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Oakland’s Condo Conversion Bill Comes To Quick End

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday December 08, 2006

In a dramatic and rapid end to one of Oakland’s more swiftly rising development controversies, Oakland 6th District Council-member Desley Brooks withdrew her proposal to rewrite Oakland’s condominium conversion law shortly after midnight Wednesday morning, sending the issue to the same “blue-ribbon” citizens’ panel that has been charged with studying the city’s proposed inclusionary zoning law.  

“In closed session tonight, I learned that the changes we have made in the proposed law since it was first introduced may not have adequately addressed the concerns people have about it,” Brooks said from her Council Chamber seat in announcing the withdrawal. “While I think we are making real progress on this law, I am not prepared to move forward with condo conversion at this time.”  

Brooks’ withdrawal announcement at first stunned, and then delighted, more than a hundred community activists who had waited at City Hall for more than six hours to record their opposition to Brooks’ bill. 

The bill—which languished for two years after it was originally introduced by Brooks in 2004—picked up considerable steam this fall after Council President Ignacio De La Fuente and At Large Councilmember Henry Chang signed on as co-sponsors. The bill would have made it easier condominium conversions in the city, in part by adding a provision that would allow proposed converters to pay money into a housing assistance fund instead of forcing them to provide a new unit of rental housing for every rental unit converted to condominiums. 

Brooks said that her bill would increase the number of low-to-moderate income homeowners in Oakland, while tenant activists charged that the bill would primarily benefit developers and reduce the amount of low-to-moderate rental housing available in the city. 

The bill, in fact, was heavily supported by developers, with the Better Housing Coalition—an organization made up of developers that includes Forest City Developers and Signature Properties—sending out a full-color mass mailing late last month to houses throughout Oakland asking citizens to lobby their councilmembers for the bill.  

The blue-ribbon commission to which the condo conversion issue will now go was established in October during the council vote that postponed the Brunner-Quan inclusionary zoning ordinance. It will be made up of citizens appointed by outgoing Mayor Jerry Brown, Mayor-Elect Ron Dellums, the City Council, City Attorney John Russo, and City Administrator Deborah Edgerly. 

A top Dellums aide, Dan Lindheim, said following the council meeting that the addition of condo conversion to the commission’s charge will probably change Dellums’ selection to that group, “since the commissioners are now going to need a wider field of expertise.” 

Brook’s withdrawal announcement capped a day of furious maneuvering and speculation in which proponents and opponents plotted strategy and counted votes. Opponents had charged that Brooks, De La Fuente, and Chang were rushing through the bill so that outgoing Mayor Jerry Brown—a strong development supporter—would be able to break a possible 4-4 Council tie instead of incoming Mayor Ron Dellums, who has indicated that he wants to take a comprehensive look at all of Oakland’s development issues before moving forward with legislation. 

But on the day of the council vote, East Bay Express political reporter Will Harper reported on the newspaper’s 92510 Blog that bill opponents on the council were preparing to scuttle a possible Brown tie-breaking vote by preventing a tie. “Opponents of the proposal figure Brown will vote in favor of the ordinance, so they’ve come up with a plan to keep the mayor on the sidelines,” Harper wrote. “In the event of a tie, Councilwoman Jean Quan, who opposes the condo conversion law, says at least one of the council’s condo-critics will abstain instead of voting no. Technically, that means there would be no tie for Brown to break.” 

With Councilmember Larry Reid expected to join Brooks, De La Fuente, and Chang to vote for the bill, and Quan, Jane Brunner, and Nancy Nadel on record against it, that left Councilmember Pat Kernighan as the swing vote, with veteran Oakland political observers professing they had no idea which way she intended to go.  

Kernighan, who acknowledged that she had been “identified as the swing vote” on this issue and “lobbied heavily by both sides,” said shortly after Brooks withdrew the bill that while “I think the goal of trying to provide home ownership to moderate income people in Oakland is laudable … I would not have supported the bill as written because we did not have sufficient data available on how it would affect the rental housing market in the city.” 

Without Kernighan’s vote, the bill would have been doomed. By agreeing to the compromise, Brooks ensured that the issue will be studied, and some form of revision to Oakland’s condominium conversion ordinance is still on the table. 

Local labor leader and former Dellums For Mayor campaign manager Andre Spearman, one of the community leaders of the opposition to the condo conversion bill, praised Brooks and Councilmember Larry Reid for “showing leadership” in withdrawing the bill “rather than forcing this thing down the throats of citizens. At the end of the day, we hope a full study of all of Oakland’s housing issues will be able to come up with good public policy.” 

Spearman also said he wanted to “commend [Councilmember] Pat Kernighan for being open to delaying it.” 

Despite the fact that the condo conversion bill was no longer on the table, a number of citizens remained at the City Council meeting to record their opposition to the bill for councilmembers.