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Two political newcomers, engineer Tri Ngo and Steph Dominguez Walton, who has a background in broadcast media, are running against Councilmember Dan Kalb, who was first elected in 2012 and worked in the environmental field before that.
While the three candidates share similar—though hardly identical—views on urgent issues like homelessness, housing, and policing, they each told The Oaklandside that they’re the only person with the experience, energy, or integrity for the job.
Kalb said there was never any question whether he’d run again, as “there’s more work to do.” He has a track record of writing laws to support tenants, hold police accountable, and prepare District 1 for emergencies like wildfires, he said. Kalb added that he knows his way around a complicated budget—a skill that’s critical if unglamorous—and that he is more concerned with “solving problems” than “balancing competing interests.”
Walton said more voices of District 1 constituents need to be heard, and she’s the “responsive leader” that residents are begging for. The 2016 election was a turning point for Walton, who, as a Mexican-American with activist parents, was terrified of a future under President Trump. “If we don’t have a local government that’s hard-working and active, we’re going to be screwed,” she remembers thinking. She quit her job working in business development at CBS to campaign—for herself and other local politicians like Assemblymember Buffy Wicks. She also worked in real estate.
Ngo views City Hall as suffering from a lack of accountability and believes he’s North Oakland’s only shot at an uncompromised representative. A centerpiece of his campaign is his self-imposed donation limit of $35, a figure he landed on because it’s an amount most people can afford, and low enough that voters will understand he isn’t beholden to any special interest, he said. If elected, he also wants to set up an online feedback platform and go door to door so residents can weigh in on “every vote I make on council.”
Ngo, who was born in a Vietnamese refugee camp, grew up in Philadelphia, went to MIT, and moved to the Bay Area for work six years ago, said a lack of local political experience can actually be a strength in an Oakland race.
“I think it’s important to look at results instead of credentials,” he said. “We have homelessness that has increased 50%. People who’ve been in office a long time have gotten us those results.”
How should Oakland address growing homelessness?
Oakland’s District 1 borders Berkeley to the north, Emeryville to the west and West MacArthur Boulevard to the south. It includes Rockridge and the northern Oakland hills, which extend above the UC Berkeley campus. The district includes some of Oakland’s most expensive neighborhoods with multi-million dollar mansions, as well as historically low-income and Black flatland neighborhoods that are now too pricey for many longtime residents to afford. Unhoused people crowd in tents and RVs under many North Oakland freeways and by parks.
“Homeless residents don’t have a representative in local government,” said Ngo, who noted that many are people who used to be housed in Oakland. He calls the estimated 4,000 unhoused people in the city a “finite problem” that can be solved with his ambitious plan for moving people out of tents and into stable situations. First, “provide sanitation and infrastructure,” including WiFi, at the camps, he said. “Don’t tell me we don’t have money for it. People don’t need that much to be rooted where they are.” Then the city should move people into “semi-permanent” housing, relying on private and non-profit support to provide a range of social services during two-year stays, he said.
In the meantime, Oakland should not be in the practice of clearing out encampments, he said. If housed residents complained heavily about a specific camp, Ngo said he’d engage with them, but in order to close a camp “you’d really have to convince me.”
Walton and Kalb said major funding shortfalls complicate the sort of comprehensive, rapid housing plan Ngo has pitched.
Walton said she’d work closely with “people outside of the city and county,” saying the California Department of Transportation, which owns local freeway-adjacent land where encampments are set up, needs to help support those residents in moving somewhere safer. “Our hands are tied at this point if we have a major earthquake and an onramp collapses,” she said.
Walton wouldn’t disband an encampment if there’s nowhere else for residents to live. The city should provide more sites for people to live in cars and trailers, she said, and ramp up mental-health and addiction services.
On a personal note, Walton said she’s been sober for 20 years, and that she was headed toward housing instability herself: “People need to be supported when coming out of dismal life circumstances like that.”
Kalb said he’s repeatedly pushed for more trash pick-ups and safety measures at camps—services he said are welcomed by unhoused and housed residents alike. “I got a little more money into the last budget for that, but it’s still not enough,” he said. Kalb agreed that the city must offer alternative options if camps are closed—in fact, that’s the law under a 2019 9th Circuit Appeals Court ruling—but said he has less tolerance for those who refuse shelter and want to stay in a tent.
“It’s not okay that people turn down options for a roof. That’s not a good reason to keep an encampment open,” he said.
These tensions came to a head a couple months ago at Driver Plaza, the tiny triangular park in the Santa Fe neighborhood. Unhoused people and activists who use the park regularly accused Kalb and city staff of trying to remove a portable toilet they’d bought for the site.
Kalb said his actions were misunderstood—that he was merely requesting the portable toilet be moved to a more needy area, as “Driver Plaza is not a homeless encampment.”
Ngo said that controversy was an example of the city thwarting, instead of encouraging, outside support for the homeless population.
“Why are you doing that? People are literally throwing money at the problem,” he said.
Upzone Rockridge? Stop evictions?
What about preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place?
Kalb was a co-author of Oakland’s eviction moratorium, considered among the strongest COVID-19 tenant protections in the state. He’s authored several other tenant protection laws in recent years and in the process he’s drawn strong opposition from the real estate industry and landlord groups.
“No one can argue that I haven’t been a steadfast, active supporter of tenants, to prevent displacement and make sure no one’s gouged out,” Kalb said. The councilmember wrote Oakland’s Tenant Protection Ordinance in 2014, which makes forms of landlord harassment illegal. He also wrote the law strengthening Oakland’s limits on converting apartments to condos, to preserve affordable rental homes.
All three candidates said they support Oakland’s ongoing eviction moratorium, and all said they’d pursue relief for property owners who might rely on rent payments as well, to avoid another foreclosure crisis.
In recent years, Oakland’s development landscape has changed tremendously, noted Kalb. “Five or six years ago, there was almost nothing being built,” he said. “But demand was so ridiculously high. Whatever someone thinks about that, we ‘succeeded’ in getting more buildings built to meet the housing demand. Now, the urgency for more market-rate housing is not the same as it was. I don’t feel that extra push from the city is needed anymore, and our focus should be an even greater emphasis on below-market housing.”
Oakland has exceeded self-imposed and regional targets for housing construction, but fallen far short of affordability goals.
Some neighborhoods in District 1, like Rockridge and the hills, have seen disproportionately little development of any kind.
“We need to focus on affordable housing near the conveniences that people who live in Rockridge and Temescal have access to,” Walton said. “I have no problem with building up on College [Avenue]. We talk about building on top of BART and people freak out. Fine, don’t build parking; BART’s right below. We need to get a little more forceful, guiding people in that direction.”
Kalb said he’s been meeting with residents for a couple years around rezoning blocks within a half-mile of BART to allow taller buildings. He said he supports the idea but would rely on community input, and said the change wouldn’t majorly affect current residents: “We’re not going to tear down your home.”
Walton also supports changing zoning rules to allow homeowners in single-family-only areas of Rockridge to “subdivide” their properties and build another unit if they want. The city already permits the construction of “accessory dwelling units,” small buildings in backyards. Walton’s family recently built a cottage for her mother-in-law on her property, and said that sort of easy home construction should be “fostered.”
Ngo said he supports zoning that would permit more density in general, but “missing middle” construction like cottages are what’s needed most. Crucial community members like teachers wouldn’t qualify for subsidized housing, but can’t afford Oakland’s million-dollar homes, he said. The city should loosen regulations to allow smaller developers, not just powerful corporations, to build in Oakland, he said.
One proposed development project could test the candidates’ stances on a number of these issues. With California College of the Arts consolidating its operations at its San Francisco campus, developers are proposing building hundreds of units at the Rockridge site. The exact proposal is ever-evolving but has included 10% below-market-rate units, or less. Neighbors’ views break down into polarized but common categories: some want ample new housing, some want more affordability, and some say the project’s out of character with its surroundings and the site’s history.
“We need to build as much as possible there,” said Ngo.
Walton’s in support of housing at CCA too, but “would like to see more affordable” units. She said she has “visions” for a housing and retail complex at the lot next door, too.
“I’m sorry to see the college go, but it does make sense to have some housing at this location,” said Kalb, who supports the highest number of units proposed. “The architectural facade is very important to me, and I want to make sure it fits into the neighborhood. But you can’t let that desire stop density from happening—those are two different things.”
Kalb was also instrumental in the recent deal to buy a separate, existing CCA dorm and turn it into housing for homeless seniors and families. That plan was supported by his council colleagues, but hinges on Oakland receiving an emergency grant from the state.
One candidate has experience working in housing herself. Walton said she got a real estate license after she quit her job, to contribute to the family income, but wanted to exclusively help Oakland renters buy their first homes. She said she stepped back from the work after six months since the “intense job” didn’t give her time to campaign. Her LinkedIn profile indicates that she also previously worked as a mortgage advisor for three years.
Walton didn’t mention the real estate experience on an Oaklandside candidate questionnaire, and when asked why, she said, “People love to come at you for whatever they can. But it’s a blip on the screen.” Of her time working in media, she said, “My career was built in a male-dominated industry. I rose through the ranks and am very proud of my time in that industry, especially as a new mom.”
They all want to cut OPD’s budget. But by how much, and where?
In conversations with The Oaklandside, D1 voters said they’re paying close attention to candidates’ stances on policing and safety.
During city budget discussions this summer, Kalb was among the minority of City Council members who favored larger, immediate cuts to the Oakland Police Department. His colleagues who were more modest in their proposals prevailed, though Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas went even further than Kalb, proposing a $25 million reduction to his and Councilmember Sheng Thao’s $17 million. The council eventually voted to establish a task force to look into “reimagining public safety” by possibly cutting or reallocating 50% of OPD’s budget in the future.
“The dollars were there,” said Kalb of his $17 million proposal, whereas “to have cut $25 million immediately would have eviscerated so much overtime, resulting in dramatically lengthened 911 response times for calls for service all over town.” He said he supports the “aspirational goal” of replacing police with civilian responders in many cases, but not for serious violent incidents like shootings or sexual assaults. Crime has declined significantly in D1 since Kalb first entered office, he noted, but “it’s still a serious problem.”
“At the same time, I’ve been a leader on pushing for strong police accountability and oversight, and a stronger Police Commission,” he said. Kalb is the co-author of a measure on the 2020 ballot to make that commission more independent, and he co-authored the 2016 ballot measure that created the Police Commission.
Walton said she supported Bas’ $25 million cut.
“Smartly shrinking the police department, and taking it out of some mental health calls and fender-benders—those are not jobs we need to put police on,” she said.
Walton said the city should invest more in people and preventive programs like education and health. She’s volunteered in Oakland Unified schools, planning job fairs for families, advocating for the reinstatement of a meal program that was cut, and delivering lunches during the pandemic.
Ngo also favors prevention over punishment, he said. “We’re too focused on catching people and throwing them into jail, while many have substance issues,” he said. “For clearing encampments, let’s not send so many armed officers.”
On the budget-cut controversy, Ngo said, “I support any number that’s a drastic change. But I do not support eliminating the police—that just doesn’t make any sense to me. There are violent people out there we need to be prepared for,” he said. “Police have a hard job. The majority of people who go into it have their heart in the right place.” Oakland should stop overworking its cops, he said, and have them connect with community members, like through a school mentorship program.
Across all city positions, however, Ngo wants to temporarily reduce top salaries. From the fire chief to City Hall staffers, nobody should be making more than $125,000 currently, he said.
With the city staring down a major deficit, people “need to make sacrifices,” he said.
Wildfires and representation
While housing, homelessness, and policing are all issues dominating debates across Oakland, District 1 has a somewhat unique problem. Along with D4, which includes Montclair, North Oakland contains forested hills that are prone to wildfires.
“This is imminent,” said Walton, who proposed more rigorous fire inspections of hills houses, possibly creating new non-firefighter jobs in the department.
At 36, Ngo said he’s the candidate young enough to connect with a demographic that might not take emergency preparedness as seriously, and that doesn’t remember the devastating 1991 Berkeley-Oakland firestorm.
“It’s something I’ve been working on since my first year in office,” Kalb said. That year, Kalb tried to renew a ballot measure taxing fire-prone properties to support prevention work, but the effort failed by a handful of votes. “The city is doing the best it can” with staff and grazing goats, he said, but he still favors generating more revenue from the hills to boost that work.
The area at risk of catching fire is actually a relatively small patch of D1, but it includes many of the city’s wealthiest and most powerful residents.
“I think the loudest voices, and the voices who’ve been heard, are Rockridge and hills voices,” said Walton, who lives in Rockridge herself but is critical of how the neighborhood can dominate debates about policy issues. “Because with money comes, ‘I’ll return those calls.’ But D1 is really diverse.”
All three candidates pledged to represent the entire district, though they said there are challenges campaigning in times of social distance that make reaching out to voters more difficult.
Two years ago, Kalb ran to represent not only North Oakland’s neighborhoods, but a larger chunk of the East Bay too, as a State Assemblyperson. (Buffy Wicks ultimately won.) Kalb said he’ll stick out all four years in Oakland if he wins a third term, but didn’t rule out running for other offices after that.
Ngo said it’s his enthusiasm about Oakland—where he moved after spending a “hot minute” in San Francisco six years ago—that prompted him to run for council.
“I just fell in love,” he said.