Abel Guillen on Oakland's Challenges

By José Fermosa---Growing up in an alley near the gritty San Francisco intersection of 16th and Mission streets conditioned Abel Guillen to understand the importance of standing up for the diversity and economic rights of local communities.

In the late 80s and early 90s, that area was one of the city's most heavily trafficked in drugs, crime, and poverty. But it was also a haven of Mexican-American culture and middle-class people working hard to make a living. Guillen's parents, a pastry chef at the Hilton and a cook at a convalescent home, not only provided a safe space for him and his brothers, but always involved them in politics. When his father went on strike with his union, Abel recalls it fondly.

“[I remember] when they were trying to increase premiums and healthcare, waking up really early in the morning and attending a picket line in front of the hotel. We banged pots and pans to make sure guests knew about the labor dispute. I will never forget that,” Guillen now remembers.

A city councilman of Oakland's 2nd district since 2014, the 40-year old looks back at that time as a key lesson. Mainly, about how community rights can be trampled if the government entrusted with them doesn't listen to its constituents. Despite strong community opposition, the Mission district in San Francisco today looks nothing like it did 25 years ago. High rents and wealthy technology workers have priced out most of the Latino residents while drugs and crime are still of relatively high concern.

With many of the same workers spilling out to Oakland in recent years, residents and city leaders now have the advantage of learning from San Francisco's mistakes. Through tough development laws, people like Guillen believe they can maintain the middle-class fabric that makes up Oakland's community. Artists, teachers, cops, and construction workers can and should be able to afford to live here alongside techies and lawyers, Guillen says.

“San Francisco [has] become a city of rich people. Oakland can do different. We came out of a recession. [Yes,] we need to build 15,000 new housing units in the next several years and we have a housing road-map to do that. But almost half of them need to be affordable within market rate.”

Getting developers to accept those terms will prove challenging, but Guillen feels he has the life and work experience to help them get there.

Growing Up Early

When California Republican Governor Pete Wilson passed Proposition 187 in 1996, effectively ending affirmative action for public Universities, Guillen was a young student at UC Berkeley. Before that law, he'd seen himself working primarily in a financial job but didn't have a strong idea about his focus.

But seeing that law as anti-immigrant and likely blocking off the opportunity to lower-and-middle income kids to attend great Universities like himself, he says, he became politicized. Guillen started working for political student groups and dove into local issues. He applied and got into Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy, graduating in 2001. After, the young man from a poor home rejected lucrative financial jobs in favor of working to help finance construction of schools.

By the mid-2000s, Guillen saw an opportunity to affect the financial viability of the area's top community college, Laney, and ran for its board of directors. Few people thought he could win, but with support from local teachers and construction trades unions, he ended up winning by a comfortable margin.

In the years since, Guillen said he's been most successful by focusing on representing his constituents. “I know I'm privileged in my position. So I think 'How can I be an advocate for those who don't have a voice for themselves?'”

When Guillen was on Laney's board, he helped pass Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) where unions would be able to participate in million-dollar bond projects with collective bargaining agreements, helping to solidify specific jobs for local construction laborers. This helped put the unions on his side and allowed the city to fast-track certain developments.

After a few years serving on the community board, Guillen ran for Oakland's city council in 2014. After falling behind early to former KPIX anchor Dana King, he came back to win comfortably. Guillen's position as a leader in Oakland's district 2 now put him in direct power over important issues such as the distribution of funds for public land use in the hottest real estate market in the country.

Development Is Hard

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Guillen, and anyone else who wants the city to progress without losing its soul, is getting everyone comfortable with the speed of change. “People get nervous when the buildings go up,” he says. “And that's natural.”

Part of getting people to become less nervous is to make good, “equitable” deals between everyone involved – city, developers, unions, and citizens – before a single brick is put down.

Recently the council sought to appease all stakeholders by slowing down the conversions of buildings with affordable housing Single-Room Occupancies (SROs) to wealthy apartments.

For years, SROs have been the places in Oakland where its most in-need populations reside, including those with bad credit, mental illness, and poor health outcomes. In a story in Curbed last year, SROs were defined as residences of “last resort” for people who are most at risk being thrown out of the city through new construction development. To help keep those residents in the city, while also sprucing up the buildings to keep market rates up and giving work to local workers, Guillen and the council passed a $100 million bond measure. The way it works is that the city holds on to a pool of money competed over in a bid process exclusively for non-profits, after which the bid winners would buy properties at an affordable rate. With only 18 SROs left in Oakland, this is the type of solution sorely in need.

Guillen and the council have also recently worked on new tenant protections for rent-controlled properties around the city and have invited the public to become a part of the budget process through so-called “participatory budgeting” programs. These programs allow citizens to communicate with representatives about programs they believe merit funding.

Unions and Developer Conflicts

Getting unions and developers to work together is also an important aspect of local development work, of which the biggest point of contention currently is ensuring local carpenters and builders are hired. In the last two years, labor unions around the Bay Area have advocated to local governments to urge developers to hire locally. 

Building contractors often choose to hire outside of local unions because it might be faster or cheaper to do so, Guillen says, but there are several solutions they can work on with the city to avoid it. One thing cities can do is expand the pool of workers with building skills. “We don't have the full workforce we need here because the market is tight right now. The people working on buildings in San Francisco and Oakland are the same and the cost to pay them [is the same],” he says.

Cities might also be able to support this expansion of workers by getting commitments from developers to hire locally. And developers and unions might want to convince more young people to see building jobs as lucrative and important.

Ultimately, however, Guillen says, buildings need to house residents and “we want to make sure these buildings make a way to prosperity.”

With potential major developments coming up in his district, including an Oakland A's stadium and the redevelopment of the Henry J. Kaiser arena, Abel Guillen will be a major part of the conversation, and possibly, the solution.