.The State of Oakland

Power Poll addresses homelessness, crime, blight and business loss

Participants in the latest Oakland Power Poll hold an almost uniformly grim assessment of the state of their city, portraying homelessness, grime, crime, business flight and ineffective civic leadership as multiple facets of the same dire reality.

CRIME AND POLICING 

District 4 Councilmember Sheng Thao said that public safety would be her top priority as mayor. How should she approach crime and policing? Please provide your thoughts about policies, staffing levels, needed reforms and related topics.

HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS

Thao also emphasized housing and homelessness during her campaign. Are city services for the homeless sufficient? Are officials too indulgent? Is it naïve to hope for any improvement? How would you like the city to address housing construction?

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

What sort of initiatives would you like to see in the realm of economic development? What should the city do for businesses or workers? How could the city assist its neighborhoods? And what about the proposed Oakland A’s development?

CITY SERVICES

Are you completely content with all the city’s services? Which departments could be easier to interact with? Are certain city departments an impediment to economic development? Are there any departments that you can’t bear to visit? What could be done to increase employee accountability?

PRIORITIES

Finally, what other topics would you like the mayor to focus on?

Analysis of Questions 1-5

Although the questions were siloed into distinct buckets, the respondents displayed an extremely intersectional view of the city’s status. While an emphasis on unresolved problems should be expected when asking constituents to fill the ear of an incoming politician after a wrenching, multi-year pandemic, what stands out most about member’s comments is their unrelenting negativity. Consider the following comments:

·    “We cannot allow the ongoing living conditions that homeless people in Oakland currently experience—both for the citizens of the city nor the homeless.”

·    “OPD failure to respond to burglaries, home invasions and robberies has only encouraged such crimes. When these criminals are successful, they move on to more serious crime or break-in while residents are home. … Small things, when ignored, become big things.”

·    “The neighborhood business areas are economic and community-building engines. Making sure they are safe, clean and humane need to be city priorities.”

·    “Make it easier for builders to build. Make the process easier, and make this a place where developers want to build.”

·    “The City of Oakland needs to stop being held hostage by employee unions and actually hold city employees accountable for delivering high-quality service.”

·    “There is nothing that I have seen in all my years of dealing with the city that has given me hope that Oakland will become a city that is easy to work with to get things done. There is a culture throughout City Hall that needs to change.”

More than any other topic, homelessness united the panelists’ concerns. And while many expressed concern for the health and safety of people living on the streets—calling for more spending on drug treatment, mental health, job training, tiny homes and affordable housing—the majority appeared more concerned with the impact of homelessness on the rest of Oakland’s residents. As one respondent put it: “Encampments are inhumane to all concerned.”

Among the ideas championed by the members were preventing re-encampment of previously closed locations, eliminating all encampments not overseen by the city, housing new shelters on civic property such as the Oakland Coliseum parking lot and denying homeless services to people who have not lived in the city for some time.

On the topic of public safety, relatively few respondents focused on potential reforms of the OPD, with the following comment typical of their concerns: “Double down on preventive strategies like Ceasefire and services to those suffering homelessness, drug addiction, mental health challenges, and offering alternatives to those involved in gangs, who are likely driving a lot of the violence.”

As was the case in past surveys, several panelists took a “walk and chew gum at the same time” approach to criminal-justice reform: “Defund is not the answer, but continued oversight by a civilian board for any problems,” wrote one member. Another added: “Become a SUPPORTER of your police department! You can be progressive AND support police at the same time. STOP aligning with Cat Brooks and Carroll Fife—Oaklanders don’t want far left ‘police abolitionists’ calling your shots.”

The vast majority of comments, however, expressed some variation of the following sentiment: “With surging crime in all parts of Oakland, the city will need many more well-trained personnel to reach out to the community, build relationships and re-establish Oakland as a peaceful and safe place to live and work.”

Many panelists said they would like to see more city support for neighborhoods, whether in the form of aid to merchant districts, support for neighborhood crime prevention councils or more resources to address community blight. No clear pattern emerged regarding the proposed Howard Terminal stadium development, which some panelists vocally supported and others denounced.

When responding to the question about economic development, many comments explicitly referenced the city’s crime rate: “Businesses are leaving Oakland; consumers are leaving Oakland because the city is not taking seriously the need to dramatically reduce crime and to support local businesses.” Or, as another put it, “The best economic policy for Oakland is a strong public safety policy.”

Similarly, many other members addressed the quality of city services when considering the state of Oakland’s economy. “Oakland needs to get an effective, efficient and fair permitting department,” commented one member. “OPD needs to respond and stop coming up with excuses why we have to raise salaries for NO service.” Noted another: “The process to get a business open, especially a restaurant, is ridiculous!”

Others linked the housing shortage with permit approvals: “There is a reason the city has continuously come up short on its new housing goals—because it still takes too long to get approvals to build in Oakland! Unless the new mayor improves the approval process and starts to work with developers rather than against them, nothing is going to change.”

Support is strong for the notion of expecting more of city employees, with several calling for a purge of underperformers: “What can be done to increase accountability is to set standards of acceptable performance and then hold employees accountable.”

However, many panelists worry that the mayor-elect’s strong support from unions makes progress unlikely regarding employee performance. “With Sheng as the city’s CEO, there’s absolutely no hope any department will get easier or better to deal with or their (sic) will be any accountability. The unions aligned behind her so they wouldn’t have to be accountable.

Not one panelist overtly expressed support for the city’s new mayor-elect, while many expressed doubts about whether she is up to the task of governing Oakland. “The new mayor should focus on winning the trust of Oaklanders who are old enough to know that she’s way in over her head,” said one. “The far left is going to abandon her once she has to make a hard-but-necessary decision, and the moderates are already skeptical she has the capacity to govern. This smells like Jean Quan Part II.”

Alas, such is the nature of being a big city mayor, which this observer has long viewed as the second-hardest job in American government, behind that of president.

Or as one panel member seemingly sympathetic to the new mayor put it: “It’s a tall order—I told the mayor Libby I wouldn’t do her job for a million dollars!”

Oakland Power Poll is not a scientific poll. Rather, questions were asked of influential people with a wide range of viewpoints to help advance informed dialogue about the city. Power Poll is studiously non-partisan.

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