Think Local: Readers Discuss How To Cultivate A Sustainable, Equitable East Bay Economy

It's our annual 'Local Economy' issue!

It’s no secret that the East Bay economy needs some fine-tuning. From local small-business operators and artists to even developers and elected officials, many of us fear that the downside of a tech boom-or-bust cycle will soon rear its ugly head in our region.

That’s why the Express ignored the so-called experts and reached to its readers for this year’s “Local Economy” issue. Our hope is that the folks in the trenches, from workers at local food banks to engineers and shop owners, will have some answers for how to nurture a more sustainable and equitable East Bay economy.

The Basic Needs

Francesca Costa
program manager at a food bank

How can we foster economic justice and equity?
I think that raising the minimum wage was a great step in the right direction. Perhaps we can talk about supplementing a minimum basic income, especially for folks that receive SSI or are living below the poverty line.

Describe how you stay passionate about your work.
I work to increase access to and improve CalFresh, formerly known as food stamps. There is nothing more motivating to me then making sure people are able to meet their basic needs

If you were mayor, what would be your No. 1 priority?
[I would] work to provide more housing options for people with low and middle incomes, because so many people are one paycheck or emergency away from homelessness or leaving the Bay Area.

How can we encourage more people to spend their hard-earned dollars locally?
Make sure folks have more hard-earned dollars to spend, and that small-business owners don’t have to spend so much on the rent that they have to charge people exorbitant prices to make ends meet. [When] people spend all their money on rent, they generally have to go with the cheapest option. When people spend all their time at work, they generally have to go with the most efficient option. I think those two constraints lead people to make a lot of purchases online.


Nenna Joiner
local business owner

If you were mayor, your priority …
Neighborhood revitalization: It would help spur single-operator businesses (aka entrepreneurs) in certain areas. Every neighborhood should have a coffee shop (theory).

The greatest economic opportunity in the East Bay?
East Oakland.

The biggest economic challenge in region?
East Oakland.

Describe a way to accelerate economic justice and equity.
Restrictions in what you open and where you open always starts and ends with laws. Planning and/municipal code should be changed to lower cost of doing business.

Local independent businesses, from retail shops to restaurants and more, are concerned about economic sustainability.
As a merchant, you should always be concerned about this either real or mythical giant we always are fighting with. Still, Oakland isn’t known for shopping. We have only a handful of spaces that are mentioned on a global level. We have a good retail squad! We just need to be highlighted. The brick and mortar sector of retail can hit home run every time at bat. #TryUs.

More Opportunities For Small Biz

Oyefunke Anifowoshe

What can be done to even the playing field?
Support for small business is crucial. Small grants and loans could help. I also think it helps to make sure cultural and arts programs thrive, as this works to promote justice and equity, and create a welcoming and cutting-edge environment.

What industry do you work in, and how do you anticipate it evolving in the next five years?
I work in the performing arts and run a small home business making jewelry and other accessories. I see the home businesses growing as commuting becomes more difficult, and jobs that can sustain a household require more specific training and are out of reach for many. I anticipate that people will learn to provide a service that doesn’t require a commute, and [that people will respond] to the new industry without having to pay for additional training.

It’s no secret that local independent businesses, from retail shops to restaurants and more, are concerned about economic sustainability. Discuss.
Large corporations coming in to Oakland drive up the rents, both residential and commercial, and squeeze the small guy out. There should be some redress for this.

How can we encourage more people to spend their hard-earned dollars locally?
More opportunities for small businesses to sell to public. Maybe some retail co-ops could happen! I would love to share space with likeminded individuals. I think many in the Bay Area are very conscious about spending locally already, they just need more opportunities. Maybe the city could issue some street licenses in high traffic areas as they do in downtown San Francisco.

How do you stay passionate?
I do the things that I love, and when I feel the burnout I try to take a break. It cuts into my income, but is necessary for a halfway decent quality of life, which is important to me. That is why I live in an expensive place like the Bay Area.

Level The Playing Field

Brandi Brandes
executive director

How can local businesses sustain?
Once big industry gets their roots in, there is no competing economically. It is well known that a thriving city and culture is made up of a variety of businesses and independent proprietors, but once the cash flow case of Big Resources is presented, the rest of the story is given secondary status.

The greatest economic opportunity in the region?
Land — if “economic opportunity” means immediate cash generation. The creative and “maker” classes — if “economic opportunity” means actual urban sustainability instead boom-and-bust cycles.

How can we encourage more people to spend their hard-earned dollars with local businesses?
By encouraging and investing in ways to level the playing field so independent businesses costs are lower.

If you were mayor, your priority would be …
Affordable housing. Because it’s an issue that has yet to be effectively addressed, and ultimately creates a city impossible for small businesses who can’t pay enough for workers to live here or commute from far away. Lack of working class, artist class, and small businesses just sucks all the vibrancy out of a city.

It’s About Rent Control

Sheila Addison
marriage and family therapist

It’s no secret that local independent businesses — from retail shops to restaurants and more — are concerned about economic sustainability.
The minimum wage increases get unfair blame — workers paid more have more to spend in the local economy, are more able to focus on their jobs, rather than balancing multiple employers to make ends meet; and are more likely to stay at their jobs, rather than contribute to high turnover. Rents are the biggest problem; businesses should band together to advocate for rent control for themselves.

What do you think is the biggest economic challenge in region?
The skyrocketing cost of housing. Rent for apartments identical to mine has doubled in the past decade. My salary has not doubled.

Meanwhile foreign investment firms buy up housing, in bulk, to rent back to us at grossly inflated prices, hurting both renters and those who might otherwise have the means to owner-occupy a home.

If you were mayor of your city, what would be your No. 1 economic priority?
Stabilize housing costs via extending rent control to single-family houses, using anti-blight measures to seize decrepit and unsafe buildings (particularly those with absentee/non-U.S. owners) to be replaced with multi-family affordable housing, and using legislation/enforcement to end the conversion of apartments to AirBnB “hotels.”

What industry do you work in and how do you anticipate it evolving in the next five years?
As a self-employed therapist, I worry what will happen if the [Affordable Care Act] is overturned and I can no longer provide my own health insurance; the ACA is the only reason I’m able to be self-employed right now. My industry also struggles for affordable, accessible office space as rents rise.

Nothing Should Be Off The Table

Ricardo Gonzalez
structural engineer

If you were mayor, what would you prioritize?
Affordable housing. Gentrification is unavoidable in the Bay Area, especially with high-income earners venturing into the East Bay. The East Bay is experiencing rapid changes in neighborhoods that will lose its historic diversity, charm, and importance. I do not want to paint newcomers as bad guys; that is the double-edged sword of strong Bay Area economics. This is no time for NIMBYs. The city of El Cerrito is recognizing that, and developing housing, especially around the two BART stations.

Multinational corporations wield tremendous power and influence. What can be done to even the playing field for local businesses and nonprofits?
First thing is to repeal that portion of California’s Proposition 13 that burdens new, small businesses with much higher property taxes that existing ones. Then, municipalities need to remove red tape and fees for small businesses to set up shop. This includes relaxing or easing minimum wage and sales taxes. Nothing should be off the table.

Describe a way to improve economic equity.
The billion-dollar question, isn’t it? Much has been said about police brutality, under-performing schools, drug problems, and racism. But [there has] not much focus [on] lower-income groups. … Family and religious-support groups are fractured in these [communities], and that is a source of inequity. Again, not to downplay the other issues that are mostly mentioned.

Leveraging Opportunity

Erin Skidmore
marketing consultant

If you were in charge …
My top priority would be balancing gentrification with economic opportunity in Oakland, because our residents deserve to be able to stay in their homes and benefit from the increased jobs and salaries that our current economic growth can offer.

The biggest economic challenge in region?
Our current economy is in a long upswing due to the global impact of Silicon Valley and Bay Area technology companies. The question is how we leverage that opportunity to benefit our residents rather than drive them out.

Local independent businesses, from retail shops to restaurants and more, are concerned about economic sustainability. What are some solutions?
Retail shops and restaurants are both at risk of losing in-store customers with the rise of “instant gratification shopping” via mobile phone, where you can have anything delivered to your door with the push of a button. Restaurants have been balancing this with delivery-app partnerships to increase to-go sales. Retail shops have a harder time, but I think more shopping-district events would help get people off their phones and out in the street to enjoy their city.

Will Have To Move To Retire

Teri Lawson
science-curriculum specialist

How do you stay passionate about your work?
I write science curriculum for middle school. Knowing how students respond to our works is motivational.

The biggest economic challenge in region?
The high cost of housing.

What industry do you work in and how do you anticipate it evolving in the next five years?
I work for UC Berkeley/Lawrence Hall of Science. I plan to retire in two-to-three years and will have to move out of the area because of the housing cost.

Haves And Have Nots

Tracy Parker
small business owner

If you were mayor …
If I were mayor, my economic priority would be to ensure the sustainability of the residents who have lived here for generations. There is a lot of new money coming into Oakland. … However, there are so many people who live here who survive on very little. I would love to see a program that would require new multimillion dollar investors to also invest in the neighborhood where they are moving into. This could mean providing community centers with services to those in need; it could mean cleaning up and maintaining the parks and public spaces in the neighborhoods, etc. I think the divide between the “haves” and the “have nots” is extremely disruptive to our city, and I strongly feel that more/any care and consideration to the neighborhoods where the building/disruptions are happening could go a very long way to those effected.

How can we improve economic sustainability?
All around the location of my shop, old businesses are closing. This is because the building owners are raising the rents, and the current tenants cannot afford to stay and sustain their business. If you were paying $1,000, and now you are told that with the lease end you will have to pay $3,000 to $5,000 or leave, it’s no wonder they are leaving. I am currently in the fifth year of my five-year lease, and this concern is very real to me. My partner and I work very hard to ensure that we stay above water, but with all of the change and big money coming in around us, it’s hard to know where things will go. We cross our fingers that we’ll be able to continue to fit in where we are at, and that, with the new residents moving in, our business will continue to grow to allow us to stay!

Don’t Totally Rely On Capitalism

Marthine Satris

What would you do if you were the “jobs czar” for the region?
Encourage access to self-improvement and skills-training classes. No job is safe, no field is permanent. Encourage people to learn new skills in case their job vanishes, so they can be more flexible. That could mean subsidizing a Udacity course, or partnering with UC Extension, or encouraging skilled tradesmen to take apprentices, or just getting everyone to learn to sew and code and write emails well. Diversify.

If you were mayor …
Taxing the hell out of new property owners (like me), in order to raise up the rest of the city’s residents. Increasing services to the poor and marginalized, and forging strong community bonds between newcomers and longtime residents.

Describe a way to accelerate economic justice and equity in the region.
Invest in public schools. Provide food and support for families. Also, strong beliefs in the utility of socialism, instead of purely relying on capitalism.

How can we encourage more people to spend their hard-earned dollars locally?
This is a huge question. People like chains, because they know what to expect, and they get it every time. Consistency. But can a tiny local place match the reliability of giant chains? People don’t approach Viscera or Laurel Books or Ordinaire knowing what they’re going to get like they do if they go to Gap or Barnes and Noble or TGI Fridays, instead. They have expectations of a Chipotle that will get met every time. Should local places strive to imitate what makes chains powerful, or [instead] highlight what they bring, which is flexibility, surprise, connection?

How Do You Get Their Attention?

Melissa Hatheway

What industry do you work in and how do you anticipate it evolving in the next five years?
[I work in] motion picture exhibition, [at] a movie theatre. [We are moving] away from just movies and more toward broadcast events from faraway places.

It seems that it’s harder than ever to get people to spend their dollars in the local economy. Any ideas?
I think it all comes down to education, but the question is how do you get their attention?

Shopping Local Can Be More Satisfying

Jill McLennan
teaching artist

How can we encourage more people to shop locally and support East Bay businesses?
I heard that people like to live in neighborhoods with local shops, but they still don’t shop there. People need to realize that taking a walk to a local store can be more satisfying and convenient than ordering something on line.

Describe a way to accelerate economic justice and equity in the Bay.
Improve the education system, pay teachers more. Provide assistance to young adults getting on their feet, [and] to people [recently] out of the justice system. Raise the minimum wage, expand Head Start programs for single and low-income parents.

Support Cooperatives

Jessica Prentice
local business owner

Share with us an idea for how to better cultivate economic justice and equity.
Support worker and consumer cooperatives. Build affordable housing and offer debt reduction to people who work in nonprofits, schools, and worker cooperatives, funded by taxing the wealthy.

What industry do you work in, and how do you anticipate it evolving in the next five years?
[I work in] food. Escalating housing prices will continue to put small local food companies out of business.

How can we encourage more people to spend their hard-earned dollars locally?
Every dollar spent locally is an investment in a more fair and just world.

Smart, Creative, Funky

Melanie Mintz
community development

If you were mayor …
Attracting creative capital and entrepreneurs to invest in and help create a variety of places and businesses.

It’s no secret that local independent businesses are concerned about economic sustainability …
I think we need to separate those that connect and innovate and still cannot survive from those that don’t connect and innovate, so we can understand better the obstacles and barriers.

The greatest economic opportunity in the East Bay?
Smart, creative, funky people and lots of expendable income.

How can we encourage more people to spend their hard-earned dollars locally?
Create cool local experiences that cannot be bought [or] served online.

Equal Opportunities

Jeanine Griswa

Is there a specific organization that we can look to to help accelerate economic justice and equity in the Bay?
Supporting the African People’s Education & Defense Fund, whose mission is to address the disparities in health, economic development and education faced by the Black community.

The biggest economic challenge in region?
To ensure that everyone of all nationalities has access to the same economic opportunities, including access to education.


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