The new mayor of Oakland on President Trump, Uber’s move, the gentrification and housing crises, and why cities are the antidote to Presidential politics
The Bay area has added half a million jobs since 2000, but only built 54,000 new units of housing. Therein lies the root of the region’s affordability crisis: Lots of new tech-related jobs, but not a lot of places to put those new employees. That means workers have to commute much longer distances, and an already overstressed transportation infrastructure now groans with commuters stuck in endless congestion.
Traffic and sky-high housing prices mean the best paid workers will spend top dollar to live near a city center — and that means gentrification. Blue collar workers, artists, and pensioners are pushed out and marginalized, sometimes moving into unsafe spaces not meant for communal living. Such was the case in Oakland earlier this Fall, when a deadly fire broke out in a warehouse occupied by artists and young people, killing nearly 40.
The “Ghost Ship” fire became Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s first national test, one she is still enduring. It highlights the complex problems of a booming city: More business means more revenue and more opportunities, but also more problems. The election of Donald Trump has compounded the complexity of Schaaf’s job: She has committed Oakland as a “sanctuary city” — joining a growing list of Mayors who have taken a stand against the stated policies of President-elect Trump.
We spoke to Schaaf just one week prior to the fire, and two weeks after the election. What follows is the transcript of our conversation, along with the video, both edited for length and clarity.
John Battelle: I imagine this has been an interesting few weeks for you given the election that just occurred.
Libby Schaaf: The election has definitely impacted everybody. It was a bit of a shock for Oakland.
As a politician, how did that result affect you?
I’m very clear about what Oaklanders value and the direction that they want their government to go in. I’m very thankful that the American form of government gives tremendous power and independence to state and local government.
I think that now is the time to really flex that muscle because California and the Bay Area was very clear about what direction it wanted the country to go in. That’s the nice thing about checks and balances in our American form of government is that we can do a lot of things on our own.
Is it clear what might change because of this new administration or are you still processing that?
I think everybody is still processing. The President has said a lot of things on the campaign trail that we will see if they both will come true and if they even can come true. We are preparing ourselves, though, for the worst. We’re hoping for the best, preparing for the worst.
For example, we’ve done an inventory of all the federal funding we receive, and starting to talk about if these federal funds are cut off, where are other places where we could get support to continue these critical services.
But I’ll be very clear, we are not compromising our values and things like being a sanctuary city, being a city that welcomes and supports people of every nationality, every gender, every gender identity, every race. Those are things that are just part of the soul of Oakland. We will not compromise that.
You were one of the first to declare Oakland as a sanctuary city. Many other mayors have done the same. What does it mean?
I liken it to being a conscientious objector. It really is an American value that respects freedom. Cities have the right to say, “We are not going to cooperate. We’re not going to collect immigration status information in our libraries, or schools, or hospitals, or from our police department.”
That is our right to do that. We’re not breaking any laws, we’re just not collaborating, or supporting laws that we deem to be unjust.
In the face of potentially an angry, and some might argue, irrational executive branch pulling Federal funding, will you stand firm?
Again, it remains to be seen whether the executive branch can unilaterally pull this type of funding. A lot of it is formula funding, things like job training programs, Head Start, food for people that are poor, pretty basic stuff.
Other things are competitive, where there’s criteria, and if the city meets the criteria they should win the prize.
It seems that we may be setting up for an interesting test of polity, of where power is and how power is expressed. Cities in particular overwhelmingly voted for Clinton. What lessons have you drawn from that fact?
I don’t pretend to be a national political analyst. That’s not my expertise. But, I do know that worldwide, for the very first time, more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and that number is only expected to grow. I think it’s projected to be 70 percent by 2040. People are recognizing the importance of cities.
I’ve been very involved with climate change work, and there’s been a lot of worry about whether these national governments are willing to enter into these accords like we saw in Paris. But at the end of the day, national government felt comfortable because so many cities had already made their commitments to climate change protections.
When you have 70 percent of the world’s core emissions coming out of cities, if you can get every city to step forward, you almost don’t need national action. That’s what things like C40 are about.
I think you’re going to see a lot more city to city partnerships. Oakland is in partnership with a hundred cities in China around climate change goals and different things that they can do, so we’re bypassing national government, we’re talking to one another.
Trump has said climate change is a hoax. Does that send a chill down your spine?
It does. It sends more of an embarrassment chill down my spine. California’s governor Jerry Brown — a former mayor of Oakland — has been very clear that California is not slowing down in the slightest with regard to our role as leaders in the climate change discussions.
Again, Jerry was the one who started the Under 2 MOU, and this has kind of grown into the covenant of mayors. You have mayors from hundreds of cities, I think it’s about 114 different countries, that have all committed to very tangible improvements.
California is going to keep doing what’s it’s going to do, no matter what the President believes.
California is going to keep doing what’s it’s going to do, no matter what the President believes.
That kind of makes me feel better.
We were all just in shock on Election Day. We didn’t really celebrate what we should’ve celebrated, which were some incredible progressive victories in California, and in the Bay Area. California legalized recreational marijuana.
It made very progressive reforms to our Criminal Justice System, to gun control. It approved bilingual education locally. We approved billions, not millions, billions of dollars to improve public transportation, to build affordable housing, to give our teachers a raise.
These are great things that our voters did also on Election Day, and I feel stronger going into this administration, because of the incredible actions that our voters took on Election Day.
Let me pull back, and ask you, how you came to politics. How did you become the Mayor of Oakland? What was it that drove you into public service?
That’s always an interesting story for everyone. It’s very different. I’m born and raised in Oakland, and I have just been in love with my city my whole life.
I grew up with a mother who was very involved with the community, who’d drag me to park clean ups, and soup kitchens, and helping give out school supplies to kids in the new year, and just grew up with a love, and a deep feeling of connection with my city.
Now, my first real career was as an attorney. I was at the biggest law firm in Oakland at the time. I really felt that pull to public service. I was doing a lot of volunteer work, and I was getting frustrated that I really got my pleasure, and my meaning out of life in my volunteer work. I walked away from the law job, and took a job to start a centralized volunteer program for the Oakland public schools.
To this day, I still believe that giving every child a fantastic, free education, is the most valiant thing that we can do if we really want to lift up a city. Really, it was that change that led accidentally to my first job with the former President of the Oakland City Council. I was his staffer, then I became a staffer to then Mayor Jerry Brown, I was Director of Public Affairs for the Port, and one day I woke up, and said, “Well, I’ve been advising politicians, why don’t I run myself?”
When you became Mayor, did the last mayor leave an operating manual on the desk? What does a typical day in the mayor’s chair look like?
Well, I had worked for Jerry Brown when he was Mayor, so I had experienced it. Although, there’s no substitute for what’s it’s like when you’re in the role. I spend a lot of time telling Oakland’s story, which I love doing.
I spend a lot of time hustling for resources for my city. I’ve been very active in promoting something called the Oakland Promise, which is a very audacious goal to triple the number of Oakland students who graduate from college. Not just high school, college. That definitely requires some public-private partnership, and we’ve been very fortunate to get a lot of people excited about the way that we’re going about accomplishing this vision.
That’s a lot of what you do as Mayor, is really form those relationships. I work a lot with my regional partners, particularly Mayor Ed Lee in San Francisco, and Sam Liccardo in San Jose.
As we all in the Bay Area are grappling with this affordability crisis, we recognize that the solutions to our housing crisis, our transportation crisis is not just going to be in one city. It really does need to be approached on a regional level. Those are some of the things. I don’t get a lot of free time in my days. Generally, I have something scheduled every half hour, or hour, all day long. I work a lot of weekends and nights as well. That’s what I signed up for!
You sound like an entrepreneur.
Yeah. It’s like a start-up.
What has surprised you? Now you’ve been in the role a little bit of time, what were you like, “Wow. I did not think I’d be spending my time on this”?
I was so excited to become the Mayor at this moment. When I made the decision to run for Mayor, people thought I was crazy. I could see that we were coming into this cycle, where the possibility for Oakland to see some real revitalization, was possible.
I just couldn’t stand the idea of that passing Oakland by once again, because throughout my life — you know, I’m 51 years old — I have seen Oakland go through many cycles, and it seems like prosperity comes to the Bay Area, and somehow bypasses Oakland.
That was a huge motivator for me to run for Mayor, but I did not except for prosperity to come to Oakland as quickly, and almost violently [laughs] as it has. The increase in the cost of housing, the increase in our commercial rents has been head-spinning. It is definitely causing a lot of very understandable anxiety and fear in the longtime residents and businesses.
You said it was head-spinning. Tell me one story, one anecdote of when this got real for you. Was it when Uber decided to buy the Sears Building?
Yeah, Uber is the moment. I think that’s the moment that we’ll all talk about when Oakland changed.
What happened there, just in case the viewers don’t know?
Uber took what was an abandoned big department store. When I grew up, it was Capwell’s. It’s where I always bought my back to school clothes, then became Sears. Then Sears left. Some entrepreneurial developers bought it and they were rehabbing it as creative tech space.
We knew that they were pursuing potential tenants. But when we found out that Uber actually bought the building and was expanding their international headquarters to an Oakland location, again they still have buildings in San Francisco, it really did feel like, “Wow, we’ve made it.”
Uber is something of a Rashomon for tech right now. It has had an extraordinarily positive impact, but some some would also argue it has an extraordinarily negative impact. Do you stay away from those arguments and are just happy that 3,000 jobs have come to downtown Oakland?
Neither. My job is to lift up what’s good and control what’s bad, and try and create pressure and guidance to make sure that we maximize the positive impacts. It is absolutely true that whenever you have something that is so disruptive…Technology, it’s going to evolve. Things are going to get started. Technologies are going to get discovered. Is it our job to suppress that, or is it our job to guide it in a positive direction?
I say guide, because I don’t think you can suppress and I don’t think you want to suppress. I always say that my biggest challenge in this moment is you’ve got incredible energy coming into a place like Oakland. You have incredible energy with these new disruptive technologies and business models come in into the market.
How do you channel that energy so that it lifts up vulnerable populations, lifts up your core values as opposed to pushing them out? That is something that I think San Francisco has grappled with. I think Oakland is trying to learn some cautionary tales from what has happened in San Francisco and look at where are the good things in Uber, how can we work with Uber to lift up those things? I’ll give you example.
I’ve had opportunities to talk to Travis. Lot of people have a lot of opinions about him. One thing that I discovered that really resonated with me is he has a tremendous concern and compassion for formerly incarcerated people.
That is a value that I’m really excited to work with him on. That’s a value that we share and that I think a lot of Oaklanders really care about that population, have tremendous concerns about the effectiveness and really justice of our existing Criminal Justice System. That’s an area where I feel like we can work together.
Uber’s also a major employer of the type of person often targeted as the face of gentrification — people who work at a company like Uber have a six-figure salaries. But even they are having trouble finding a place to live and paying for that place to live. The people who are being pushed out certainly don’t have that kind of income. Have you worked with Uber on that question as well?
Absolutely. When Uber first announced that it was moving to Oakland, I sent them a letter that actually got fairly well publicized. “Dear Uber, welcome to Oakland. Now, help us preserve the magic that attracted you here to begin with.” They did not ask…They hinted around, but I made it very clear, I was not going to give them a tax break.
Unlike San Francisco’s mid-market tax zone, which was created to draw scores of companies to an area that was blighted.
Correct. It’s not just my thing. I worry that that’s the thing that is a race to the bottom for cities when you’re trying to incentivize people to move for reasons other than this is a good fit for them. But anyway, because I didn’t offer tax incentives, I didn’t have any formal leverage to get Uber to do anything. They paid market rate. They were not seeking any zoning variances, nothing.
But you can still use the bully pulpit to articulate what your expectations are and to be a resource to help execute those expectations. We did talk about what we call “techquity,” and this idea that Oakland can nurture a tech sector that is different, that does tech right, that harnesses that disruptive and creative energy not just to profit, but to actually improve society.
That is thoughtful both in creating an atmosphere that is inclusive and is going to help diversify the tech sector, which I think everybody admits needs some more diversity in it, as well as doing their part to create a pipeline for the future generations, to be prepared to take those six-figure salaries in tech companies.
I want my students in the Oakland public schools to be getting those jobs so they can stay in my city. They can continue to afford living in my city and work their way up the opportunity ladder in Oakland. There are other ways that a company like Uber can also be a good corporate citizen beyond the traditional organize some employee volunteer projects or cut a few checks to charity.
We’ve talked a lot about impact purchasing. One of my favorite stories about Uber is we introduce them to a coffee company in Oakland called Red Bay Coffee. They’re a workers collective, they’re a B-corp.
Again, their workers own the company. They hire almost exclusively formerly incarcerated workers. Lord knows, software engineers need to drink coffee.
It was a win-win, right? Uber needs coffee for their workers. We had a great coffee company in Oakland that also was a socially beneficial company. They love the coffee. They aren’t even waiting for them to move to Oakland. They entered into a contract with them now to supply their San Francisco offices.
Again, that’s my job to create that consciousness that this is a way that you can help by making more socially conscious purchasing decisions, and I’m going to introduce you to a company that could be good for you. I’m sure that NewCo companies, there are a lot of other relationships that we could form with them.
Oakland really stands out in the mix of companies that thrive there, they have a very strong sense of social benefit. Why is that?
I think it’s part of what Oakland stands for. Oakland has always been a city that values diversity and inclusion. A company is not going to feel comfortable if that’s not part of their value system also. Oakland has always been a city of artists, of tremendous creative energy. That’s one of the things that is drawing companies to Oakland because that talent gets nurtured.
Oakland’s always been a city with, I call it gritty authenticity. We have blue collar working class roots, but that is why we have so many makers and artisans. Then we are a city of progressive values, sometimes even protesting. But that scrappy intellectual freedom is also something that makes particularly creative, cutting edge companies feel very welcomed and energized.
But also knowing that this is going to be a community that is going to really support companies that have some sort of social benefit to them, some sort of social justice model that’s embedded in their company. We are demonstrating that profit and progressive values are not always in conflict, that they can exist together.
We are demonstrating that profit and progressive values are not always in conflict, that they can exist together.
I want to believe that Travis and his team were 100 percent thinking Oakland was the perfect fit for them because they have a social benefit and purpose at their core of what drives a company. A cynic might just argue Oakland was cheap. But when a company like Uber comes in, and you get a lot of people who want to live in Oakland, it gets expensive. How do you mitigate that through policy?
Yeah, it got expensive. That ship has sailed. Oakland had the fastest increase in cost of living relative to income of any city in America. That has not stopped.
How do you handle that?
Again, you do have to look at some regional solutions because what got us into this mess was not the action of one city alone. It’s that the entire Bay Area added half a million more jobs since 2000 and built only 54,000 new units of housing.
We have a supply and demand problem with our housing. That also has really taxed our infrastructure and transportation systems. People have been forced to move farther and farther away from the jobs because of that lack of housing.
You did see some local self-help on the ballot this November. Both the City of Oakland and the County of Alameda, our county, both pass significant bonds to build more affordable housing. In Oakland, I’m very focused on preventing displacement, so helping people who are currently living in Oakland remain in Oakland at rents they can’t afford.
We’re doing that through acquisition-rehab strategy. But that’s something that we can do and we just did do. Those two measures created overnight about $184 million for me to address affordable housing including housing for homeless, another growing problem in the Bay Area.
Absolutely. It’s the image of San Francisco, is the tent cities under freeways now.
Now, there’s some policy things, too. I stuck my neck out as a democrat. It’s always hard to come out against a position of organized labor and the Sierra club. But I actually was supportive of the governor’s proposal around making it easier for affordable housing to get developed in good transit-centered locations in the inner city.
In field development, transit-oriented development that has affordable housing built into it, we have to figure out a way to streamline that particularly beneficial type of housing so that we don’t have this production problem. That, either you want to call it sequel reform, you want to call it by-right development.
I think they need to find some new name for it. It didn’t make it to the legislature in the last session, but it started a conversation that’s critical for us to have because the cost of construction has gotten out of control. That’s hurting our ability to keep up with the demand.
Developers are capitalists. They want to make as much possible money as possible. It seems almost exclusively what’s going up are 30-story condominiums that start at $750,000 and go to $5 million dollars. Is that where you can tweak policy and say, “OK, you can develop that $200 million condominium complex, but you also have to build affordable housing”?
That’s another new policy that Oakland adopted just last year, impact fees. When those luxury condos get built, they are paying a fee that goes into our affordable housing development fund. That is part of how we’re making this all work.
But let me be clear, all development is good. We need development at every income level to address the problem that we have right now because if you don’t build that million dollar condo in Oakland, then that same person who was going to move into your condo is going to kick someone out of their cute Victorian house in West Oakland. That’s what I want to avoid.
I’m happy to create new housing at every income level. Again, the government is really focused on providing that new housing for our most vulnerable residents. That’s where we step in, as well as taking a little piece of that new development through these impact fees, but it’s all good. We need more housing at every income level.
Do you think we’re going to be able to solve this problem in the next 10 years?
It took us 16 years to get into this mess. It is going to take us a while to get out, but let’s be sure that we learn the lessons and put some things in place so that this doesn’t happen again.
I do think part of that is stronger regional planning and a stronger regional voice that looks at the totality of the jobs-housing balance and how the transportation systems are supporting them.
As well as just again, if you’re not making it cheaper, at least you’re creating more certainty and a faster timeline for housing development particularly if they are including affordable. Those are things that we can to.
How do you see yourself in 10 years, are you still in public service?
This is my hometown. This is the city I was born and raised in that I have been in love with all my life. It is my dream to make this city better. This is where my children are growing up. This is where my parents are aging.
I, at least right now, would love to have a second term. Most of a mayor’s agenda cannot be accomplished in just four years, so I’d love to have that eight years. That is the only thing I am focused on. I am doing this job like it is the last job I will have the rest of my life. That’s the only way you can be a mayor.
Join us for the NewCo Shift Forum, where 400 of the best minds in business, technology, and government will come together for two days of focused, action-oriented dialog. Taking place February 6–9 in San Francisco.