Letters for the week of November 18-24

Readers sound off on climate change, Oakland's proposed affordable housing impact fee, and more.

“Oakland Eyes Affordable Housing Plan in Secret,” News, 11/25

The City of Oakland Responds

I wanted to correct several misleading statements in the article. First, this administration is keenly aware of the urgency of Oakland’s housing crisis and how important it is to get the results of the nexus study and economic feasibility analysis before the city council. Far from “dragging [our] feet,” as [reporter Darwin BondGraham] noted, we have been working with key stakeholders — affordable housing advocates and housing developers — to craft a workable proposal that addresses the economic and public policy concerns of all the stakeholders.

Although the stakeholder meetings to date have been private gatherings to vet issues in a manner that encourages open and honest dialogue to reach the best solution in the interest of all parties as expeditiously as possible, we have made all of the information presented to date publicly available on our website: OaklandNet.com/ImpactFee. There are no secrets; the detailed results of the nexus study analysis have been made public, including the maximum legal affordable housing, transportation, and capital improvement fees proposal; research into comparable fees in the region; presentation of relevant data; and details of the analysis conducted to reach the maximum proposed fees.

Perhaps it wasn’t clear in my email response to [BondGraham’s] questions, but the reason the complete nexus study hasn’t been released is that it isn’t yet complete. There are several sections required by law to be included in the final report that are still being written. But the substantial analysis and results that will be presented in the final report have been released to the stakeholder group and made public on the website.

With respect to the economic feasibility study, now that we know what the maximum legal fees are, there are a number of policy considerations being discussed by the stakeholder group in advance of the presentation for broader public consideration through the legislative process. Questions being debated include the timing of the proposed impact fee — should it be implemented immediately or phased in over time — and how the impact fee revenue should be allocated among various categories, including affordable housing, transportation, and capital improvements, among other policy questions. Answering these questions is key to developing the proposal that will be presented to the city council for consideration.

I want to reiterate our commitment to completing this process in a transparent, timely manner, based on sound analysis and recent data, using a thorough process to reach the best solution possible to address this very real and urgent affordability crisis we face. We are optimistic about the progress that has been made and look forward to bringing this for public consideration in the coming weeks.

Karen Boyd, assistant to the city
administrator and communications director for the City of Oakland

Darwin BondGraham Responds

Ms. Boyd, I spoke with staffers from multiple cities in Alameda and San Mateo counties about their processes for studying and implementing impact fees. I described to them Oakland’s process, including its private stakeholder meetings. And none of the cities I talked to told me that they convened similar private meetings in which the general public could not attend. Any discussions they had with developers, affordable housing advocates, and other stakeholders were conducted in public.

It’s also not clear how the City of Oakland selected the stakeholders invited to the private impact fee meetings. A list I obtained through a public records request shows that the members included seven developer representatives, including some the largest contributors to Mayor Libby Schaaf’s 2014 mayoral campaign committee. These same developers and developer lobbyists and attorneys have also given large amounts of money to several city councilmembers. The stakeholder group included only four affordable housing advocates and three transportation advocates, along with various current and former city officials whose positions on affordable housing and impact fees aren’t immediately clear. No matter how the group was selected, it’s clear that developers, some of them outspoken opponents of impact fees, were given the most seats at the table.

The second feature of Oakland’s process that has been secretive concerns the nexus study’s methods. Yes, there are slides from presentations made to the stakeholders group available on the city’s website (as my story noted) that describe some of the economic data that went into the nexus study, but it doesn’t appear that the stakeholders have been allowed to review the methods used by the city’s consultant. If the point of the stakeholders group is to have an “open and honest dialogue to reach the best solution in the interest of all parties as expeditiously as possible,” then shouldn’t the stakeholders at least been given drafts of the nexus study and economic feasibility report and the methods used by the consultants to arrive at their conclusions?

As for the perception that the city is dragging its feet, I didn’t talk to anyone who specifically blamed Schaaf or City Administrator Sabrina Landreth. But previous mayors, city councils (including while Schaaf was a councilmember), and Oakland city staffers all have a history of considering, studying, and vetting equitable development policies, but ultimately not implementing them. In the case of impact fees, a transportation and capital impact fee was proposed in 2009, but the council did not provide funding for the necessary nexus studies in 2010. Planning Director Rachel Flynn wrote in a 2010 report to the council that a housing impact fee wasn’t even being considered because the city couldn’t find $700,000 to complete a nexus study. The current nexus study, which includes transportation, capital improvements, and housing, was initially approved by the city council in June 2013, and $1.1 million was allocated. The council asked that the nexus studies be completed by December 2014, but the actual contract wasn’t even issued until eighteen months after the council approved the funding. Many cities in Alameda County already have affordable housing impact fees. Oakland doesn’t, and the current timeline being discussed, according to city records, shows that an impact fee won’t be voted on by the council until next year, and that any approved fee will likely be phased in, meaning it will be several more years before Oakland collects these fees from developers in order to build more affordable housing in the city.

“Letters to the Future,” Feature, 11/18

We Need to Change

Your “Letters to the Future” item in your November 18 edition regarding the climate change issue was very compelling. It had some very good stuff and some stuff that I’ve been complaining about for years.

Jane Smiley’s letter, noting that humans refuse to change their destructive behavior of transporting themselves and their goods unnaturally, and that there are just too many of us, was excellent. Annie Leonard was made famous by her video, The Story of Stuff, which showed the harms caused by human overconsumption. Kim Stanley Robinson also states that overpopulation and overconsumption are root causes of the problem. Overpopulation and overconsumption are the roots of all environmental harms, and it’s really good that these issues were raised here. Unfortunately, many of the letter writers merely complained about the big bad corporations and their lackeys in government. While these groups certainly bear a lot, probably most, of the blame for climate change and other environmental problems, individuals must also take responsibility and reverse their bad behaviors of overbreeding and overconsuming. Instead, what I mostly hear in climate change demonstrations amounts to people childishly demanding that the government magically do something about the problem, without offering to do anything themselves, such as giving up their cars and putting solar panels on their roofs.

If we are going to have any chance of even mitigating the worst aspects of climate change or any other environmental harms, we must each look in the mirror and “be the change we want to see.” If humans aren’t willing to lower our population and consumption, then we have no legitimate complaints about what industry or the government do. There are no magical solutions to climate change or any other environmental problems, and we can’t have our cake and eat it, too. Either humans change their destructive behaviors of overconsumption and overpopulation or climate change will continue apace.

Jeff Hoffman, Berkeley

Great Letters

Extraordinary and sobering collection. Thanks to all who wrote. It reminds me of a line from the late U. Utah Phillips: “The planet is not dying. It’s being killed. And those doing the killing have names and addresses.” We are all complicit in varying degrees.

Recommended related reading: Alan Weisman’s 2007 The World Without Us.

Eric Mills, Action for Animals coordinator, Oakland

“Eviction and Rent-Hike Complaints Skyrocket in Oakland,” News, 11/18

Rent Control Isn’t the Answer

Rent control has been a disaster in San Francisco and elsewhere. It causes housing to be kept off the market and allows wealthy tenants to continue paying under-market rent, at the expense of landlords — who are not all faceless corporations but can also be retirees and others seeking to make a living from their property.

The goal of providing affordable housing is admirable, but the right way to do it is by a means-tested rent subsidy. This would focus the support on those who need it and not penalize randomly selected landlords to pay for the city’s social goal.

Yes, it would require the political will to raise taxes to pay for it. Rent control is a failure of political will that does not well serve its goal.

Dominic Haigh, Oakland

Burdening Landlords Isn’t the Answer, Either

Landlords are required, by the city, to provide the Rent Adjustment Program’s Notice to Tenants at the time the lease is signed and with every rent increase thereafter. This notice informs tenants of the existence of the rent board, rent control, and the other protections they have, like the new tenant protection ordinance.

If landlords are not providing this notice, they will automatically lose during a tenant petition, even for an otherwise legal rent increase. Landlords who are ignoring the rules have no ground to stand on at the rent board.

As a property manager (and tenant) in Oakland, I have been involved in multiple tenant petitions over the last two years (none prior to the upturn in the rental market, by the way), and we follow the rules. All were legal increases (we won), some were obviously legal because they were simply based on the allowable annual CPI increase. Petitions for obviously legal increases wastes everyone’s time.

It is not feasible for the city to process a landlord petition for every annual rent increase for every unit, including simple annual CPI increases. There needs to be an exclusion for simple annual CPI increases that relieves the city staff.

The more complex allowable increases, though they may be legal (if you don’t want Oakland properties to fall into complete disrepair), can be confusing to tenants and are sometimes greater than the annual allowable CPI increase. It may arguably be better if the landlord were required to get pre-approval of these more complex increases, but the current landlord pre-petition takes just as long as a tenant post-petition. Simply shifting the point of petition does nothing to solve the city’s workload. A new landlord pre-petition process would need to be designed and streamlined to save time and hassle on everyone’s part.

Aaron A. Young, Oakland

No Evidence

The Rent Adjustment [Program] does not deal with evictions, questionable or otherwise; they are dealt with in Alameda County Superior Court. Almost all evictions in Oakland are for non-payment of rent. The article does not provide any evidence, even anecdotal, that unjust evictions are a major problem. As a rule, tenants facing eviction receive assistance in defending themselves in court from the Eviction Defense Center and may even request a jury trial.

Carlon Tanner, Oakland

Stop Scapegoating Landlords

Mortgage, PG&E, EBMUD, insurance, property taxes, maintenance — it is not cheap to own a property, and rent increases are rarely done out of greed, but rather necessity. Many renters need to understand these minimal increases in Oakland do not go into the landlord’s pocket, but companies that constantly increase costs. So when you take that long shower, remember this post.

Garry Ovalbach, Oakland

“The Bad Old Days, Times 2,” Movie Reviews, 11/18

It’s Not So Simple

Kelly Vance’s review of Trumbo discusses Helen Mirren in her role as right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper: “Her scene jerking Mayer’s chain in his office may startle 21st century audiences unaccustomed to hearing hate speech from the likes of Ms. Mirren.” Gee, Mr. Vance, how can you use the loaded term “hate speech” when you’ve just come out on the side of Trumbo and his personal right to belong to the much maligned Communist Party?

The issue the film sometimes simplistically examines is complex. On the one hand, it was, indeed, a travesty to have writers and directors kept from working for any film company because of their association with a despised political organization — that is, there was no justification for an across-the-board blacklisting of these artists, and if they could, I have no doubt that some more liberal producers would have hired the likes of Trumbo if they themselves would not have feared being subsequently punished for doing so.

On the other hand, it is indeed a producer’s right not to have to hire anyone, no matter how talented, if the producer had no desire to employ an artist who was or had been a member of a political party that the producer found repugnant to his values. And given that the Communist Party had sworn to destroy the capitalist United States, and that its parent organization in the Soviet Union had murdered millions and politically enslaved millions more, one can understand why a good number of producers would not wish to have anything to do with a writer or director affiliated with the Communist Party.

Today, there’s yet another irony. Most of the left would doubtless value Trumbo’s fine screen play for Spartacus. On the other hand, the left associated with the Communist Party hated the fine Trumbo-penned film about Israel’s founding, Exodus, a movie that incidentally holds up quite well — to the chagrin of today’s virulent anti-Israel lefty minion.

Dan Spitzer, Berkeley

“Oakland’s Toxic Future,” Feature, 11/11

Outsource City Hall

What a story! Evidently it takes a lot of chemicals to brew Oakland’s “secret sauce.”

As with other Oakland civic enterprises, like the cops and the schools, the city seems to do better when some other jurisdiction takes over after we flunk out.

Lately, Oakland’s housing market is gradually being dominated by out-of-towners. People come here from other parts of the Bay Area to open trendy restaurants and bars. Oakland’s downtown developments sure aren’t mostly homegrown.

Maybe we should simply outsource City Hall as a whole or just join another city. I wonder if San Leandro or Fremont would be interested in incorporating Oakland.

Hobart Johnson, Oakland

Stranger than Fiction

Maybe we can get mystery writer Donna Leon to switch the setting locale from Venice, Italy to Oakland, California — this is the perfect set-up for one of her crime novels.

Candy Wright, Oakland

Answers, Please

I’m very glad that this article was written, but the glaring omission from the article is: Why does the City of Oakland have so much hazardous waste to deal with in the first place? Where are these toxins coming from, and what are they doing being stored in a populated area? Are they collected from households; are they products ordered by the City of Oakland with out tax money and then not fully utilized? Are they products of commerce and industry?

Segue Fischlin III, Oakland

“Big Oil Brown Strikes Again,” Seven Days, 11/11

Time to Recall Brown

When are these money grubbers going to learn that we can’t buy more water if it isn’t falling from the sky, we can’t revive an extinct species once we kill it off, and we have no other environment we can “move” to once they have traded clean air and water for all the money?

I’m not much of one to favor a recall effort, except in this case. It’s past time for the governor to go. Between this and his twin tunnels, he’s ruining California.

Pamela Greaves, Vacaville

Brown Is a Rapacious Knave

California — the seventh to eighth largest regional economy in the world — is governed by a preening rapacious grandiose knave, second to none in the extent of his devouring hypocritical material greed.

So it clearly appears from your article.

(And, as it happens, he’s revoltingly punitive when it comes to crime-and-punishment.)

Eleanor Krasnow, Oakland

“Staircases to the Past,” Then and Now, 10/28

Thanks!

I am very much enjoying Laurel Hennen Vigil’s articles. Such a great idea to host a local high school student for interesting and well-written pieces! Thank you!

John Tinger, Oakland

“Damning California’s Future,” Feature, 10/21

Great Job!

Enjoyed [Will Parish’s] piece. Keep up the good work and fight! This is Pulitzer-caliber work. I hope it is widely reprinted and shared.

Bill Easton, Fiddletown, California

“Censored!: Ten Big News Stories the Media Ignored,” Feature, 10/14

Go, Tim!

Thank you for publishing Tim Redmond. I believe he is the best alternative journalist in the Bay Area and arguably the best in the country.

Alfreda Wright, Oakland

“Racial Profiling via Nextdoor.com,” Feature, 10/7

Turn Off the Computer

For cryin’ out loud! Has is not occurred to anyone that getting over the fear of what unknown (to you) people in your neighborhood might be up to is more easily cured by getting out of your house and meeting and talking to your neighbors than reporting them anonymously on a “social” website? Have we become a nation of chicken-shit tattletale hall monitors? Please find your balls, America.

David Lubertozzi, Richmond

Spot On!

Your article was absolutely spot on. I was initially introduced to Nextdoor from a charming gay couple I met at an open house when I was living in North Concord. Being a traditionally white, family-oriented neighborhood, I felt that a recommendation from a couple that didn’t fit the average description was a sign this site would be a good thing. And it is, in small ways. Neighbors communicate, get to know each other, and may even actually try to meet others in person, though that seems to be much rarer than anything else that happens on the site.

When I started using the site, I found people selling things, creating events, and trying to make the neighborhood closer. However, I did notice something odd. When an “unknown” Latino person was driving a nicer car, it was a cause of concern. With a fairly large Latino population, it was absolutely a routine occurrence and far from being odd. The only thing that was concerning was people being concerned about it.

After using the app for a year or so, I noticed it started to change. People would post pictures of someone walking down the street and say they looked “suspicious” without any information about why. Then most in my neighborhood would thank the person for posting the information. On more than one occasion, I wrote something as simple as “why don’t you say hello” or “why don’t you ask if they are lost.” I was surprised when I received a huge amount of backlash for this. Often, one would write something to the effect of “why would I endanger myself by talking to a criminal” or some would go as far as say “it’s obviously a criminal.” Occasionally, someone suggested calling the police, simply because someone they did not know was walking down a street. This is when I started really feeling this site may not be such a great thing.

In early 2015, our only African-American neighbors moved out. That was a big changing point for our family as my wife was now the only African American on our street.

The site then got really strange in a very bad way. Two African-American males were driving a U-Haul truck and my Nextdoor app blew up. “Be on alert, there are two African American males driving a U-Haul with Arizona plates by the pool.” They seemingly made a wrong turn, and the chatter started that they “were obviously trying to find homes nobody was at so they can load up everything our neighbors own.” Within fifteen minutes, I found pictures of license plates of that U-Haul, pictures of the home they were moving out of, as well as pictures of the people living there.

Surprisingly, suspicion started to play a stronger role than I could have thought. Photos of any vehicles in front of the home were posted on Nextdoor. I explained to concerned people that these have been your neighbors for quite a period of time and it makes no sense to assume that all the sudden they would be a problem or doing something wrong. I would guess that one-quarter of the people understood what I was saying, another quarter felt it was reasonable, but it seemed like half of my neighborhood was on edge, just because an African-American family was moving.

One of the family members I knew best often gave his father some money when he got home, which I had seen happen many times. Unfortunately, there were many eyes on this home at this time from Nextdoor, and he gave his father cash without knowing people were watching him. An exchange of cash between a young Black male and an older Black male was reported on Nextdoor. According to many on the site, it was “obviously a drug deal” and “the police need to get involved.” Later, the father walked down the street, something he did almost every single day for the two years I lived there. I read on the site that the same older African-American male was looking in people’s yards for things to steal.

I never saw a police car there, but I found it just so odd, and as well as really scary, that a simple wrong turn, combined with a ton of assumption created such a tale of criminality from neighbors who were doing very normal things. Furthermore, I just could not fathom why people could not listen to me, understand that I actually knew them, they were good people, and this activity was not only normal, it was routine and had been for a long time. If nothing had happened in two years, how do these people go from being unnoticed to people who would break into homes, sell drugs in their own front yard, and steal out of people’s yards while taking a walk?

I don’t believe that I ever encountered anyone on Nextdoor who was overtly racist. Instead, I found that a small amount of people were extremely paranoid, and racism was just under the surface. I saw this combination become extremely volatile incredibly quickly. I know that this would have never played out the same if it was an affluent white neighbor, or even an affluent Black neighbor for that matter.

One of the hardest parts of this whole incident was debating if I should tell my neighbors what was going on. How do you tell people that an entire neighborhood is on edge because of your skin color and appearance? I decided to not say anything, knowing that if I could not convince my own neighbors nothing was wrong, I may just end up causing hurt.

I really thought Nextdoor would be a great thing, and I used it consistently for over one-and-a-half years. The paranoia, combined with closet racism, made me decide to move on from it the second I moved to Oakland. It offers some great things, but when members can hide behind a profile, I feel it created situations where neighbors decided to not meet each other in person, not investigate things beyond a superficial, knee jerk reaction, and was a source for creating issues or problems, rather than solutions.

I sincerely thank you for writing this article, and I hope people will learn to understand their neighbors and have enough “courage” to go out of their way and meet members of their community. I know in my heart that if someone simply asked some questions to my neighbors, this whole situation would have been understood.

John Matthew Tammen, Oakland

It Confirmed Our Worst Fears

Several years ago, at the behest of a housemate, I joined Nextdoor Bushrod. A fair amount of the posts seemed to be reports like those you covered in your piece. A particularly galling example was a woman who posted that “a black man looked up at her house as he walked past. And then fifteen minutes later he walked back in the other direction.” Interestingly, you could see how long the poster had lived in the area and that they were inevitably new residents, confirming our worst fears of gentrification.

Paul Musso, Oakland

Not Surprised

The articles and letters about the social network Nextdoor have been very enlightening. I remember when Nextdoor was introduced to my neighborhood, and I was asked to join. I declined because for some reason I was reluctant to reveal personal information even though I’ve been in the neighborhood for almost two decades. I’m not surprised at the claims of racial profiling. Paranoia is well known in cities of multi-ethnic populations. Fear of the unknown, even though the unknown may live next door, is hard to explain. Yes, we are all different, but at the same time very much alike. Our ethnic cultures may separate us somewhat, but we are all human beings.

Dee Chacon, Richmond

Photos Would Help

Nextdoor could help a lot by requiring photos of the participants on the site. Knowing your neighbors in person and recognizing them means being less likely to jump to conclusions and suspicions. It’s sad that instead of building community this has spread resentment and fear. Trust will only happen when neighbors meet face to face, not anonymously online.

Janna Katz, Albany

Online Is Not a Neighborhood

I’m a white former Oaklander who works in the Golden Gate neighborhood, though I now live across the Bay in a neighborhood ravaged by gentrification. Nextdoor, in my experience, is mostly a forum for privileged whining, mostly about parking. We have an election coming up, so it’s lately been a nonstop flame-war. Nextdoor’s guidelines prohibit a great deal of what’s going on there, with no effect. I can’t say I’m impressed with guidelines that nobody actually needs to follow, or that have let Oakland forums reach this point.

I have noticed a distinct difference between the neighbors I encounter on Nextdoor and the ones I know in real life. One part of the problem here may be that people are spending their time shut indoors and mediating their “neighbor” experience with a website and aren’t getting to actually know the people around them. Sitting inside and not actually meeting anyone leaves too much room to make up stories unmoored from reality.

Nextdoor is trying to monetize the “neighbor” experience, but it doesn’t seem to be actually bringing people together (which is harder to monetize). Using it for racial profiling is the worst outcome of this that I’ve heard of so far. There is a solution, but it involves shutting off screens and meeting your neighbors in person.

Jym Dyer, San Francisco

A Brotherhood

A quote from Charles Johnson’s Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice: “Martin Luther King Jr. observed in a sermon delivered in 1954 that ‘the great problem facing modern man is that the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live. … The real problem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make of it a brotherhood.'” Thanks to my professor, the poet Al Young, as this quote was in the required reading for his “Zen, Skin, Bones” class at [the California College of the Arts].

Audrey Esquivel, Oakland

Ashamed

Thanks to Sam Levin for the great article about racial profiling and Nextdoor. My husband and I left our neighborhood listserv for the reasons he described. As a mixed-race family (I’m Jewish, he’s Latino, and we have a young daughter), we love Oakland precisely because we can live with and get to know people from all different backgrounds. It’s distressing to realize that for so many of us white people, neighbor implicitly means “white person.” Ugh. I am ashamed to be white when I hear these kinds of stories.

For what it’s worth, I would like to convey a message of solidarity to all the people of color quoted in the article who are being unjustly deprived of their rights to live (jog, let their kids play, pick lemons) in their own neighborhoods. I will be seeking to join the Neighbors for Racial Justice organization and sincerely hope it has a surge in membership.

Lauren Levin, (no relation), Oakland

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