Fruitvale Village, where more affordable housing is being built, is next to a BART station and bus lines. Credit: Pete Rosos

Oakland’s District 5 covers a diverse portion of the city, stretching from the estuary and industrial Jingletown neighborhood at its southern tip all the way to Glenview, an affluent neighborhood of single-family homes nestled around Park Boulevard above the 580 freeway. 

In between is Fruitvale, one of Oakland’s largest and densest neighborhoods—a hub of Latinx culture and immigrant-owned small businesses. Each area of District 5 has distinct needs depending on who you talk to longtime homeowners, renters, small business owners, recent immigrants, and new residents drawn to Oakland by the Bay Area’s tech economy are all part of its makeup. 

The Oaklandside spoke to District 5 residents about what they’d like to see their next councilmember prioritize. Issues topping their lists include pedestrian safety; getting Oaklanders more involved in local elections and city government; support for small businesses during the pandemic; and homelessness and renter protections, especially once the temporary city and county eviction moratoriums are lifted.

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More engagement needed—from residents and elected officials

Cynthia Elliott has lived in Jingletown for over two decades. She currently rents a live-work loft, a type of dwelling that’s common in this neighborhood, tucked between I-880, the Park Street Bridge, Fruitvale Avenue, and the estuary. Elliott, a community activist, is mindful of how Jingletown’s makeup—the neighborhood has long been a haven for working-class artists—has shifted over the last decade with the arrival of newly constructed, market-rate housing catering to young professionals who are often new to the area. Elliott is a board member on Fruitvale Unity NCPC (Oakland’s neighborhood crime prevention councils) and a founding member of the Jingletown Arts and Business Community. 

In Elliot’s experience, renters and condo owners on her side of Jingletown, which she described as the “gentrified area,” are less civically engaged and community-minded as longtime residents living on the opposite end of the neighborhood, many of whom are people of color.

When incumbent councilmember, Noel Gallo asked Elliott to help him gather the signatures he needed to be on the November ballot, she sought out newer residents to find out how much they knew about local politics. “I would ask if they were registered voters and if they said yes, then I would ask them if they knew who their councilmember was—and they would say no,” said Elliot. She added that she is happy to see two other candidates running against Gallo this year.

Lack of political engagement has been a problem for years in District 5. When Viola Gonzales ran for council in 2016, she said, D5 “had the lowest voter turnout of all districts.” This year, Elliott is hoping voters in her district won’t be further dissuaded by the pandemic, and will exercise their right to vote however they feel is the safest. Oakland and all of California offer mail-in voting this year, which many hope will help more people participate in the election.

Whoever ends up representing District 5 next year, said Elliot, they’ll need to have a firm grasp on the area’s divergent needs. What matters to newer and more affluent residents, said Elliot, won’t necessarily matter to “Spanish-speaking constituents who are business owners.” Neither, she said, will owners of single-family homes in residential Glenview have much in common with voters in Jingletown.

A view of Chapman Street in the industrial Jingletown neighborhood, where longtime residents live alongside newcomers. Credit: Pete Rosos

Dima Zaytsev is one of Jingletown’s newer residents. He moved from Michigan to Oakland in February, right before the pandemic started. Zaytsev said he “had no idea about Oakland’s city politics” before moving here, but that he’s since become interested in what city officials are doing to address some of the issues he sees. Zaytsev’s main concern is homelessness, which he said has been exacerbated due to the lack of affordable housing. He said many homeless residents are camped out along the Bay Trail and the park is often strewn with trash and hazards like hypodermic needles.

Zaytsev said newer D5 residents like himself won’t be so quick to throw their support behind established candidates, including current D5 representative Gallo. “Residents are not so beholden to incumbents,” he said. “People here are not going to vote for the same guy just because he’s been the one who has been there for years. If people are not happy, they are going to look elsewhere.”

Pedestrian and bicyclist safety still a concern

Melina Leon was born and raised in Oakland and became a resident of District 5 when she bought a property on a side street off of 35th Avenue six years ago. She said she is generally displeased with the city’s services. “Nothing is working,” she said. 

Leon, a mother of two, said her biggest concern is vehicles speeding along 35th Avenue. At least three pedestrians have been killed by drivers on 35th in the last two years, including a nine-year-old girl hit by a speeding SVU, a bicyclist struck by a speeding van off Galindo Street, and a pedestrian who was trying to cross the street on Brookdale Avenue. 

According to the Mercury News, Oakland received a $2.7 million federal grant in 2018 to make improvements along 35th, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. Leon doesn’t see the added crosswalks and pedestrian signals making much of a difference. “These people [who speed] don’t care,” she said. “We need traffic lights or at least more stops. People take 35th like a freeway.” 

Leon hopes whoever represents District 5 going forward will be more engaged in street safety. “Walk around the neighborhood, see where you can apply funds to where it’s needed,” she said. 

Sergio Romano, a resident of Fruitvale, shared his concerns surrounding traffic safety with El Tímpano and The Oaklandside. “[Some] people don’t respect the red curbside, the driveways, the speed limit,” Romano wrote. “They don’t respect pedestrians or people who are on wheelchairs.”

In January 2019, a teenager was the victim of a hit-and-run on 35th. The 14-year-old was struck near the Fruitvale BART Station as he was riding his bike and dragged for four blocks. He suffered major injuries to his head and legs. In June, an elderly woman was struck at the corner International Boulevard and Fruitvale when the driver of a pick-up truck failed to yield to the pedestrian as she was crossing the street. 

35th Avenue isn’t the only corridor that residents of District 5 complain about. Foothill Boulevard, which is split between District 2 and District 5, is also a concern. In 2019, there were two fatal hit-and-runs six months apart. In April, a mother and her six-year-old were struck and killed at the intersection of 26th Avenue and Foothill while crossing the street. The driver was eventually apprehended. In October, another fatal hit-and-run occurred at 22nd Avenue and Foothill in which a woman and a four-year-old child were crossing the street. The woman lost her life, and the child survived. 

In response, Oakland’s Department of Transportation has completed some “rapid response” safety upgrades. On Foothill, “hardened center lines” were installed where the fatal hit-and-runs had occurred. In 2019, the Department of Transportation also upgraded 66 freeway underpasses with brighter LED lighting, completed 9 school walk audits, and upgraded 200 school crosswalks, among other improvements. 

Leon says this is not enough, and that many streets in the Fruitvale remain very unsafe for pedestrians and bike riders. “What is going to happen when drivers speeding still don’t respect lit up or brighter crosswalks?” 

Housing costs are an issue for all

Richard Clarke, a Glenview resident since 1971, wants his councilmember to be more visible across the entire district. Clarke said councilmembers should visit neighborhoods and check-in with businesses and residents frequently.

Clarke, who owns his home, acknowledges that the needs of most Glenview residents vastly differ from those of residents in the flatlands, including most of the Fruitvale and Jingletown. “Compared to the other issues that the city has, we don’t have any problems, in my opinion,” he said. 

Nevertheless, Clarke said the rising cost of housing is a problem all Oakland residents, no matter what district or neighborhood they reside in, have to face. “Longtime residents can’t afford to buy anymore,” he said. In 1959, Clarke’s family built a home in Montclair for $22,000—an amount that equals roughly $200,000 in today’s dollars, adjusting for inflation. “You can’t even remodel a bathroom for $22,000,” Clarke said. 

The most important thing the council can do, said Clarke, is to make sure more affordable housing is built and that more green manufacturing jobs are created. He doesn’t see the current City Council addressing these issues to the extent he thinks is necessary.

“None of them are doing a good job, they can’t make tough decisions,” Clarke said. “Some local politicians have other political aspirations, and they have nothing to do with Oakland.”

Behind the Home Depot near High Street in what used to be a homeless encampment. Credit: Pete Rosos

The city has added some affordable housing to the district in recent years. Last December, the new affordable housing complex Casa Arabella opened next to Fruitvale’s BART station. The project is part of the larger Fruitvale Village transit-oriented development, meant to provide affordable homes next to BART and bus transportation. Casa Arabella was developed by the nonprofit affordable housing builder East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC) in partnership with the Unity Council, a nonprofit that provides social equity to communities of color and small businesses in Fruitvale. 

Soon, the Unity Council will break ground on another phase of the Casa Arabella project. This expansion will be in partnership with the nonprofit developer BRIDGE Housing and will provide 181 affordable housing units with an additional 7,500 square-feet of affordable commercial retail space. 

Other nonprofits aren’t waiting on city officials to help create affordable housing. The Oakland Community Land Trust is working to sustain and preserve affordable housing, including in the Fruitvale. The nonprofit owns two buildings in District 5, one on 23rd Avenue and another on East 27th and Fruitvale. The land trust purchases properties and ensures that they will remain affordable in perpetuity by keeping rental prices low.

Renters also worry about what will happen once the city eviction moratorium is lifted. Renters in Alameda County are protected from eviction until at least 2021, but some have reported problems with their landlords, according to tenant attorneys.

Reetu Mody, tenants’ rights managing attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza, a nonprofit legal services firm located in Fruitvale, said she is seeing a rise in cases of landlord harassment and retaliation against tenants who haven’t been able to pay rent during the pandemic. Some landlords are taking photos (outside of the properties), getting tenants’ vehicles impounded, and turning off utilities, said Mody. She is also seeing landlords use loopholes to evict tenants despite local pandemic-driven eviction moratoriums. 

Mody said the City Council can act now to provide long-lasting aid. “We could ask the City Council to talk to PG&E, talk to EBMUD, and say, ‘Look, there can be no electricity or water shut-off in Oakland in the next eight months.’ We need a rent or debt cancellation program for the city of Oakland.” 

“We are starting to hear more and more the fear of, ‘Where will we go?’” Mody added, about of tenants reaching out to Centro Legal seeking legal advice.

Solutions for Fruitvale’s small immigrant-owned businesses

Along the Foothill and International Boulevard corridors in Fruitvale, scores of small business owners are struggling to stay in business.

In April, we spoke to Maria Sanchez, a program manager at The Unity Council, about the needs and concerns of Fruitvale merchants in the early days of the pandemic. The Unity Council provides support to over 350 local businesses through its Fruitvale Business Improvement District.

We reached out to Sanchez again to find out how the neighborhood’s business owners are faring, and what they’re hoping the next D5 councilmember will do to help. Six months into the pandemic, she said, two businesses have shut down completely: La Casita, a small restaurant on Foothill Boulevard, and Bonanza Hardware store on International Boulevard.

While the closure of two local businesses may not seem like a lot, Sanchez said many Fruitvale business owners are trying to navigate multiple disasters at once: the pandemic, the aftermath of protests, and now the wildfires and even worse air quality. “It’s been one issue on top of another,” she said.

Masks, vests, and other clothing outside a clothing store on International Boulevard in East Oakland. Credit: Pete Rosos

The Unity Council has been connecting with local business owners virtually and over the phone, said Sanchez. In early August, the organization hosted a training on rent negotiation for its small business members. The idea was to help shop owners avoid being evicted for not paying their rent.

Sanchez hopes that whoever represents District 5 next year viable solutions to protect local businesses from going bankrupt or being evicted. “Local businesses are the heart of this community,” she said. “There’s lots of diversity. They enrich the culture of Fruitvale.”

On Nov. 3, District 5 voters will choose between three candidates vying to represent them on the Oakland City Council: Noel Gallo, Zoe Lopez-Meraz, and Richard Santos Raya. We’ll be taking a closer look at all three candidates and what they have to say about D5’s challenges in the weeks ahead.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.