Oakland's Vacant Lot Tax Sowing Confusion 

Plus, progressive strife in Alameda, and Kaiser and unions reach tentative accord.

click to enlarge Parcels such as this empty lot in West Oakland could be taxed up to $6,000 per year.

Photo by Paul Haggard

Parcels such as this empty lot in West Oakland could be taxed up to $6,000 per year.

A lack of affordable housing and the appearance of unused properties and storefronts led Oaklanders last year to overwhelmingly approve Measure W, a special tax of up to $6,000 on vacant lots. But as the city administration continues to iron out details for how it plans to implement the new tax, property owners affected by the special tax said they remain unclear about the exact definition of a vacant lot.

Oakland has nearly 112,000 parcels of land. About 4 percent, or 4,366, are deemed vacant. Two-thirds are vacant land zoned for four units or less, according to city staff. In addition, more than half of the unused parcels belong to property owners who live outside of Oakland.

Measure W, approved by 70 percent of Oakland voters last November, is an annual special tax on vacant properties for 20 years. It intends to raise revenue for homeless services and affordable housing, while also giving property owners a financial incentive to develop properties in Oakland.

Under the implementation ordinance debated last week at the Oakland City Council Finance and Management Committee, a property is deemed vacant if it has been left unused for more than 50 days in a year. The tax rate is $6,000 for residential, non-residential, and undeveloped properties; and $3,000 for condos, duplexes, and town homes.

A large number of property owners contend that the vacant lot tax will be applied inequitably. The implementation ordinance is also unclear as to the definition of what constitutes a vacant lot. "I'm a property owner, maybe with a vacant parcel," Oakland property owner Bob Tuck told the committee. "It's hard to tell with the ordinance."

Nevertheless, city officials said they have made a significant public outreach effort through a series of public meetings, in addition to online engagement, making roughly 1,500 connections with residents.

Some property owners asked for a delay in implementing the ordinance. Doing so, at least past Nov. 11, would preclude the city from adding the new tax receipts for the 2021-22 budget cycle, according to the city.

The suggestion to postpone implementation of the vacant lot tax echoes Oakland's Measure AA parcel tax controversy from earlier this year, in which the city decided to hold off assessing the parcel tax while questions over the measure's legitimacy are determined by the courts. Councilmember Lynette McElahaney, the chair of the Finance and Management Committee, suggested postponement of Measure W could be a possibility.

However, the Measure W issue will remain in committee for tweaking through this month, she said, before passing the ordinance to the full city council for consideration in the fall.

Others expressed remorse for the plight of the city's homeless, but called the tax unfair. Linda Davenport, an owner of two properties in Oakland said, "I find this to be harassment, extortion, a violation of my civil rights, and discrimination."

Others advocated for carve outs in the ordinance. For example, providing exemptions for vacant properties in the wildfire-prone areas of the Oakland Hills. Councilmember Dan Kalb, a co-author of Measure W, urged city staff to study a possible exemption for areas abutting the city's rural areas. "That was not the intent of the original law," he said.

Addressing the large number of property owners describing utter confusion with the proposed ordinance, Kalb lamented, the city is unable to better inform them because the ordinance is not yet set in stone.

Nevertheless, McElhaney, reiterated her past opposition to Measure W, specifically, that it would be costly and sow confusion. In addition, flatlanders and older residents would be compelled to sell properties while more wealthy property owners could absorb the additional tax, said McElhaney, who chairs the Finance and Management Committee.


What's the beef between Oddie and Vella?

East Bay progressives are not a monolith. Far from it. From Berkeley to Fremont, they disagree often and wildly. The scene in Alameda has been different over the past year, where its city council is staunchly progressive and mostly on the same page.

But cracks in the relationship between two progressive Alameda councilmembers are beginning to show.

Councilmember Malia Vella recently appeared to suggest that her colleague Alameda Councilmember Jim Oddie's proposal for a town hall on gun violence was undermining the work of a group of Alameda gun control activists who are women.

"A lot to unpack there," Oddie said. "I think I was accused of ignoring the work that was done because it was done by women. I'm a little offended by that."

Vella immediately responded with an energetic and elongated, "Noooo!" to rebut she was making such an inference.

The root of the low-level beef between the two elected officials may stem from Oddie's decision last month to drop his request for the city to reimburse him for legal fees he incurred from the fire chief hiring scandal from two years ago.

Vella also has a pending request for the city to pay legal fees from the same incident. The fees run as high as $90,000. Oddie's decision shines more light on Vella's effort to recoup the money.

The exchange between the councilmembers came on the heels of Vella's comments in Alameda magazine this month that may have rankled Oddie. Vella slammed the Alameda County grand jury for determining that she, along with Oddie, violated the city charter. A prior investigation found only Oddie did so. But Vella also suggested she was being unfairly targeted by the grand jury because she is a woman of color.

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