy candidate list, questions were divided in half, with Harris, Michelson, and Simmons answering the same three questions and then Maxson, Thao, Hummel, and Tanios answering three different questions. Each candidate answered two pre-written questions and one from the audience. At the end, all the candidates sat together to make closing statements and to answer a question they felt they should have been asked.

One of the first questions that Daniel asked was to Harris, Michelson, and Simmons: “What legislation, budget items, and advocacy will you bring to protect our residents and encourage even more affordable housing projects that are already in the pipelines?

“Bottom line is we need more housing units,” said Michelson, who has received endorsements from Mayor Libby Schaaf and Campbell-Washington. According to campaign disclosure statements as of June 30, Michelson has raised nearly twice the campaign contributions ($47,330) as the next candidate, Maxson. Michelson said he has met with members of East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO), an affordable housing coalition, and with developers. He said all agree that more housing units need to be built. But he said it is still up for discussion what portion of new developments should be designated as affordable units and what should be market rate—and he did not specify his preference. “At the end of the day, even one added housing unit in the open market will reduce rents around the city,” said Michelson. “We need to continue building.”

Harris said it needs to be easier to build high-density housing units. “We need to streamline our services and permitting process to make it easier to build,” said Harris. “Specifically, we need to make it easier to build higher density—yes, even in our district.” Harris says affordable housing units needs to be built into all new developments. “We’re still a place that looks at affordable housing as being ‘over there,’” she said.

Simmons also said he wants to make it easier to build new units in Oakland. “It’s too hard for people to come to this city or for the developers in this city to build housing. We need to relax some of those rules, so we can make sure we get affordable housing.” He said his own church is working with other Oakland churches to try to build housing for low-income residents.

The next group of candidates to answer questions was Thao, Tanios, and Maxson. Daniels asked, “The health, safety and welfare of homeless individuals and families in Oakland impacts all of us. What are some innovative ways you will bring to get people off the streets and into safe affordable housing?”

Thao said that more single room occupancy units (SROs) need to be built to house the homeless. SROs are solo units, typically old hotels, that low-income residents can live in. She said the money should come from a $9 million surplus grant Oakland received from the state that can only be spent on solutions for homelessness. “Right now, I’m writing legislation to re-zone transit hubs so we can build higher and denser around transit hubs,” she said. She also wants the city to invest in job training centers and start career-track training in high schools in fields like technology, which would open up job opportunities and lead to a livable income for Oakland residents.

Tanios said there needs to be housing for all types of people—like teachers, nurses, and single mothers—not just housing for homeless people. He said his experience as a construction and project management professor at Laney College and 18 years in Oakland’s Department of Public Works has shown him how to train people to work on building housing and “get the best deal he can get.” He also said he wants to partner with private hospitals to “treat and rehab” homeless people. “We need to partner with every private hospital. We don’t want to just shuttle them from container to shed to tent. They need to be treated, rehabbed, and back to normal life,” he said.

Maxson said she wants to find “creative solutions” to homelessness. One such idea is a comprehensive mobile system for homeless people that would offer addiction treatment, transitional housing, case management, and job training. “I want to bring forward a model where we don’t expect individuals living in encampments and out of cars to come to a center. We can bring navigators to them,” she said.

Another solution Maxson proposed was partnerships with business and property owners to house homeless people on their property, allowing them to stay in a camper in an empty lot or a tiny home in a backyard. Maxson said she is working with an organization, Tiny Logic, that is already doing this.

Hummel said he supports efforts to create a public bank in Oakland. A public bank would be owned by the city and thus beholden to residents, instead of to shareholders. Hummel thinks a public bank would be more likely to invest in community projects than commercial ones. “If we had a public bank, we could be financing things in a way you couldn’t even believe,” he said, giving as examples projects like safe campgrounds and tiny homes. Currently, North Dakota is the only government entity with a public bank. Last September, Oakland officials spent $50,000 from the city’s general fund to study the feasibility of a public bank here.

A question from the audience about securing funding for the Antioch Court improvement project received the most input from the audience—namely because Harrison and Simmons admitted to not knowing what the project was. The project would create bicycle and pedestrian safety improvements on Antioch Court, as well as a public space for community events. Fundraising for the project began in 2014. The project has been ready for construction for a year, but still needs $500,000 to start.

“We’ve secured close to a third of construction costs from private entities,” said forum audience member Daniel Swafford, executive director of the Montclair Village Association, which was one of the cosponsors of the event. Swafford. “I do think the city, too, should bear some of the responsibility to small business communities.”

He continued, “We’ve been promised it’s going to be recommended by the Department of Transportation to be in the Capitol Improvement Project (CIP) recommended projects for next budget cycle.” Capital improvement projects can be anything from renovating sidewalks to putting new locker rooms in at a community pool. The mayor, councilmembers, and the city administrator decide what gets approved.

“I think it’s the responsibility of the councilmember and other leaders in this city to really make sure they see the value in this project and that it gets funded,” Swafford said, referring to the candidate who will become the new District 4 councilmember.

In the meantime, people can buy bricks to be placed at the site to help fund the Antioch Court improvement plan. Michelson said he had already bought a brick, and if elected, he would push to get city funding to finish the project.

After learning about the project, Harrison said it was emblematic of larger issues related to building in Oakland. “In general, we’ve seen a lot of delayed projects around town. This is an issue that runs across projects,” he said. Harrison said that some structures of city government should be reconsidered. For example, when it comes to tasks of the mayor and city administrator, Harris said, “I think that sometimes things get lost in translation.”

Simmons said he would “move money around” to make the project happen.

Maxson said funding from Measure KK, a 2016 bond for infrastructure and affordable housing, should be used. While she was not in the group of candidates who was asked specifically about the improvement project, she chose to mention it in her opening remarks afterwards.

The other candidates were not asked about the Antioch Court project.

The panel concluded with the candidates shaking hands and going out to mingle with the audience. Tigges, the chair of the Montclair Neighborhood Council, said feedback from candidates and attendees after the forum was positive. “The candidates loved it,” he said. “They thought the time amount was nice. I think it gave them time to introduce themselves. Everyone who went told me they felt like they really got to know the candidates.”

District 4 candidates will meet again this Thursday at 6:30 at the Sequoia School Auditorium. Voters will decide who wins the District 4 seat on Election Day, November 6.

Correction: This story was updated on September 12, 2018 to indicate that Pamela Harris was a Fulbright Scholar.

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