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Oakland Battles Over Condo Conversions

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday November 17, 2006

With the failure of Berkeley’s Measure I in this month’s general election, the East Bay battleground over the hotly-contested issue of condominium conversions shifts across the border into Oakland, and the attempt by a coalition of three councilmembers to change some of the provisions of that city’s condo law. 

Originally written by District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks and now co-sponsored by Council President Ignacio De La Fuente and At-Large Councilmember Henry Chang, the proposed “Conversion To Homeowner Condominiums” proposes to increase home ownership by current Oakland tenants both by easing some of the current impediments to condo conversion and by providing discounts and assistance to tenants seeking to purchase their converted homes. 

The proposed ordinance is opposed by tenants’ advocates and their allies, who have charged that the implementation of the ordinance would lead to mass evictions and drive many current rental tenants out of Oakland.  

On Wednesday, after hearing 70 speakers divided evenly on both sides of the debate, the Oakland City Council’s Community & Economic Development (CEDA) committee voted 3-0-1 (Councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente, Henry Chang, and Larry Reid voting yes, Jane Brunner voting no) to pass on the proposal to the full council for its Dec. 5 regular meeting. 

Both opponents and proponents of the proposed measure say they want the same thing: a comprehensive study of Oakland’s demographics, housing laws, and possible proposed changes in order to increase the ability of current Oakland residents to stay in their homes. 

“It’s the wrong way to do it right now,” said Eddie Ytuarte, of the Oakland Tenants Union in a telephone interview. “There’s been no staff analysis produced on the impacts of the proposal, and you would think that the City Council would want an analysis before they make any changes. There’s been no projection as to how many current housing tenants would be able to afford to buy their units, or else would have to be evicted, for the number of new conversions that would take place.” 

And in a memorandum sent to the Oakland City Council earlier this week, a coalition of Oakland organizations (including such groups as ACORN, the California Affordable Housing Law Project, the East Bay Community Law Center, the East Bay Housing Organizations, Just Cause Oakland, and the Oakland Tenants Union) said that they “strongly contend that the Oakland City Council should comprehensively study the impacts of any proposed changes to Oakland’s condominium conversion laws on vulnerable populations, community health, and the physical environment.” 

The groups added that “the proposed timeline of adopting significant changes by Dec. 19 would not enable adequate study or public participation to occur,” and that “city review of the proposed changes MUST await the legal analyses currently being conducted by the Oakland City Attorney regarding whether an Environmental Impact Review is legally required…” 

And Councilmember Brunner, who also opposed the measure and has been a longtime proponent of affordable housing, said that “home ownership is good, but it should be studied along with redevelopment and inclusionary zoning to see how we can help best renters. It’s a contradiction to say that we shouldn’t pass an inclusionary zoning ordinance until more study is done, but then try to rush condominium conversion through without a study.” 

But Brooks blames tenant advocates for not studying her own proposal, which she originally began working on in 2002. 

“They’ve had a knee-jerk reaction against it,” Brooks said by telephone. “But instead of being opposed to any change to the condo conversion ordinance, why don’t they look at the proposal and see what needs to be altered?” 

Brooks added that while “condo conversion by itself will make it more affordable than it is now for Oakland renters to purchase homes, conversion is not the end-all and the be-all. It’s just one piece of the puzzle. What we need to think about is a comprehensive way to free up more housing in Oakland for lower-income people.” 

The city staff analysis of the proposed ordinance change, signed by City Administrator Deborah Edgerly, noted that “the proposed changes to the condominium conversion ordinance are well founded and build on the comments and concerns previously raised about the existing ordinance. In particular, the desire to revise the procedures and account for changed circumstances in law and market conditions since the original ordinance was enacted in 1981.” 

But even Edgerly appeared to call for more study, adding that “these proposed changes are not without consequence. There needs to be careful review of the change in policy direction and a review of protections to avoid or minimize problems in project/program administration. This proposal represents a major shift in approach and purpose from protection of rental housing to encouraging home ownership.” 

If the four votes (De La Fuente, Chang, Reid, and Brooks) all hold firm through the scheduled Dec. 5 council consideration, there is some possibility that the measure could tie 4-4 in the eight-member council, with outgoing Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown being called in for the second time in a little more than a month to break the tie. That last happened in late October, when Brown supported Brooks’ proposal to delay passage of an inclusionary zoning ordinance in Oakland until more study is done on its implications. 

Ironically, Brooks and Brown have often been at odds during their terms as councilmember and mayor. And Brooks, who has also often feuded with De La Fuente, has now formed an alliance with the Council President on two recent issues: slowing down inclusionary zoning (where De La Fuente provided the swing vote that brought about the tie), and now condo conversion. 

Brown, who has been decidedly pro-development during his two four-year tenure in Oakland City Hall, has not taken a public position on the proposed condo conversion ordinance. 

Another unknown in the mix is the position of incoming mayor Ron Dellums, who has not yet spoken out on the condo conversion issue. While Dellums has said that he believes there should be a strict distinction between the roles of City Council and the mayor’s office in Oakland—with the Council setting policy and the mayor’s office deciding on how it should be implemented—it is widely believed that the new mayor will want to have some say in setting Oakland’s direction for the next four years. 

Both Councilmember Brunner and tenants union representative Ytuarte believe that the condo conversion proposal is being “rushed through,” in their words, in the hopes that Brown would step in to break a possible tie in favor of the new ordinance. 

But Brunner said that although Brown has not made a public statement on the issue, “when we talked about it, he made a comment to the effect that he has not been involved in bringing this issue forward to the Council.” 

For her part, Brooks said she does not know what Dellums might do if the council vote is delayed and the issue is his to decide after he takes office in January. 

“Ron hasn’t said anything on this issue,” she said. “I haven’t gotten a call from him about it.” 

Brooks supported Dellums over De La Fuente in last June’s mayoral election, and she is widely considered to be one of his main allies on the council. 

But Brooks said she is rejecting suggestions from some tenant advocates that the issue should wait until Dellums takes office in January. 

“We can’t stop governing until the new mayor comes in,” Brooks said. She said that while “some things should stop” until January, “such as the appointment process, it’s the City Council’s job to set policy, and that should continue forward.”