Oakland’s Vacant Lot Tax Sowing Confusion

Plus, progressive strife in Alameda, and Kaiser and unions reach tentative accord.

A lack of affordable housing and the appearance of unused properties and storefronts led Oaklanders last year to overwhelmingly approve Measure W, a special tax of up to $6,000 on vacant lots. But as the city administration continues to iron out details for how it plans to implement the new tax, property owners affected by the special tax said they remain unclear about the exact definition of a vacant lot.

Oakland has nearly 112,000 parcels of land. About 4 percent, or 4,366, are deemed vacant. Two-thirds are vacant land zoned for four units or less, according to city staff. In addition, more than half of the unused parcels belong to property owners who live outside of Oakland.

Measure W, approved by 70 percent of Oakland voters last November, is an annual special tax on vacant properties for 20 years. It intends to raise revenue for homeless services and affordable housing, while also giving property owners a financial incentive to develop properties in Oakland.

Under the implementation ordinance debated last week at the Oakland City Council Finance and Management Committee, a property is deemed vacant if it has been left unused for more than 50 days in a year. The tax rate is $6,000 for residential, non-residential, and undeveloped properties; and $3,000 for condos, duplexes, and town homes.

A large number of property owners contend that the vacant lot tax will be applied inequitably. The implementation ordinance is also unclear as to the definition of what constitutes a vacant lot. “I’m a property owner, maybe with a vacant parcel,” Oakland property owner Bob Tuck told the committee. “It’s hard to tell with the ordinance.”

Nevertheless, city officials said they have made a significant public outreach effort through a series of public meetings, in addition to online engagement, making roughly 1,500 connections with residents.

Some property owners asked for a delay in implementing the ordinance. Doing so, at least past Nov. 11, would preclude the city from adding the new tax receipts for the 2021-22 budget cycle, according to the city.

The suggestion to postpone implementation of the vacant lot tax echoes Oakland’s Measure AA parcel tax controversy from earlier this year, in which the city decided to hold off assessing the parcel tax while questions over the measure’s legitimacy are determined by the courts. Councilmember Lynette McElahaney, the chair of the Finance and Management Committee, suggested postponement of Measure W could be a possibility.

However, the Measure W issue will remain in committee for tweaking through this month, she said, before passing the ordinance to the full city council for consideration in the fall.

Others expressed remorse for the plight of the city’s homeless, but called the tax unfair. Linda Davenport, an owner of two properties in Oakland said, “I find this to be harassment, extortion, a violation of my civil rights, and discrimination.”

Others advocated for carve outs in the ordinance. For example, providing exemptions for vacant properties in the wildfire-prone areas of the Oakland Hills. Councilmember Dan Kalb, a co-author of Measure W, urged city staff to study a possible exemption for areas abutting the city’s rural areas. “That was not the intent of the original law,” he said.

Addressing the large number of property owners describing utter confusion with the proposed ordinance, Kalb lamented, the city is unable to better inform them because the ordinance is not yet set in stone.

Nevertheless, McElhaney, reiterated her past opposition to Measure W, specifically, that it would be costly and sow confusion. In addition, flatlanders and older residents would be compelled to sell properties while more wealthy property owners could absorb the additional tax, said McElhaney, who chairs the Finance and Management Committee.


What’s the beef between Oddie and Vella?

East Bay progressives are not a monolith. Far from it. From Berkeley to Fremont, they disagree often and wildly. The scene in Alameda has been different over the past year, where its city council is staunchly progressive and mostly on the same page.

But cracks in the relationship between two progressive Alameda councilmembers are beginning to show.

Councilmember Malia Vella recently appeared to suggest that her colleague Alameda Councilmember Jim Oddie’s proposal for a town hall on gun violence was undermining the work of a group of Alameda gun control activists who are women.

“A lot to unpack there,” Oddie said. “I think I was accused of ignoring the work that was done because it was done by women. I’m a little offended by that.”

Vella immediately responded with an energetic and elongated, “Noooo!” to rebut she was making such an inference.

The root of the low-level beef between the two elected officials may stem from Oddie’s decision last month to drop his request for the city to reimburse him for legal fees he incurred from the fire chief hiring scandal from two years ago.

Vella also has a pending request for the city to pay legal fees from the same incident. The fees run as high as $90,000. Oddie’s decision shines more light on Vella’s effort to recoup the money.

The exchange between the councilmembers came on the heels of Vella’s comments in Alameda magazine this month that may have rankled Oddie. Vella slammed the Alameda County grand jury for determining that she, along with Oddie, violated the city charter. A prior investigation found only Oddie did so. But Vella also suggested she was being unfairly targeted by the grand jury because she is a woman of color.

“I’m always held to an unattainable standard to a small minority in Alameda and the media,” Vella said. “They need to do a big look in the mirror and ask, ‘Why am I being blamed for something another white Protestant male did?’ The letter Keimach sent to the city council did not name me. All I did is attend a meeting with Jim and the city manager.”

Despite the dust-up a full-blown break-up between the progressive councilmembers is unlikely. For one, they share the same set of political, which includes the Alameda Firefighers Union and labor unions in general, and Assemblymember Rob Bonta.

But with Vella and Oddie up for re-election next year, and both tied to a scandal certain to be exploited by their challengers, Vella may have incentive to keep Oddie, who had more exposure to the scandal, at arms length.


Kaiser, Unions, Reach Tentative Labor Agreement

Kaiser Permanente and labor unions representing 80,000 health care workers in seven states, including 4,900 in the East Bay, agreed last week to a tentative contract agreement.

For Kaiser employees represented by the coalition of unions in California, the new contract includes a 3 percent increase in wages over each of the next four years, according to the unions.

Earlier this month, the unions announced an Oct. 14 strike date for its workers spread across seven states, including California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Colorado, Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.

Under the tentative agreement, Kaiser also will fund a $130 million training program for its employees, and institute a prohibition on the use of subcontracting, along with new restrictions on outsourcing of labor.

Kaiser employees represented by the unions are primarily located at the hospital’s facilities in Oakland and San Leandro. Other Kaiser hospitals in East Bay are located in Pleasanton, Livermore, and Fremont.


In Other News …

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed 13 bills last week that intend to alleviate California’s rampant homelessness crisis by removing some of the red tape for creating new housing units, the Associated Press reported. … Meanwhile, although the Glenn Dyer Jail in downtown Oakland is now closed, the air conditioning is still on and the cost to taxpayers is a cool $83,000 a month, Phil Matier of the San Francisco Chronicle reported. A proposal to turn the facility into housing for the homeless has apparently crashed on the shoals of bad optics. … Median Bay Area home prices dropped to $810,000 in August, a 0.7 percent drop from the previous month, the Chronicle reported. It’s the sixth straight month of decreasing home values. … Contra Costa County supervisors backed a proposed half-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects for the next 35 years, the East Bay Times reported. The ballot measure will come before voters in March 2020 and would create $3.6 billion in new tax revenue over the next three decades. …

The San Francisco developer who initiated a previous data privacy ballot measure only to have it adopted instead by the California Legislature, is proposing an expanded version of the law for the 2020 ballot, Calmatters reported. The ballot measure petition will be daunting, however, requiring nearly 1 million valid signatures in order to qualify for next year’s ballot. … Gas prices have jumped to more than $4 a gallon in many Bay Area cities, including Oakland, KTVU reported. Low supply at local refineries and the drone attack last month on a Saudi Arabian oil facility are the supposed reasons for the hike in gas prices. … Newsom also signed Sen. Nancy Skinner’s bill upending the NCAA’s business model by requiring member schools in California to pay student athletes for their name, image and likeness, while also allowing students to hire agents, ESPN reported. The law goes into effect in 2023. … The U.S. Department of Energy selected the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to lead a $100 million project that seeks to lower the costs of desalination, the East Bay Times reported. … Earlier this year, Fremont approved a pilot program for its police department to use battery-powered Teslas as patrol cars. Last Friday, the East Bay Times reported, one of the cruisers ran out of juice while in pursuit of a suspect. … San Leandro’s first-ever operational cannabis dispensary was burglarized, KRON reported. Blum San Leandro opened its doors earlier this year. Four suspects were arrested. …

Speaker Nancy Pelosi set in motion the possible impeachment of President Trump. East Bay Reps. Barbara Lee, Mark DeSaulnier, and Eric Swalwell have supported impeachment for months. Rep. Ro Khanna joined the group last week. … Sen. Kamala Harris opened a campaign headquarters in Oakland last weekend. As Joe Garofoli noted in the San Francisco Chronicle, the unveiling came at a time that the senator’s poll numbers are tanking nationally, in California, and the Bay Area. … Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro received a tour of a homeless encampment near the Home Depot at High Street and Alameda Avenue last week courtesy of Oakland Councilmember Noel Gallo. … The Peralta Community College District Board of Trustees selected Regina Stanback Stroud to be its next chancellor, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Stroud previously served as president of Skyline College in San Bruno. … The U.S. Department of Justice accused Hayward resident Edward Peng of being a spy for the Chinese government, KGO-TV reported. Peng is accused of delivering U.S. national information to China. Some of the transactions allegedly occurred at hotels in Oakland and Newark. … Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena wants an Alameda County Superior Court judge to reduce his bail, which is set at $750,000, KPIX reported. Almena was charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, but his trial last month was declared a mistrial. … An Oakland police officer who accidentally shot himself at a Chili’s in San Leandro last December, was charged by the Alameda Count District Attorney’s office with obstructing the investigation into the incident, the Chron reported. The officer was also found to be in possession of drug paraphernalia. …

The injury Warriors guard Klay Thompson sustained during the NBA Finals last June will keep him out a minimum of 55 games this upcoming season, according to Bleacher Report. But the post-All-Star break timetable could also be longer, perhaps, keeping Thompson on the shelf for the entire season. … A high school football game between Oakland’s McClymonds and San Leandro High was canceled because of safety concerns, NBC Bay Area reported. The game will be played at a later date. … The Oakland A’s finished the regular season Sunday with an impressive 97 wins. The total means the A’s will host the one-game wildcard playoff against the Tampa Bay Rays Wednesday evening in Oakland. A big crowd is expected for the team’s first home playoff game in six years, NBC Sports reported.

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