Oakland mayoral candidates, from left to right: Ignacio De La Fuente, Treva Reid, Gregory Hodge, Loren Taylor, Allyssa Victory Villanueva, Sheng Thao, Seneca Scott, and Peter Liu. Credit: Amir Aziz

Better listening skills. A greater ability to balance the demands of constituents in a complex city. Learning to speak Spanish. And not sweating the details too much.

Those were some of the answers a few candidates running for Oakland mayor gave when asked about areas for personal improvement at a forum last night hosted by the Center for Elders’ Independence, Lifelong Medical Care, and other groups.

Held in the Laney College Theater, which was packed with seniors and other Oakland residents of all ages, eight of the ten candidates attended and sat on stage together. They were peppered with questions from KTVU’s LaMonica Peters and KQED’s Brian Watt.

They showed off a wide range of experiences and visions for the city, underscoring just how crucial this year’s election is. But as with the handful of other forums that have been convened so far, the candidates were given very little time to answer questions, resulting in mostly brief answers that scratched the surface of complex topics like the housing crisis and gun violence.

Helpful as it was, the forum was a reminder that the next two months will be an intense race among the candidates to distinguish themselves from the pack.

Homelessness and affordable housing

Attendees of the forum included elders and other Oakland residents. Credit: Amir Aziz

Asked if they believe we have a “real affordable housing” crisis, Treva Reid, who is currently the District 7 councilmember, answered yes and said she’s worked through her office to promote affordable housing development and policies to make housing more affordable. She also noted she used to be a board member of the developer Satellite Affordable Housing.

Dressed in desert military camo fatigues, Peter Liu said he doesn’t believe there’s an affordable housing crisis. A self-described millionaire businessman and landlord, Liu said the real problem is that people need to be taught how to become rich so they can afford housing.

Other candidates were asked what they would do to prevent seniors from becoming homeless, particularly because of the deadly effects losing housing can have on elders.

District 4 Councilmember Sheng Thao said one of her big plans—if elected—is to establish an infrastructure finance district that could raise millions in revenue to match with affordable housing developers to ramp up homebuilding for vulnerable groups. She added that thinks “more city-owned parcels should be designated for affordable housing.”

Ignacio De La Fuente, a former District 5 councilmember, said he thinks the solutions involve teaming the public sector up with the private sector to build more housing.

Stopping homelessness before it starts would be Gregory Hodge’s approach. The candidate, a social entrepreneur, attorney, and consultant, said he would implement programs to identify extremely low-income seniors and provide them with housing support and access to various services to keep them housed. He also said that existing mechanisms to acquire and preserve affordable housing deserve more resources, including land trusts, and that Oakland should pass a tenant opportunity to purchase act, or TOPA, to give renters a chance to buy their buildings.

Allysa Victory shares her ideas. Credit: Amir Aziz

Similarly, biomedical engineer-turned District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor said it’s crucial to look at the factors that cause seniors to become homeless. In addition to adding more subsidized housing, he would offer legal services to prevent elders from being “taken advantage of.” Taylor said he’d find ways to pour more money into the city’s existing affordable housing fund by making its spending more efficient and pursuing more partnerships with other organizations.  

Allyssa Victory Villanueva, a civil rights attorney who recently fought and won her way onto the ballot, noted that she was homeless when she was young. She’s a renter, and her rent is going up soon. She said she’d use the emergency powers a mayor has to push the city to use its public lands for more affordable housing and also pursue the idea of a public bank to finance more development rather than “managing Band-aid shelters.”

West Oakland resident and entertainment company founder Seneca Scott said that before we can help we have to stop the problem of homelessness from growing. He criticized the city’s current leadership for “spinning our wheels and allowing people to come here” to live in tents on the streets. He said homelessness must be “triaged” and the city needs to enact its encampment management plan, a policy that defines when and how the city closes or serves camps. Eschewing the term affordable housing, Scott said Oakland needs “accessible housing,” and the city should do more to encourage developers to build here. He thinks the eviction moratorium is one possible deterrent for developers, however.

Crime and violence

Gregory Hodge answers a question. Credit: Amir Aziz

What can the next mayor do to prevent gun violence and crime, problems many residents rank among their biggest concerns?

Liu said Oakland needs a police chief who will “issue concealed carry permits like candy” so that anyone who wants to carry a hidden gun around can do so. That way “criminals” won’t be the only people with guns.

De La Fuente said this would be his top priority. “We want to promise everything, and I don’t think we can,” he said when asked about whether he would work to create or increase funding for an affordable housing trust fund. “My priority is to keep the city safe.” He said he would “set a tone” to deter crime. “Oakland is not a place for you to come and do whatever you want to do.”

He added that he thinks Oakland needs additional police officers and new technologies to fight crime.

Surveillance cameras and more officers are things Reid said she’d pursue as mayor. “Our seniors are terrorized,” she said about the level of crime in Oakland. In addition to more police academies to grow OPD’s ranks and foot patrols, she said she also supports strong funding for the Department of Violence Prevention, which uses civilian violence interrupters and life coaches to try to prevent violent crime.

Hodge said he thinks Oakland still needs to do more to “reimagine public safety” and that what the city needs now more than fear and fury over issues like crime and violence is a “sense of hope.” He said he would make sure the Department of Violence Prevention is “financed in the same way we finance OPD” and that he feels the department needs a budget of about $50 million, which would be a roughly $30 million increase over its current budget. “We need police officers focused on the most serious situations,” he said, which includes solving murders.

Violence is a “boiling point” in Oakland, Taylor said. He worries that the policy pendulum may have swung too far in the direction of non-law enforcement solutions and that he agrees with De La Fuente on the need for enforcement, but the city must also be careful not to swing back too far to where innovative new non-police safety programs are neglected.

The abundance of guns in Oakland is driving the violence, said Victory. She mentioned gun buybacks as one way to address shootings and would ensure that MACRO, the city’s non-police emergency response program, and violence-prevention services are well-funded.

Public safety is also one of Thao’s top priorities, she said. She would invest more in the MACRO program, and she held up her vote in favor of providing the Department of Violence Prevention with an $18 million budget this year as proof that she’ll continue giving that agency robust resources. She also wants to see more enforcement of traffic laws. And she believes paid youth internships could support youth who might otherwise be caught up in violence.

Scott criticized the city, saying its 911 system is broken and that calls aren’t responded to by officers in a timely manner. He also said “burned vehicles” sit for too long on the streets creating a nuisance. “Forget broken windows; we got burned-out-car theory in Oakland,” he said, referring to the controversial theory that relatively small things like graffiti and litter signal a breakdown of norms that encourages violent crime. OPD needs 900 officers to deal with crime, he said. (It currently has 683.)

Who should seniors trust to be mayor?

From left, Seneca Scott, Ignacio De La Fuente, and Peter Liu take a selfie following the mayoral candidate forum at Laney College. Credit: Amir Aziz

De La Fuente said his 20 years on City Council show he can be trusted. “You have got to look in people’s past to see what they’re going to do in the future.”

“Trust should be earned,” said Hodge. He said his roles as a minister, former OUSD school board member, and consensus builder matter.

Taylor and Victory both noted that they were raised in Oakland and have deep roots here.

Thao urged the audience to look into each candidate’s record. Hers, she said, is one of bringing disparate groups together in coalition.

But it was Liu who offered the most tangible reason for seniors to ponder. One of his campaign promises is to build a “giant water slide” at Lake Merritt and bring “unique theme parks and attractions” to parks across Oakland. 

Seniors will get a senior discount on admission, he said.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham worked with The Appeal, where he was an investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian, and was an enterprise reporter for the East Bay Express. BondGraham's work has also appeared with KQED, ProPublica and other leading national and local outlets. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017.