Oakland Local

Impact Hub Oakland is shaping to be a mobilizing ground for Oakland’s alter-gentrificationists: the people who don’t want to see the city’s development driven solely by profit motives.

The town hall event last Wednesday, Oakland Reconstructed, sought to define the role and responsibilities of developers in the city’s crisis of displacement through a group panel and discussion.

While the conversation conducted bolts of disagreement throughout the crowd whenever someone spoke too favorably about welcoming developers in order to bolster our tax base or, on the other side of the debate, obstructing all development and sealing Oakland off to new residents, there was nonetheless an encouraging sense that a collective path forward was being charted and that the community was ready to step up and organize.

The first panel of the evening featured Jeremy Liu, a non-profit manager-turned-real estate developer with heart; Jahmese Myers of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy and Orson Aguilar, the ED of the Greenlining Institute, which develops policies to reverse institutionalized racism. The panel, moderated by Calvin Williams of the Urban Strategies Council, focused on the sneakier forms of redlining that manage to persist in a world where the outright practice is disavowed.

According to Calvin Williams, over 10,000 of the city’s homes have been foreclosed since 2007. 42% of those foreclosures were bought -usually with cash- by real estate investment firms, and most end up diced into rental units. Of the houses that were bought by investors, 93% were in low-income, flat land neighborhoods. “Homeownership is often the difference between keeping your family in the working-middle class, and not,” said Williams. “All those homes represent families that were there and are now being replaced by people who have to rent.”

To this, Myers added that of the jobs lost in the recession, 60% were middle wage, “since the recovery those have been replaced, almost one-to-one, with low wage jobs.” This is the period many have been calling Oakland’s “revitalization.”

While there are many policy ideas aimed at bolstering homeowners and mom and pop landlords in this competitive and predatory real estate market, the panel spent quite a bit of time sharing personal testimonies. Urban Strategies Council, for example, has argued that city government could push banks to expand programs that give owner-occupiers and nonprofits a “first look” at foreclosures before they go up for auction. Given the qualifications of the panelists, the discussion was a bit wanting for actionable specifics like these.

However, props were given to Causa Justa for their recent advocacy victory which changed the law to limit landlords’ abilities to raise rent to pay for capital improvements. The crowd made a big show of support for the organization’s upcoming November ballot measure to target unfair eviction practices.

“We don’t have redlining the way we used to, of course,” said Jeremy Liu, “instead we have it built into the spread sheets and the pro formas and the financial analysis and the decisions about where you put, for example, car sharing pods in the city.”

Alan Dones, the developer and outspoken critic of racist, discriminatory, practices in Oakland, took up these ideas in the next panel. “It really bugs me when people talk about the new bars and the fancy restaurants– that’s not real revitalization.”

Dones and his co-panelist, developer Mike Ghielmetti, both have reputations for being exceptions to the ‘big, bad developer’ rule. However, while Dones was eager to declaim the city’s contracting practices, Ghielmetti was more positive.

He pointed out aspects of Oakland’s “revitalization” that everyone has benefitted from, such as improved OUSD test scores. “But, listen, this is above our pay grade. I like to build stuff, but I don’t know policy, I’m not running for mayor.”

What Ghielmetti does know, he says, is that “projects that are low-risk and high-return get done. Projects that are high-risk and low return only happen because the right people come together and want to get behind them.” This, Ghielmetti explains, is why Starbucks or even Blue Bottle proliferates while independent businesses or unconventional ventures like the Hub (which Ghielmetti developed) have such a hard time getting contracts. The city has to do everything it can to facilitate those ventures, argued Ghielmetti, “or else Starbucks will get the contract 80% of the time.”

As Oakland becomes more attractive to developers, the city should be in a much better position to negotiate on its own behalf and secure community benefits and local hire requirements, Dones and Ghielmetti agreed. They sang the virtues of innovative “public-private partnerships,” a term that someone from the audience then accused them of using as a euphemism for government subsidies.

“I am baffled as to why we are even asking developers to solve this problem,” said the same critical audience member, “they are the problem.”

Dones responded to this by doubling down on his rhetoric. A verbal survey of Oakland’s history of discrimination and disinvestment in people of color culminated in Dones making a call to repeal prop 13. This was met with applause.

The event concluded with many shows of thanks and love from the audience and hosts alike.

Hopefully, the Hub will continue to draw on and organize community energy as big political decisions go down.