Nikki Fortunato Bas, left, and Harold Lowe address voters at a Chinatown candidates forum in September 2022. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Oakland’s District 2 is at the geographic center of the city—and events there have also been at the center of citywide discussions around public safety, policing, and homelessness.

For four years, D2, which includes Chinatown, Eastlake, Little Saigon, San Antonio, Grand Lake, and Trestle Glen, has been represented by Nikki Fortunato Bas, the current City Council president. Harold Lowe, a financial planner, is challenging her in this year’s election. 

Both Bas and Lowe have lived in the district for roughly 25 years, and Lowe was born and raised in Oakland. But they disagree in many ways about how to address the most pressing issues facing their neighbors. Lowe isn’t shy about criticizing Bas. Bas says she’s proud of what she accomplished in her first term and has plans for a second. 

We interviewed both candidates and examined their work and public statements to get a sense of their priorities, what they see as working well and poorly in D2, and how they might lead if elected in November.

Nikki Fortunato Bas

Council President Bas says she’s “just as frustrated” with conditions in her district as her constituents are.

During Bas’ first term, anti-Asian hate crimes have risen nationally, and residents of Chinatown and Little Saigon have become increasingly concerned about incidents of violence and robberies in their neighborhoods. Bas’ approach to crisis response is tailoring policies and programs to the solutions desired by the group affected, she said in an interview. 

In Chinatown, “what I did was collaborate to ensure that the police had a greater presence, which was what the community called for,” she said. “And I’ve been working in partnership with organizations like Asian Health Services to really understand where are the specific blocks or intersections where people feel less safe.” The neighborhood also has new “community ambassadors” patrolling.

The response in Little Saigon, where dentist Lili Xu was killed last month during a robbery, has been similar, she said, including more police and a Vietnamese-speaking officer. Bas said she’s pursuing other resources like Chinatown has, including an OPD substation, deeper funding of the Clinton Park Rec Center, and more community events. 

“That’s coupled with acknowledging that we need much more improved city services, and that goes for Chinatown and all of our neighborhoods,” she said. “We’ve been focusing on trash, illegal dumping, graffiti, better lighting, and improving the parking situation.”

Despite the role of police in Bas’ work in these neighborhoods, she’s not in support of increasing OPD staffing—at least not just for the sake of boosting the number. Instead, she’d like to see the department’s focus shift more to violent crime and away from non-emergencies, which currently make up a majority of 911 call responses. Meanwhile, the department has fallen below the national average rate for solving homicides, she noted.

After proposing bigger cuts to OPD in 2020, Bas voted for a city budget in 2021 that maintained police funding but invested more in alternatives—mainly MACRO, which is the fire department’s new emergency response program, and the Department of Violence Prevention, which uses unarmed civilians to deescalate violence.

Oakland Chinatown’s Pacific Renaissance Plaza. Credit: Amir Aziz

On the housing front, Bas belongs to a group of officials promoting the concept of “public land for public good.” The main subject of this effort for Bas has been a large city-owned parcel on E. 12th Street. While a plan to sell the land to a developer for a market-rate housing tower and smaller affordable building was delayed many times, a homeless camp grew on the site. Bas, a critic of the development plan, spearheaded a temporary shelter program there and, once the City Council canceled the development deal, successfully pursued plans for two fully-affordable buildings on the site.

Bas’ district is also home to one of Oakland’s largest homeless camps, at the E. 12th Street median, which the city is in the process of shutting down. Bas facilitated a partnership with Lao Family Community Development, which is connecting several residents to housing and shelter. However, others said they were devastated to see the city demolish the homes they’d built without offering them accommodations where they feel comfortable.

If re-elected, Bas said she’d pursue a stronger relationship with the county to provide better mental health care to unhoused residents. She also mentioned modular housing and more RV sites as options that are more habitable than temporary shelters but easier to build than standard apartments.

But “with the resources we are putting into homelessness, we need accountability and results,” said Bas, who called for an audit that ended up exposing shortcomings in the city’s spending and systems.

Bas’ name won’t be her only mark on the November ballot. She also wrote the progressive business tax measure, which would tax large companies at higher rates than small businesses.

“It’s not fair for a mom-and-pop grocer to pay the same level of taxes as a multinational grocer, like Amazon, who owns Whole Foods,” she said. “This would help Oakland raise tens of millions of dollars for core city services.”

A central challenge as an elected official, Bas said, is balancing long-term work to address the root causes of Oakland’s problems with changes to the immediate conditions impacting residents’ daily lives. This tension is on display on E. 15th Street, where increases in sex work and trafficking have horrified neighbors. 

Bas said she called for a report that led to changes, such as a heavier police focus on clients and exploiters instead of sex workers and trafficked children. Prior to the pandemic, she facilitated meetings with organizations working with survivors.

“But it has been really challenging for the residents to see a visible change,” she acknowledged.

Bas said she’s eager to continue her work, complicated as it is due to national and global crises. 

“In addition to rising anti-Asian hate and the murder of George Floyd, which sparked a national uprising and racial reckoning, the economy went south,” she said. “But at the end of the day, despite how challenging things are for all of Oakland…I do feel like in my first term, I have made progress with a community that I have been committed to serving.”

Harold Lowe

“I’m in this race because you’re not safe,” Lowe told Chinatown residents at a neighborhood candidates forum this month.

The financial planner and consultant blames the city’s current leadership for violence, crime, rising homelessness, and unclean conditions in the district. In an interview, Lowe said he wasn’t planning to run until he saw that Bas wouldn’t otherwise have a challenger.

“They’ve given you carte blanche to do whatever you want in Oakland—it’s a wild, wild west,” he said of Oakland’s City Council. 

During the pandemic, conditions have collided around Lake Merritt, where a controversy arose about noise levels, vendors, crowds, and some violent incidents. Lowe said that rules for visitors and vendors were too loose.

“We have policies that say we’re just going to let people hang out in the midst of the pandemic. We’re going to let people party because it makes them feel good,” he said. During a Juneteenth celebration by the lake in 2021, a shooting linked to gangs in San Francisco left several people injured and one dead. 

“You look at the level of violence when everybody’s invited to show up and nobody has restrictions,” Lowe said. 

Residents play soccer at San Antonio Park. Credit: Amir Aziz

Bas and other city leaders have responded to concerns around the lake by instating new programs for vendors, traffic, and parking enforcement, but Lowe said the city should look at relocating vendors altogether, to parks in less residential areas.

To address crime, Lowe said he trusts Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong’s assertions that more officers are needed. He supports an oft-referenced target of 900 officers, compared to the current authorized staffing level of 737. The actual number of officers currently employed by the city is 681.

Lowe has also criticized the city’s approach to homelessness, saying it’s inhumane to leave people on the streets, in harm’s way, with smoky and rainy months likely approaching. However, he said the vast majority of Oakland residents are also “being held hostage” by encampments, which should be “removed.” 

“You certainly can’t have people living in parks, next to schools, and next to senior citizens’ places, or next to thoroughfares,” he said. “We have to be able to say, ‘We understand that for a variety of reasons you’ve lost the place where you’re living, and we want to give you an opportunity, but you can’t live here now. You cannot decide where you want to go.” 

He noted that a large portion of the homeless population is struggling with mental illness, and said, “Is it rational to let a mentally ill person decide where they want to live?”

Lowe suggested the shuttered county jail on 7th Street downtown could be used for homeless housing, and said the city should be more proactive about repurposing existing development. 

However, he criticized Bas’ focus on affordable housing in general, and specifically her approach to the E. 12th Street parcel. 

“African American developers were going to build mixed-use housing,” he said, referring to UrbanCore’s plan for a market-rate tower alongside a smaller, affordable building. After repeated delays and missed deadlines, Bas and the council canceled UrbanCore’sdeal and brought in developers who say they’ll build 100% affordable housing. 

“Building low-income housing is just a euphemism for concentrated poverty,” Lowe said. “It really looks like we’re making a permanent underclass.” He believes clustering low-income residents together constitutes segregation and will make it harder for families to escape poverty.

He’s also concerned about the city’s emergency eviction moratorium that was passed to keep people housed during the pandemic. He believes it is making it hard for smaller-scale landlords to kick out tenants who are engaged in unsafe behavior or skipping out on rent, although the policy has an exception for safety threats.

Lowe said he views most of Oakland’s biggest problems—crime and homelessness, especially—as being rooted in a lack of economic development. He pointed to San Antonio as a neighborhood in need of investment and more retail. He worries that big businesses stay away from Oakland because of safety issues and red tape, and criticized the progressive business tax ballot measure that would raise taxes on larger corporations while keeping them the same or lowering them for small businesses.

In turn, this dearth of big business could lead to few jobs and poorer employment training opportunities, leaving residents desperate and hopeless, and causing them to turn to crime, said Lowe.

“The policies that we’ve implemented for many years aren’t going to do it,” he said, “so I figured that I needed to put my hat in the ring.”

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.