Will Oak Knoll Help Oakland?

By José Fermosa---With the growth in housing development at an all-time high, residents might believe companies thinking about building in Oakland have a standard process to integrate the community’s preferred requirements into their plans. For years, these requirements have included a sizable number of affordable housing units and the employment of union laborers.

But the Oak Knoll project at the base of the East Oakland Hills appears, for the moment, to go against this trend. Members of local unions are worried the Oak Knoll developers will choose to not use unions at all and will continue to fight cheap housing requirements.

In a phone interview conducted this week, Electrical Workers union leader Greg Bonata told the Oakland Conduit that negotiations between the Oak Knoll development builder, Irvine-based SunCal, are ongoing but seem to be going nowhere. He tells the Conduit SunCal doesn’t seem keen on a union partnership so the Electrical Workers are trying to engage the community to know about the potential loss.

“We are trying to reach out to community groups who have the same concern we have,” Bonata said. “Getting church schools to support our effort to create that environment [to get the developer to hire union]. If developers are coming to Oakland, they need to provide benefits to the community instead of just making money and leaving.”

The potential non-use of unions for this project has surprised everyone from workers to City Council members who have supported affordable housing and union labor for years. Councilmember Larry Reid, who represents the district where the Oak Knoll project will be built, has worked with the developer and the unions to get those requirements met. Bonata says they are in conversation with Reid to work together in reminding the builders of the importance of these issues to Oakland residents.

“The cost of doing business in Oakland is doing the right thing,” he says. And the “right thing” is, according to Bonata, “to provide opportunities for the youth of Oakland and trying to promote good wages to be a part of the big building [cycle] that is coming to Oakland.”

Bonata says a project of Oak Knoll’s size, expected to build more than 900 town homes, can provide amazing pathways to success for apprentices in particular. Because most contracts with builders include the use of a generous number of hours worked by apprentices, the contracts function as a great way for young people to get in the door of their program and gain skills for life. “If [young people] work with us at the union [at the beginning of their careers], they can then work anywhere in the Bay Area and make a decent wage,” he told us.

The recent career development of a young electrician exemplifies this opportunity, says Bonata. A 22-year old Bay Area native was hired by the union to do streetlight retrofitting for three weeks in San Leandro. Because he agreed to be a part of the apprenticeship program, he stayed on for six months and is now moving on to work with another contractor to continue his skill development in the trades. According to Bonata, this decision will lead to consistent work and wages for at least five years. If he’d been hired without the union by the city, the young man could have done the retrofitting, then moved on without the security of a job or skill growth.

The new cycle of development in Oakland has certainly accelerated the need for these types of mutual beneficial agreements between builders and unions. And the Oak Knoll project itself has moved quickly in recent months after years of stasis. 

Originally a project between SunCal and Lehman Brothers, the plan went up in flames alongside the lender’s liquidity during the late-2000s recession. A few years later in 2013, SunCal bought the land of the former Oak Knoll Naval Hospital grounds and moved forward with plans to build an estate. According to the project’s website, Oak Knoll would also include 67 acres of open space, 72,000 square feet of retail, and nearly 4,000 parking spaces.

Beyond the issues with the unions, the possibility that fewer than 80 homes from the batch of 900-plus may be sold at less-than-market value is causing consternation in the community. With the current median rent price at $2,817 and median household income at $4,456 a month, most middle-class Oaklanders would be unable to afford to rent, much less pay for one of these homes.

The Oak Knoll developers have been trying to buy their way out of even offering more affordable homes. A few years ago, Oak Knoll was added to the Central City East Redevelopment Area, measuring the overall commitment of builders on affordable housing based on a 15 percent line, by state law, by politicians. This meant that most other developments in the city had picked up the slack on affordable housing, which created a surplus of those units in the Redevelopment Area, so Oak Knoll didn’t have to make any more.

Then SunCal was found to have asked the Council to allow to pay a fee instead of making those affordable homes. Desley Brooks, an Oakland Councilmember, has accused the developers of trying to create second-class neighborhoods separating rich from poor. Suffice it to say, other developers that have complied by the law and have amended their plans to add affordable housing to their own developments are not happy.

Bonata says all of the problems with Oak Knoll seem quite troublesome compared to his experience with the new development at Brooklyn Basin. That project, which recently broke ground on the shore of the Oakland marina and will create thousands of new dwellings, has included affordable housing and union workers from the very beginning. “We’ve always felt included there. Because they knew in order to pass that type of development, it had to help the community and provide paths to success for everyone.”