Mayor Schaaf delivers State of the City address to a sparse audience

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf delivers a 20 minute State of the City address on Tuesday night. Photo by Ali DeFazio

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf delivers a 20 minute State of the City address on Tuesday night. Photo by Ali DeFazio

In a brief statement to a noticeably sparse crowd, Mayor Libby Schaaf delivered the final State of the City address of her term Tuesday night.

Her prepared remarks were a line item on the agenda of the regular city council meeting, lasted 20 minutes and drew little public comment. This was a stark contrast to last year’s State of the City address held at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California to a ticket-holding crowd of 250, while dozens of city workers marched outside marking the first day of a strike over unfair labor practices including low wages and unsafe working conditions.

The mayor’s spokesperson, Justin Berton, called this year’s address “standard” and “traditional.”

During the speech, Schaaf referred to many of the items she’s listed as accomplishments during the her reelection campaign including her support for the city’s Tuff Shed program that houses the homeless as they transition to permanent housing, the city’s decrease in gun violence, and her “favorite thing in the world,” the Oakland Promise, a program that offers financial assistance for students who hope to continue their education past high school.

The presentation began with a brief video—the same one played by the mayor at last year’s State of the City address—shown on a screen above the heads of councilmembers to a ground-floor chamber of mostly-unfilled seats. The balcony was empty.

The three-minute video, made by Oakland filmmaker and poet Jamie DeWolf, featured a poem about Oakland and scenes of music, art and the city’s landscape. In it, the narrator calls Oakland “the sweetest gift” and ends with the line: “These are all the ways Oakland welcomes me home.”

“Our most pressing work as city leaders today is to keep Oakland home,” said Schaaf, as the video transitioned to a slideshow, listing what city officials are doing to address the homelessness crisis. In the next few months, the mayor noted, the city will be expanding the Tuff Shed program, opening a year-round emergency shelter, working with nonprofits to create safe parking sites for those living in their cars and RVs and opening a second rapid rehousing center. She said this could serve half the 1,902 people believed to be living on Oakland streets.

“Clearly this is not enough,” said the mayor. “It is a start to triage the crisis.”

The mayor said the city is ahead of its ’17K/17K Housing Plan’ to create 17,000 new units of housing by the year 2024. Schaaf said in the last two years, 1,300 new units have come on the market with 8,700 units under construction and 7,900 additional units in the planning stages.

“We in Oakland recognize that every new unit of housing, even the pricey ones, helps fight displacement, because the people who are moving into our city who can afford these pricey units will no longer have to displace the folks who are here right now and cannot,” said Schaaf.

This comment did not resonate with some people in the audience. Members of the Rose Foundation, an Oakland nonprofit that awards grants to grassroots organizations, came to the meeting to receive recognition from Councilmember Dan Kalb (District 1) for their 25 years of service to Oakland, but found themselves unexpectedly listening to the mayor’s address. “I don’t think there was anything she said that wasn’t true,” said Jill Ratner, president and co-founder of the Rose Foundation, after she left the council chambers. But she disagreed that all housing, no matter the price, is good for Oakland. “We need housing, but we need more affordable housing,” she said.

In her speech, Schaaf noted that 462 units of affordable housing are currently under construction, with 1,300 more planned thanks to the help of area nonprofits. This comment nagged at Ratner’s colleague, Rose Foundation co-founder Tim Little. “We saw firmly-articulated goals of tens of thousands of market-rate housing, and we saw poorly-articulated vague roles of less than 10 percent of that to be affordable housing, and we don’t even know how we’ll get to those goals,” said Little.

Schaaf said during her speech that more needs to be done. While her office’s initial goal was to create 2,200 affordable housing units by 2024, on Tuesday night the mayor said the city needs double that: 4,000 to 5,600 more affordable units.

“That’s why we need to transform the system,” said the mayor. “This is our work as leaders, not just to address the immediate crisis but to do the harder more systemic work of getting at root causes and ensuring we prevent these crisis and toxic inequalities from just re-occurring over and over again.”

The mayor also addressed the city’s 52 percent reduction in Oakland’s shootings from 2011 to 2017 which she credits to Ceasefire, a city program that uses data to identify people at risk of committing or being a victim of crime and offers them a gift card if they connect with a “life coach” hired by the program to act as a mentor and provide information about housing and other social services.

“Four years ago Oakland was ranked the second most violent city in America,” said the mayor. “Today we are off the top 10 list.”

The mayor also took a moment to mention the Oakland Promise, which she says is “transforming our educational and community support systems” by supporting local families.

No applause followed the address. Four public speakers—all regular attendees who speak on all items discussed at city council meetings—expressed their frustration with the optimistic tone of the speech.

Community activist John Jones III called the report “the most depressing thing I’ve seen in a long time,” hypothesizing that the reason for the empty audience chamber is “apathy” because people are “suffering,” making it “difficult for people to believe this process is possible.”

“This room should be packed right now,” said Jones as his allotted speaking time ran out.

“Looks like we’re celebrating,” said Assata Olugbala of the mayor’s report, adding that she feels that there’s nothing “for black people to celebrate that relates to economics, housing, and education.”

While audience member Pamela Arauz did not address the council, she agreed with snaps and claps as Olugbala and Jones III spoke, adding after the meeting that the video was nice, but that she wasn’t sure it was really an accurate representation of Oakland. “It’s not that free,” she said referring to the street dancing and graffiti art shown in the video.

When another public speaker, 95-year-old Oscar Wright, a well-known advocate for equal education in Oakland public schools, surpassed his two-minute limit at the podium, Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3) ceded her time to him. Wright said that he’s been trying to get ahold of the mayor to discuss specifics of the Oakland Promise. During Councilmember at-large Rebecca Kaplan’s comments, she asked the mayor who Wright could speak with at Oakland Promise, and the mayor responded saying that upon hearing Wright’s comment, she had already texted a staff member to connect with him.

Kaplan also asked the mayor about her Tuff Shed program and whether entry into the cabins was voluntary. Many members of the city’s two open Tuff Shed sites were previously living in nearby homeless encampments not sanctioned by the city and were offered a Tuff Shed spots as those camps were cleared. Critics of the program contend that residency isn’t truly voluntary because homeless people face eviction or arrest if they try to remain in their same encampment.

The mayor responded by saying the word “voluntary” was not in her speech, then explaining that the program offers sheds to those living in encampments near the newly established Tuff Shed sites, not through voluntary requests.

After questions, the mayor and her staff exited the room.

Gathered just outside the city council chambers, a group from the audience, all members of the Rose Foundation, quickly dove into a conversation about civic involvement. Their voices echoed through the city hall rotunda while people trickled out of the meeting room.

“It was all very exciting,” said Aurora Heying, a Rose Foundation member who was not expecting to attend the mayor’s state of the city address.

“I think it’s really great that there are active members of the community showing up and saying something,” said Rose Foundation member Drea Chavez, referring to those who spoke after the mayor’s address. Chavez said she rarely attends city council meetings, and was surprised to learn that these speakers make similar request to the council every meeting. “You’d think something would get done,” said Chavez.

“I think the issues are so big that they can’t be addressed in one meeting,” said Heying.

“But if they show up every week,” said Chavez to her colleague.

All agreed the mayor’s remarks sounded “optimistic.”

“Nobody in there lied. Not a single person lied. There’s a lot of truth that got spoken in that room. It’s just a really hard situation,” said Ratner.

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