Opinion: Not All Building is Good Building

By Che Timmons---The prevailing philosophy among local politicians and real estate developers for the last few years has been that “All building is good building.” 

It doesn’t matter if housing developments are built using non-union labor, or whether they offer affordable units for local residents, because in the end, anything built will help relieve the area’s housing crisis. This statement is untrue, and it’s time the city government, real estate developers, housing advocates and local labor unions do their parts to ensure more community benefits come from big housing developments in the city. 

Some 52 percent of Oakland residents say that they’d like all new housing in Oakland to provide community benefits, like affordable housing for the middle class and fair pay for workers, even if that means less housing is built overall. This is according to a new poll paid for by the East Bay Residents for Responsible Development.

When residents were asked about the Oak Knoll project in the Oakland Hills, support was initially at 72 percent, but it dropped to 38 percent when people found out that the development wasn’t being built with union labor.

But people are not anti-development.  Some 42 percent of people believe that development in Oakland is moving at just about the right speed, while 31 percent think it’s actually moving too slowly. People are comfortable with the changing Oakland skyline.

Yet so many residents feel left behind by the development in their city. The top concerns residents have are homelesseness, the lack of affordable housing, and the cost of rent, in that order. More than 80 percent say these are “extremely serious” or “very serious” problems. 

We can’t continue with the status quo in the city.

Some 83 percent of residents feel that the city government bears a major responsibility in addressing housing problems in Oakland, more than any other organization or group. City politicians need to know that voters are willing to provide them cover to make tough policy decisions that developers may not like. Some 85 percent of residents support requiring developers to hire local Oakland workers first, while 91 percent support requiring developers to pay living wages and benefits to their construction workers.

Developers need to know that residents are willing to help them so that housing is built with community benefits. Some 80 percent of residents would support giving developers tax breaks for hiring local residents and paying them living wages, while 67 percent would allow developers to build taller buildings if they would provide more community benefits with their projects.

Local labor and affordable housing advocates can make sure the community’s voice is heard. We can attend City Council meetings to let our opinions be known about developments that don’t meet the community’s needs; we can use our political muscle to oppose candidates in the pocket of developers; and we can organize the community to fight projects diametrically opposed to this city’s values.

Since 73 percent of residents support banning developers from making campaign contributions to local elected officials, we can work together to place a ballot measure calling for just such a ban. 

Oakland’s housing problem is not unsolvable. Though 45 percent of Oakland residents feel the cost and availability of housing in the city is “a serious crisis,” just seven percent believe it’s a crisis that can’t be solved. If the city government, real-estate developers, affordable housing advocates and local labor unions can each do their part, we can ensure that seven percent never gets any higher.

Che Timmons is a Business Representative for UA Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 342