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Mayor Libby Schaaf breaks tie on City Council housing project decision

on November 7, 2019

The Oakland City Council voted late Tuesday night to move forward with the City Planning Commission’s decision to approve a housing project located on East 12th Street near Lake Merritt. The motion to move forward with the development plan came after a rigorous public hearing. 

While introducing the agenda, Council President Rebecca Kaplan (at-large) told the audience that the issue has been roiling for years and advised the staff from UrbanCore Development, LLC—an applicants to develop the project—as wells as members of a grassroots-based group that opposes it to respect any conclusion to be reached.

UrbanCore is proposing to build one of two towers on a vacant lot owned by the city. The second will be developed by the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, or EBALDC.

But neighbors have long opposed this development, and as far back as 2015, were submitting alternative proposals for how the land could be used, including as garden, affordable housing or retail space. They have appealed the planning commission’s approval for the project, which they have already approved twice—in 2016 and again earlier this year. They instead are urging the city to build what they call a “People’s Proposal” that includes a mix of low- and moderate-income housing and park space.

On Tuesday night, the council considered a complicated motion that would ask them to either deny or uphold the appeal, or ask their staff to prepare a resolution to either deny or uphold the appeal that the council would vote on later. 

During a fully-packed meeting, city planner Neil Gray highlighted the need to award UrbanCore Development permission to move forward with the construction of over 300 housing units. “We’re facing a housing crisis in this city. The decision we make available 252 market rate units and 108 affordable units. If this project doesn’t face further delays, we shall have it completed by 2022,” said Gray.

The construction project is scheduled to last 28 months, and Gray said that all the needed funds have been secured. Of these, $18 million comes from the state government. 

Michael E. Johnson, the founder and owner of UrbanCore Development, outlined what he sees as the need to have a company like his invest in Oakland. Johnson argued that his company emphasizes community engagement and understands the needs of the Eastlake neighborhood. He told the hostile audience that of the over 300 units, 102 of them will be for low-income residents. Johnson said that though his project is only required to offer 25 percent affordable housing, this project is offering 30 percent. “The only thing the other side wanted to discuss was 100 percent affordable housing and “it’s not feasible,” Johnson said, “Using this land for 100 percent affordability is a flawed concept. It would take millions of dollars of [a] subsidy that is not available.” 

He said that his project will not gentrify the area and will keep people from buying up existing properties in the Eastlake neighborhood.

During the open forum comment period, Dunya Alwan, who represents the neighbors’ group Eastlake United for Justice, argued that East Oakland needs affordable housing, not luxury high-rises. With many protestors waving signs in support—and interrupting her speech—she told the city council that the median income in the area is approximately $38,363 for a family of four. “More than 75 percent of Eastlake residents are low or very-low-income. We’re experiencing an alarming rise in rent and home sale prices. This is gentrification,” she said.

Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas (District 2) was at the core of the debate, and opposes the project. “My people are of low income. This piece of public land is occupied by the homeless. Who of the current occupants are going to afford any of the proposed units? Oakland needs affordable housing,” she said. 

Bas told the audience her motivation to uphold the appeal was due to the fact that since this project was proposed in 2014, the homeless population in the city had doubled and the current project doesn’t reflect that. “We have already exceeded our market rate by 200 percent,” she said.

“I’m looking at black and working class residents who I represent that need affordable housing. I want us to think critically about each piece of public land that we have can be used to affordable housing,” she continued.

Before the vote on whether to approve or deny the application, Councilmember Larry Reid (District 7) proposed an alternative motion. Reid said that Oakland needs housing, and because it takes years to secure serious developers, any move to cancel the current application would lead to unintended consequences. “Let’s approve the decision to move forward with awarding a permit to UrbanCore Development, with amendments. We will never address the homelessness crisis in this city. We just won’t. I’m trying to get you to see what makes logical sense. If you want to get some affordable housing this is the best we can do,” he said.

At Reid’s suggestion, the motion “to appeal or to support the application with amendments” was put to the vote. At around 9:30 pm, Councilmembers cast their votes, and a tie of four-to-four was registered. Councilmembers Bas, Kaplan, Noel Gallo (District 5), and Sheng Thao (District 4) voted against the application, and Reid, Dan Kalb (District 1), Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3), and Loren Taylor (District 6) voted in favor. 

With guidance from the City Attorney, Mayor, Libby Schaaf had to be called in to break the tie. Before casting her vote, the visibly apologetic mayor said, ”I feel so bad that I’m in this position. I understand everyone’s feelings. However, the city can’t afford to lose this opportunity. Oakland needs housing.” At 11:55 pm, she cast her vote in favor of UrbanCore, voting to deny an appeal to their application. 

If no appeal is filed to thwart this decision, UrbanCore Development will go ahead with the construction project.

In other council news, the mayor announced that her State of the City address slated to take place on February 7, 2020, at the Oakland Museum of California. 

This story was updated on November 15, 2019, to correct the figures on market-rate housing cited by Councilmember Bas, and the homeless population in the city.

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