Designing Community-Informed Public Lands Policy: Lessons Learned in Oakland

 In Great News

Community advocates are increasingly calling on city governments to enact public lands policies for public good. The intention is for public land – parcels held by cities or other government entities – to be used to create broad social benefits and address community needs. Vacant land in the Bay Area is expensive and in short supply and the housing crisis is extreme. One solution is for governments to place restrictions on the public land they hold, such as prioritizing affordable housing development or green space preservation, to create powerful community benefits.

Over the past several years the Oakland Citywide Anti-Displacement Network (CWN), which includes East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO), Public Advocates, and others, worked with the city to design a new ordinance to inform how Oakland sells and leases public land. The CWN and city staff met regularly to craft a policy recommendation requiring (1) a transparent community process and (2) that the resulting development is public-serving as defined by the community, in this case by maximizing affordable housing, providing good jobs, and prioritizing environmental health.

In December 2018 the City Council adopted a resolution to establish a framework for a public lands policy. Although the decision has not yet become law, much can be learned from the process thus far.  Our friends and partners at EBHO shared the following best practices for housing justice advocates and other groups working with cities to develop community-informed public lands policies.

Identify distrust and foster respect using an inside/outside strategy.Relationships between the community and the government might be fractured, and distrust can run deep. Dedicate time to relationship and trust-building that gets stakeholders on the same page. An inside/outside strategy that emphasizes working with divergent political positions can be a useful framework.

Bring in a facilitator or backbone entity. Developing community-informed policy is a complicated process. A neutral third party can translate difficult moments into learning opportunities by helping to navigate challenging conversations, highlight areas of agreement and disagreement, and identify when and who to bring in for additional support, such as economic consultants. A facilitator also manages the overall process by scheduling meetings, preparing notes and agendas, compiling relevant documents, and organizing participants.

Push for bold solutions, but ground them in research and understand tradeoffs. Community groups and cities might both agree that a problem exists but diverge on the appropriate solution. Do not limit yourself to the city’s definition of feasibility. Advocate for visionary ideas, but present them in a way that resonates with governments. Prepare clear, technical solutions supported by hard data gathered through economic analysis or similar processes.

Maintain energy after a major milestone. Once success is achieved advocates can feel burnt out, but the fight is not over. It takes additional energy to maintain momentum, such as codifying newly passed resolutions into law. Consider ways to sustain capacity and hold lawmakers accountable to their promises.

Recognize progress and celebrate wins, big and small.The journey can feel long and exhausting, and the result might not be all you’d hoped for– false starts and last-minute amendments are common. Despite these challenges, advocates should give themselves credit, hold up any progress they have made, and set aside time to celebrate the organizing that got them there, without which nothing would have happened.

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