Oakland Affordable Housing Debate Moves Forward

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday September 18, 2007

Oakland City Council’s Community and Economic Development Committee found themselves more divided this week than the council’s Blue Ribbon Housing Commission, with the committee’s four members—Chairperson Jane Brunner, City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, and Councilmembers Henry Chang and Larry Reid—voting to accept the commission’s 105-page report and pass it on to the full council, but without a recommendation.  

Brunner, the co-author of the proposed inclusionary zoning ordinance that led to the original council deadlock on the issue, urged the council to move forward on inclusionary zoning, despite the fact that housing starts are down. 

“The fact that housing construction is slowing down in the nation is no reason we should slow down on the development of city policy,” Brunner said. “We should pass our policies now, so that when construction picks back up again, those policies will be in place.” 

In its report, the 17-member commission split the difference on the two major issues handed it by council last fall, agreeing on recommendations for an inclusionary zoning ordinance for the city, but submitting two opposing “minority” reports on proposed changes to Oakland’s existing condominium conversion laws. 

Commissioners also recommended doubling the Redevelopment Agency’s contribution to the city’s Low and Moderate Income Housing Fund from 25 percent to 50 percent within five years, and sponsoring a $200 million bond measure to assist rental and ownership housing in Oakland. 

The Oakland City Council will now take up the contentious issues of inclusionary zoning and condominium conversion once more, issues which deadlocked the council in October and December of last year and led to the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission in the first place. The council is scheduled to begin discussion on the commission report and the underlying affordable housing issues at tonight’s (Tuesday) meeting. 

The major difference between the situations last fall and this is that when council took up the two affordable housing issues last year, Jerry Brown was still mayor, while Ron Dellums has since succeeded him in office. 

Brown was an inclusionary zoning opponent and had crafted no independent language himself suggesting how he thought the existing condominium conversion ordinance might be changed, 

Dellums, on the other hand, is known to favor some form of inclusionary zoning in Oakland. In addition, his chief economic aide, Dan Lindheim, told CEDA Committee members on Wednesday afternoon that the new mayor’s office would soon come forward with its own affordable housing proposals for the council to consider, proposals that are expected to address the issue of condominium conversion as well as inclusionary zoning. 

“We waited until now to do so because we thought it appropriate to have the commission members have a full hearing on their own proposals before the mayor’s office weighed in,” Lindheim said. 

Dellums’ aide also indicated that the new mayor’s actions would be collegial and not confrontational, a far different strategy than that employed by Brown in his eight years as mayor. Asked pointedly by Brunner if Dellums would develop his affordable housing proposals in collaboration with the council, Lindheim replied, “We always try to present our proposals in collaboration with the council.” 

The inclusionary zoning ordinance recommended by commissioners would involve the city requiring some new residential developments to include housing that is affordable to low and moderate income buyers. The city’s existing condominium conversion ordinance regulates how existing rental apartments in Oakland may be converted into occupier-owned condominium units. 

The City Council created the commission last October after the council divided 4-4 on a proposed inclusionary zoning ordinance co-written by Councilmembers Jane Brunner and Nancy Nadel. Former Mayor Jerry Brown cast the tie-breaking vote, killing the proposed ordinance, and the council then adopted Councilmember Desley Brooks’ proposal to set up the commission to study the issue and come up with a proposal that a majority of the council could support. Brooks had opposed the Brunner-Nadel ordinance. 

The condominium conversion issue was added to the commission’s charge in December after changes to the existing ordinance sponsored by Brooks appeared headed for a council deadlock, as well. 

At Tuesday afternoon’s Community and Economic Development Committee meeting, those council differences appeared to be as deep as ever. 

Brunner made a motion for the committee to support the items the commission had agreed upon, with the full council itself taking up the issues of condominium conversion and support for more rental housing. But De La Fuente said he would not support a recommendation from the committee that dealt with inclusionary zoning only without consideration of the other affordable housing issues, and Brunner’s motion died for lack of a second. 

De La Fuente said that he was “surprised” that the commission had not come back with an “overall housing policy,” saying that this had been council’s intention when the commission was appointed. 

De La Fuente, Brunner, and Reid all said that Oakland had very different affordable housing needs in different parts of the city, with Brunner saying that the condominium conversion ordinance and Reid saying that the inclusionary zoning ordinance should have exemptions and set-asides to take into account those differences.  

De La Fuente added that “by neglect or accident, we have more housing needs in some areas of the city than in others. Ms. Brunner has some 50 residential development projects pending in her district alone, while we are fighting to get just a few projects in East and Central Oakland.” 

Saying that councilmembers probably all agree that “we need to continue building new housing for renters as well as moving some of our existing renters to home ownership,” De La Fuente said that “neither inclusionary zoning or condominium conversion by themselves alone are the answer. We have to have many options in our toolbox.”  

The commission’s report generated considerable public interest, with 45 speakers signing up to weigh in on the issue. With only a minute apiece to make their points, however, speakers were able to do little more than give their names and their bare positions either for or against the commission proposals, without the ability to go into details. 

Local union leader Andre Spearman, former campaign manager for Dellums’ mayoral campaign, said that he was “amazed to hear the rhetoric that affordable housing will scare developers off. If the murders on Oakland’s streets don’t scare developers off, this won’t.” Spearman charged that “developers had a free ride under Jerry Brown,” adding that they should now be required to help subsidize the housing needs of low and moderate income Oakland residents. 

And Mary Kruger, an Oakland apartment renter, opposed the relaxing of condominium conversions, saying that her apartment had recently been sold and was being converted to condominium. “Our rent was raised $381 a month, with 60 days notice,” Kruger said. “I can’t afford it. Our life is being turned upside down. Our community is being broken up.” 

But Steve Edrington, executive director of the Rental Housing Association of Northern Alameda County, who said he has converted rental housing to condominiums, said that his concern was not with possible relaxing restrictions on such conversions but with the council “creating more restrictions.” Edrington also said that he was opposed to inclusionary zoning because “it is an embedded tax” that he feared would restrict residential housing development in Oakland.