OAKLAND — After acknowledging the “collective trauma” wreaked by the pandemic and the “desperation and frustration” many residents feel, Mayor Libby Schaaf on Tuesday went on to deliver a “state of the city” speech via a video presentation that painted a rosy picture of Oakland’s accomplishments.
In the video, Schaaf expressed her appreciation for the way city workers handled the pandemic, praised the construction of additional shelter units for the homeless and lauded a number of privately funded philanthropic endeavors including the education nonprofit Oakland Promise and a pilot program that gives several hundred families direct cash relief.
In her initial comments to the City Council, she acknowledged the “immense loss” of lives caused by COVID-19 and gun violence in the city. But the video did not address the soaring homicide rate that has gripped the city and prompted its police chief to plead with the community to help stop the carnage.
Schaaf’s video presentation seemed to rub some council members the wrong way.
“It seemed like the video was a commercial about what Oakland can be but doesn’t necessarily reflect the experiences that so many Oakland residents are currently having,” Councilmember Carroll Fife said. “(They) are facing environments that are just not livable because of illegal dumping or homelessness or fear of losing their homes because of illegal evictions and a host of other things. I think it (the video) was aspirational, but it’s not where we are.”
Schaaf defended the video presentation, saying “That film is real. Those are real people. Those are their real stories.
“I think it is appropriate to show what has been accomplished,” she continued. “Let us all strive to replicate what can be done. And let us all celebrate success.”
The presentation came the day after Oakland police Chief LeRonne Armstrong held a press conference — joined by councilmember and mayoral candidate Loren Taylor and victims of unsolved homicides — to ask for community members’ help in solving recent violent crimes.
Oakland has had 107 homicides so far this year compared to 80 at the same time in 2021 and is on pace to record one of its deadliest years. Meanwhile, other forms of gun violence also have been surging since last spring.
Councilmember Noel Gallo noted that Schaaf’s presentation also failed to address the increase in illegal dumping and blight in the city.
“The video was a highlight of what Oakland can be and what Oakland used to be. The reality of what we’re living in — at least in the area where I live — the environment has changed dramatically,” Gallo said. “Not only dealing with illegal dumping but activities from the public safety issue to just the blight. That’s something as elected officials … we’re responsible for that activity. But what I see missing is the enforcement of the rules we already have.”
Schaaf acknowledged his concerns and agreed the city needs more enforcement, then added, “I do think it’s important to acknowledge our city workers have been just working tirelessly.
“It was recently documented they’re picking up three times the amount of illegal dumping they were picking up just a few years ago, and that’s not enough,” she said. “We’ve increased our shelter capacity three times what it was just four years ago, and it’s not enough. That’s why those items were not celebrated in this film.”
Schaaf’s video noted that the city had tripled the number of shelters or temporary housing units for unhoused people from 832 spaces in 2017 to nearly 2,400 in 2021, and that Oakland had produced more than 600 units of affordable housing this year.
Asked by Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas if she could expand on what her office is doing to ensure more affordable housing is built, Schaaf listed some of the regional and federal efforts she is involved in, and she encouraged the council to advance changes in Oakland’s building code to expedite construction and allow people to place RVs and mobile homes on private property.
Schaaf also urged the council to put a measure on the ballot to extend “the framework” of Measure KK funding. Passed by voters in 2016, the measure authorizes the city to issue up to $600 million in general obligation bonds to finance infrastructure projects and affordable housing.
Schaaf’s video highlighted a number of initiatives including her Oakland Resilient Families program that guarantees 600 families in Oakland get $500 a month for one and a half years — no strings attached. It’s a privately funded collaboration between Oakland-based nonprofit Family Independence Initiative and Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, a nationwide alliance of mayors pushing the federal government to provide cash to Americans to cover basic needs.
The video presentation also acknowledged “transformative” policies approved by the City Council, including a controversial homeless encampment management policy, the creation of non-police emergency response teams and a city initiative to eliminate blight and illegal dumping.
She also spoke to the challenge of hiring and retaining staff.
“The success of the city is not just in our work as leaders but in motivating and retaining some of our dedicated staff. We lost some incredible talent, and welcomed new incredible talent,” she said. “We cannot do this retention and attraction without recognizing the limitations to our collective human bandwidth. This moment, where we have endured 18 unprecedented traumatic months together, we must get through this with even more kindness and courtesy.”
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Author: Annie Sciacca