Public Land Should be Used for Public Good

When a vacant lot in Oakland was close to becoming the home of a 24-story, market-rate development, local activists worked together to prevent it from happening.

For more than a year, an Oakland coalition fought the development of a market-rate housing tower that was slated to be built on a vacant lot. Above, activists overtake a council meeting to voice their concerns. Photo courtesy of the East 12th Coalition
An Oakland activist speaks to local residents about a market-rate development that is slated for a vacant lot in the city.
The coalition conducted a forum where residents could share their ideas of what should be on the vacant lot. Photo courtesy of the East 12th Coalition

Vacant land is a city’s most basic asset. When it is publicly owned, it should be used in a way that benefits the public, and the public must have a say in determining what benefits them. In Oakland, the Citywide Anti-Displacement Network is advocating for the creation of a comprehensive and holistic city ordinance that specifies how the city should handle all the land it owns.

It all began in 2015 after the city completed its plan to develop, improve, and beautify Oakland’s Lake Merritt and the surrounding areas. One lot on the corner of First Avenue and East 12th Street was left undeveloped and vacant. The City of Oakland owned the property and was in the process of selling the parcel to UrbanCore, a local developer. With its partner, United Dominion Realty, UrbanCore planned to build a 24-story, 298-unit market-rate housing tower on the site.

While the city and developers privately negotiated a deal, a neighborhood group—Eastlake United for Justice (EUJ) —became aware of the city’s plan to sell the public land, as well as the developer’s misrepresentation of community support for the deal from non-English speaking elderly Asian immigrants. Upon further investigation, EUJ discovered that the city had not adhered to California’s Surplus Land Act, which requires that affordable housing developers be given the first opportunity to develop land being sold or leased by a governmental entity.

EUJ initiated the formation of what became the East 12th Coalition, and a yearlong battle over the East 12th parcel began. Pray for the Land—a rally, march, and intersection takeover—was one of many direct actions the East 12th Coalition led to save the vacant lot on East 12th Street from becoming another market-rate tower that would further gentrify Oakland, drive up rental rates in the area, exacerbate displacement and homelessness, and put people’s lives in danger by increasing policing.

The goals were to prevent market-rate housing from being built on that land, force the city to follow the state’s Surplus Lands Act, and create affordable housing. In May 2015, the city council was poised to vote to sell the land to its chosen developer for a price far below the true value of the land, and activists were ready to have their voices heard. One person in the council chambers said the word “tugboat” and people began to move. A blockade consisting primarily of queer Black and Asian activists, linked by lockboxes—PVC pipes that were modified so that the activists’ hands can be locked to each other—formed on the dais between the councilmembers and the audience. Banners unfurled, a sound system was set up, images were projected onto a screen—the Oakland City Council meeting was overtaken by the People’s Council. As the council scrambled to figure out how to respond, the People’s Council opened the floor so that local community leaders could speak their minds about the vacant lot and other racial and economic injustices taking place in Oakland. Eventually, the council adjourned its meeting and the People’s Council continued as members of the blockade took the Oakland City Council members’ seats on the dais. The People’s Council ended with Oakland residents exiting the chambers chanting, “I believe that we will win!”

Not long after, a document was leaked to the press showing that the city attorney’s office had informed the council that the procedure it had followed to solicit development of the East 12th parcel did not adhere to the Surplus Lands Act. Eventually, the council capitulated and began a public RFP (request for proposal) process for the land.

The East 12th Coalition then conducted a forum—the People’s Wish List forum—where Oakland residents shared their ideas and desires for the property. That wish list was transformed into the People’s Proposal, a 100 percent affordable housing development, one of three proposals presented to the council in 2016. This time around, the original developer—UrbanCore—partnered with East Bay Asian Local Development Corp., a local affordable housing developer, to produce a separate building of affordable units on the property adjacent to the tower. That plan earned the council’s approval. Although the development would not be 100 percent affordable, because of the campaign and organizing work of the East 12th Coalition, Oakland ended up with 25 percent of the units on the land being affordable units.

Generating Power to Take Back Public Land

After the East 12th Street parcel debacle, the city decided that it should adopt a public lands ordinance that would clearly codify a process for how city-owned land would be leased or sold. Of course, as is typical in Oakland, officials drafted and attempted to propose an ordinance without any community engagement. Organizations came together and signed a letter demanding that the city’s administrative staff not submit a proposal for a public lands policy without engaging interested nonprofit organizations that represented different city constituencies.

The Citywide Anti-Displacement Network (CWN) served as the conduit for community engagement. The network developed a proposal that included community engagement and a holistic approach to jobs, housing, and the environment that reflected the desires of Oakland residents as communicated to them through surveys and a community forum. After almost two years of negotiation with the city’s administrative staff, no agreement was reached . Oakland officials chose to disengage from the negotiation process and develop a “strategy” to sell specific parcels of land and not address community input, quality jobs, or environmental health and justice. After years of delays, CWN is still waiting for this issue to be heard by the city council.

The work of the East 12th Coalition demonstrated the efficacy of combining forces with multiple organizations, constituencies, and strategies when organizing. Diversity and inclusion are necessary across all lines of difference. A cross-cultural, multi-organizational, intergenerational movement using many tactics is needed in order to actually build a movement. Various stakeholders must be included because different perspectives are required to see the problem and the potential solutions to it from different vantage points. This allows for greater, deeper, and more comprehensive work, and it generates more power.

In some ways, this was done well with the East 12th land campaign. At different stages of the campaign, EUJ partnered with faith groups, direct-action groups, community-based organizations, lawyers, affordable housing developers, advocates, and activists. There were major successes, like the People’s Council city council shutdown, which stalled the council’s vote and allowed time for documents to be leaked to the press. The leak forced the council to reopen the RFP process and that resulted in the developers partnering with a nonprofit affordable housing developer and including some affordable housing in their proposal. Also, the East 12th Coalition and the rallying cry of “Public Land 4 Public Good” was heard all over Oakland. In fact, to this day council members are still saying that they want to avoid another East 12th.

By the same token, the process was not perfect. When the city council meeting was shut down, other important issues of racial and economic justice were not heard. Had the coalition been in conversation with other groups seeking justice that day, it might have waited until later in the meeting to begin the action, or developed another strategy. Additionally, the interfaith work was not as balanced as it could have been. Indigenous people have expressed their frustration with the fact that they are often called in to bless the land or open an action or rally, but they are not invited to be at the negotiating and organizing tables before and after the actions and rallies. There are no indigenous groups represented on the Citywide Anti-Displacement Network.

Full stakeholder engagement is crucial to strengthen the work. Even when there are groups whose ultimate desires, tactics, and belief systems seem vastly different, we must find ways to collaborate. The cooperation of all stakeholders is essential to campaign success. We must learn how to create space for communities to tell us how best to engage them in the work.

This article appears in the Fall 2018 edition of Shelterforce magazine. Subscribe here.

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