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Living wage fight explodes in East Oakland

The proposed site for the new development.

If you want to hire a worker in Oakland, you’re going to have to pay a little bit more these days. At the beginning of the month, Measure FF, overwhelming approved by voters last November, finally became law. It raises Oakland’s minimum wage to $12.25 an hour.

But Oakland is a little bit different from Seattle, San Francisco, and dozens of other cities that passed minimum wage hikes last year. It already has a living wage ordinance on the books that requires employers benefitting from city subsidies to pay $14.10 an hour.

The livingwage become a subject of debate last month when Sid Afshar, CEO of Sunfield Development, a company attempting to revitalize a decrepit stretch of land at Seminary Avenue and Foothill Boulevard in East Oakland, asked for an exemption at the site. In 2013, the city handed over $6 million in federal tax credits to get Sunfield to invest in the site. Afshar told the city council he was asking for the waiver to get Walgreens, his anchor tenant, to come on board.

“We’ve had several bursts of real estate development, but this area has been completely neglected, and I don’t see why,” Afshar says. “We’ve got police presence there, we have strong neighborhood communities, everybody loves where they live.”

Afshar’s waiver went before Oakland’s Economic Development Committee, which unanimously approved the exemption. But, in retrospect, says committee member Rebecca Kaplan, they didn’t need to.

“It was entirely a miscommunication, around the question of whether Walgreens would open under the minimum wage law or the living wage ordinance, and due to the miscommunication, there was a belief that Walgreens would only come under the Measure FF ordinance,”  says Kaplan. “That turned out to be incorrect information, so there will be no proposal moving forward.”

Walgreens dropped the issue after that vote caused protest in the community, arguing that it never really wanted a waiver. But advocacy groups think the exemption set a bad precedent for the city.

“I think we, as a community, need to stay vigilant so that minimum wage and living wage policies are respected,” says Jennifer Lin of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy. “Because what’s to keep the city from looking the other way when Walgreens or McDonalds or any other corporation is found in violation of the minimum wage.”

In Oakland it’s a big concern. The law impacts about a quarter of Oakland workers.  And even though the minimum wage increase has already passed, implementation remains an unknown.

Right now, because of Measure FF, Oakland has the highest minimum wage in the country. But that’s still not enough for most people to cover their rent: the median price for a one-bedroom rental in Oakland right now is $2,932 a month, more than double the cost in San Diego.

Does two dollars an hour make much of a difference to people who live near the proposed development at Seminary and Foothill? It remains a topic of debate.

“I don’t think two dollars makes that much of a difference to us here in this neighborhood,” says Ken Jermon, a construction worker. “Just to have an opportunity to be employed in this neighborhood, whether it’s 12 or 14. A lot of us have been in a position where we’ve made zero dollars. So 12 is tremendous.”

That feeling is not universal. Paula Blackwell, who lives nearby, thinks Oakland’s laws should stay consistent.

“Any time you’re getting more, it’s always better. Anytime, I don’t care where you go.” Blackwell says. “And 14 dollars is nothing - not with the way the economy is today. It’s nothing. So these people, they’re making money off of it, and 14 dollars is not gonna kill them, is it?”

No, it won’t kill them. But will it keep them from coming?

Crosscurrents OaklandAudio Academy