Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf speaking at her final state of the city address on Oct. 19, 2022 at Casa Arabella in Fruitvale. Credit: David Meza

Following a mariachi band and a land acknowledgment by Confederated Villages of Lisjan representative Corrina Gould, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf gave her last state of the city speech to supporters in the courtyard of the Casa Arabella housing complex Wednesday night.

Termed out of office, the outgoing mayor used the occasion to honor Arabella Martinez, the founder and former CEO of the Unity Council, the Fruitvale nonprofit that led efforts to develop Casa Arabella, which broke ground in 2018, and the larger Fruitvale Transit Village to which it belongs.

Schaaf said her journey of public service began in 1999 as an aide to then-Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente. Working for the District 5 representative, Schaaf met Martinez when the Unity Council CEO was organizing the community against BART’s plans to build a hulking parking garage on an empty lot in the heart of Fruitvale. The cold multi-level structure would have catered to suburban and hills commuters and faced away from the existing commercial corridor.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf honored Unity Council founder and former CEO Arabella Martinez at the state of the city address on Oct. 19, 2022. Credit: David Meza

“Talk about a badass,” Schaaf said of Martinez, who helped scuttle BART’s plans. Later, with De La Fuente and others, Martinez laid plans for the transit village of housing, shops, and public courtyards, which has become a national model of equitable community development.

This experience, 12 years before she would be elected to City Council to represent District 4’s hills neighborhoods, and 16 years before she became mayor, taught Schaaf “the power of partnerships” between the private sector and local government, she said.

Violence and homelessness: sorting through the numbers

Switching to the present, Schaaf acknowledged Oakland’s current troubles. Last year was the deadliest since 2006, with 124 murders. This year’s homicide numbers—which the mayor called “heartbreaking”—are disturbingly on track to match 2021. And Oakland saw an explosion in its homeless population during Schaaf’s tenure. In 2015, just over 2,000 people lived on the streets or in shelters, but this increased 150% to over 5,000 today. Other problems like illegal dumping, potholes, and property crime are daily headaches for many residents.

Under her administration, Schaaf said the city experienced five years of unprecedented peace in which shootings and homicides steadily declined. She attributed the progress to Ceasefire, a program that uses police and civilian violence interrupters to focus on the small number of individuals driving gun violence. Ceasefire was disrupted by the pandemic and leadership changes in the police department and mayor’s office. But Schaaf said she has “confidence this partnership will adjust to the post-pandemic conditions and return our city to a state of peace.”

Regarding homelessness, Schaaf said that when she became mayor, the city had no overarching strategy to deal with the crisis. Over eight years, she said, she pushed the city to build a coherent plan.

Under her leadership, Oakland quadrupled its shelter capacity, said Schaaf, adding new programs like the Community Cabins that are now used by other cities. “We had to build the crisis response ship as we sailed it,” she said.

“Data suggests that many of our efforts are making progress,” she said, noting that the number of homeless people living in tents or without any kind of shelter on sidewalks and streets has decreased by about 16% over the past few years. “I know it doesn’t seem like that,” she told her audience. One reason encampments haven’t grown, she explained, is because many more homeless residents are now living in vehicles.

Schaaf chose Casa Arabella’s courtyard for her final state of the city speech, saying it symbolized where she began her public service in Oakland. Credit: David Meza

A mixed record on new housing

Schaaf’s administration excelled at building some forms of new housing. She said Oakland is “on track to meet or exceed” all of the goals her housing cabinet drafted in its 17K Plan, which called for building 17,000 new housing units and protecting 17,000 low-income households from displacement through a variety of programs.

“Boy did we blow away our goal of producing 17,000 new homes,” the mayor said. A chart showing that Oakland built nearly 20,000 homes during her time in office was displayed on screens next to the stage. “This is the biggest housing boom Oakland has ever had since the 1906 earthquake.”

The majority of this housing is market-rate, however, and Oakland hasn’t met its goals in building affordable housing. Schaaf has acknowledged the slow pace of affordable housing construction, which requires enormous resources from the city, and last night she urged attendees to vote for Measure U, an infrastructure bond on this year’s ballot that would raise $850 million, including $350 million for affordable housing.

Wielding private funds for public goals

The outgoing mayor also took the opportunity to highlight the public-private partnerships that have been keystones of her eight years in office. More than previous mayors, Schaaf has tapped private foundations, corporations, and wealthy individuals to fund her priorities, rather than going through City Council and the city budget.

She held up the Oakland Fund for Public Innovation as one such partnership that will continue to provide the city with new ideas and resources. Among other things, the nonprofit raised $5.7 million for a COVID-19 relief fund, and it launched a “Shallow Subsidies Housing Pilot Project” that is assisting 200 households in paying rent to prevent their displacement.

Other public-private partnerships Schaaf created or helped fundraise for included the Community Cabins program, which was originally funded by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Kaiser Permanente; Oakland Undivided, which raised $13 million to provide OUSD students with computers and wifi hotspots during the pandemic school shutdowns; Oakland Resilient Families, a pilot program that is providing a guaranteed income of $500 per month to 600 families; and Teachers Rooted in Oakland, a program to recruit and retain teachers.

“Public-private partnerships show us what is possible and scale it up and institutionalize it in government,” Schaaf said.

The mayor closed her speech by describing her biggest public-private partnership, the Oakland Promise, a nonprofit created in 2016. Schaaf has raised millions for Oakland Promise’s education programs, which include college savings accounts for children of low-income Oakland families and college scholarships for high school graduates. The crowning achievement of the program, said Schaaf, is the $50 million fund she announced in August that will serve tens of thousands of Oakland youth with savings accounts and scholarships.

What’s next for Schaaf? No clues in final “state of city” address

Schaaf gave no hints last night as to what her next job could be. Some have speculated she’ll run for state or federal office. Others believe she might take a position leading a foundation or nonprofit.

When Schaaf steps down in January, a new mayor will inherit a city with deeply entrenched problems and a restive constituency. According to a new Chamber of Commerce poll, 64% of residents think the city is on the wrong track—the highest number since 2010 and the second highest since 1997, when the chamber began surveying residents’ attitudes.

But Schaaf said she believes her administration laid the groundwork for progress and that things will get better.

“We are on the path to Oakland’s best future,” she said.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. 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. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.