More Scrutiny on the Oakland Warehouse Coalition’s Proposed Ordinance

Posted on January 22, 2017

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I’ve been reading the Oakland Warehouse Coalition’s housing policy paper a little more closely, and I’m increasingly alarmed at the dangers created by the extremely narrowly focused recommendations.

The Oakland Warehouse Coalition has created a policy recommendation paper, which the group plans to–in whole or in part–integrate into a city sponsored ordinance to redefine residential limitations on live-work rental spaces. I’ve discussed the unprecedented power this demographic wields with the city elsewhere; on Monday night, January 22, the city council and mayor will convene a special session to discuss legislation specifically directed at this OWC, which defines itself as a spokesgroup for the community of live work residents of Oakland.

The session will also consider legislation by at-large Council Member Rebecca Kaplan and an executive order by Mayor Libby Schaaf. Kaplan’s ordinance was in the sausage making machine as early as December of 2015. It languished there for over 16 months for lack of any audience where its performative enactment could provide benefit to the council. It would be difficult to argue against the suspicion that it now only surfaces because of its ability to make the council seem responsive to the needs of a relevant group in front of a national stage. Schaaf’s executive order is equally performative, providing some marginal and temporary benefit for those already living in unpermitted live-work spaces.

But though Kaplan and Schaaf’s legislation don’t create any specific worries for current neighborhoods facing displacement, ironically, the Oakland Warehouse Coalition’s policy plan does. Several portions of the legislation seem quite likely to create an alternate housing market, especially in places like Fruitvale and San Antonio. Several sections in the ordinance eliminate all legal barriers for the rental of storefronts and commercial spaces for residential use:

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Without actual legal limitations or building inspection and fire code oversight, every single storefront you see on International Blvd, Foothill Boulevard or High Street will become an attractive future loft for higher class clientele from outside the neighborhood.

Owners and managers of unoccupied storefronts and retail space will no longer have to wait for economic conditions to be favorable in any struggling neighborhood to rent, they can simply put their formerly community-serving business on Craigslist and market it as a DIY residence.

Without concern for market or clientele, the new tenants will form their own market with the outside culture they will bring with them. Cute storefronts with DIY possibilities will prove to be catnip for hipsters looking to create the new happening neighborhood. Smart owners will find that the presence of higher level renters who bring an affluent cohort into a poor or working class neighborhood are a boon for the property, and create additional attraction for other commercial properties they might own in the area–either as business catering specifically to the colonists they are drawing in, or as further areas of colonization and lucre.

What’s clearly at fault in the OWC legislation is the freeing of certain forms of property from scrutiny without accompanying protections or restrictions on the types of renters that can lease them. Existing racist habits and legal/financial realities in the area will make sure only white identified individuals with large amounts of capital and good, well-established credit will be able to create their live-work space in the area’s current commercial centers. There will  be very little financial incentive for owners of storefronts to rent to members of the existing community, even if they can pass credit and rent checks. The occupancy of poor and POC in the spaces will  not elevate the profile of the neighborhood or the property.

By hook or by crook–either by filling the storefronts with coin-having hipsters, or by filling some of them that way, and renting out the others to higher level businesses specifically aimed at the new community, the recommendations are an almost guarantee to heighten dangers of gentrification in East Oakland. As the storefronts fill, so will the demand for storefronts, the rents for them as well, leading to current businesses facing ever-greater challenges and heartlessness from owners.

This is why it matters who is putting forth these housing recommendations and for what reason–the relentless self-focused view of affordability from privileged groups who have a displacing effect and will break community anchors and foundations. If such an ordinance were to be put into effect, limiting rentals of commercial spaces in threatened neighborhoods to low-income current residents or recently-displaced residents would be the only way to avoid gentrification, instead of increasing it.

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