San Francisco Chronicle
By Sarah Ravani

Every morning, Howard Oliver walks a few steps from the front door of his East Oakland home to get to his office. His garage — once used by his father to entertain his golf buddies — is now the base for Oliver’s environmental services business.

Next door, Ricardo Leon is surveying the floor-to-ceiling stacks of auto parts in his living room, tucked between photos of his family, before he loads his own truck to sell to companies throughout the Bay Area.

A few blocks away, several women sit under an umbrella on the sidewalk and sell cups of coffee. And by lunchtime, another of Oliver’s neighbors lugs a cart outside and sells homemade barbecue. His neighborhood near the San Leandro border is a perfect example of what Oliver calls an “informal economy.”

As significant swaths of Oakland bloom with new development — from a 40,000-square-foot market hall under construction in Jack London Square to several beer gardens and restaurants that opened in North Oakland within the past three years — East Oakland is a neighborhood removed, pockmarked by small operations searching for a way to grow.

The juxtaposition between the ways most of Oakland is flourishing compared with parts of East Oakland isn’t lost on owners of the neighborhood’s small businesses, both permitted and unofficial. A new $216 million bus and rapid transit system under construction along International Boulevard is expected to usher in revitalization in East Oakland. In the meantime, city officials said they are working to support existing businesses to transform East Oakland into a booming economy that can help the city thrive as a whole.

But for business owners in the area, those promises feel empty. Resources aren’t making it to East Oakland, they say, and many small businesses are unable to grow.

Oliver suggested a stimulus package to help beleaguered small businesses, combined with assistance in finding storefronts in consumer-friendly areas. The city should also hold events that showcase East Oakland’s businesses, he said.

“You need to follow through on something if you want to change something,” said Oliver, whose East Bay Indoor Environmental cleans up water damage and tests for mold and air-quality issues inside homes. “The city of Oakland has a horrible reputation with its follow-through game. We lose things here, we don’t gain them.”

Newly elected City Councilman Loren Taylor, who represents part of East Oakland, blames stagnation in the area on a lack of vision.

“Vision implies we are hearing from everybody. I see a series of working sessions that need to happen,” he said. “A series of input forums and listening sessions. It has to be informed by the community, but we also have to work closely with those who have been in urban planning and economic planning in the city.”

Taylor included that proposal in his priorities for the next two-year budget cycle, which the City Council will approve this summer.

Slow development in East Oakland follows a history of redlining, divestment of certain parts of the city through land-use and zoning policies, said Marquita Price, urban and regional planning officer for East Oakland Collective, a community organization.

“Because East Oakland is basically populated with a demographic that has been divested in by the city for decades, resources have not been properly distributed in this area,” she said. “There are a lot of people that do have talent out here and are not getting the opportunities.”

That divestment is apparent in the boarded storefronts along International Boulevard — a hub for merchants decades ago — and the lack of banks and grocery stores, Price said.

The city’s poverty rate has remained at about 20 percent for the past decade, higher than the national rate of 15 percent, illustrating growing income inequality, according to city data. One of Oakland’s Economic Development Strategy 2018-20 objectives is reducing poverty and increasing the living wage for black and Latino households. Most of these households are found in East Oakland, said Mercedes Gibson, an economic equity fellow embedded in the city from the Greenlining Institute, a public policy and research nonprofit.

In central and East Oakland, 93 percent of residents are people of color and the median household income is $43,000 a year, according to city data. Fifty-five percent qualify as low-income households. In Eastlake and Fruitvale, the demographics are similar, and together the neighborhoods house nearly half of the city’s 412,000 residents.

For the city as a whole, median household income is $58,000. Seventy-three percent of residents are people of color and 39 percent are low-income.

“The disparity is apparent. Tech is moving in, people are interested in Oakland, investors are coming in with money in a way that I’ve never seen before. The city is acknowledging there is a disparity going on and they want to support people-of-color businesses,” Gibson said. “It’s not about freezing these neighborhoods in time, but how can the neighborhood change with the wave coming? How can we have investment without displacement?”

The city offers a variety of services to help small businesses. Entrepreneurs can go downtown to the Business Assistance Center to learn about starting a business in Oakland. Additionally, the city makes available a list of commercial spaces for lease or sale, guidance through the business-permit process, referrals to financing, legal, marketing and human resources services. Facade grants are also available to business owners in parts of East Oakland.

But for residents, getting access to these services is difficult, Price said.

“The public transit is not affordable for the people in this area that make less than $20,000 a year,” she said. “Most people have to choose, do I want to eat or do I want to get somewhere?”

East Oakland Collective is working with various community organizations and city department staff to bring some of those services from downtown to the area through the Black Cultural Zone. A goal of the zone is to create a space to incubate small businesses operated by African American East Oaklanders.

Meanwhile, the city’s effort lies in understanding how many home-based businesses like Oliver’s and “side hustles” exist in East Oakland and what their needs are, Gibson said.

“The city is going to have to come out of their offices, put on their tennis shoes and get in the ’hood if they want to affect anything,” Oliver said.

Gibson has been doing that by going to different neighborhoods’ meetings and working with organizations like East Oakland Collective. Still, she acknowledges that any change coming to East Oakland is going to take time, but there’s hope.

“Even the city doing this kind of work is nuanced,” she said. “Equality and equity is a new word here. We are still exploring. This is a track that I think is important.”