Three Year Window For Nonviolent Felons To Change Records – and Lives

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News Report,  Nancy DeVille

In the months since California voters approved an initiative that reduces penalties for some crimes, the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s office has been busy trying to reach tens of thousands of local residents who are eligible to have their felonies downgraded to a misdemeanor. And, with only a three-year window for convicted felons to apply under the proposition, time is paramount.

“We are concerned that people in the community who have prior convictions might miss out if they don’t realize it and don’t file a petition within the three years,” said Ellen McDonnell, a Contra Costa County public defender. “Unfortunately we’re probably not going to be able to reach all of them.

Since last November, when the law was passed and went into effect, over 500 petitions in Contra Costa County have been granted for relief under Proposition 47. That number includes people who were released early from prison or county jail, those who were on felony probation but not in custody and those who had a prior conviction reduced to a misdemeanor.

It’s a start, but McDonnell estimates there are probably 50,000 formerly incarcerated people throughout the county with prior felony convictions who also qualify to have them reduced or overturned. She says getting the word out to that population isn’t easy.

“We’ve worked through the bulk of people that are in custody and now we are working on resentencing for individuals that are on probation,” McDonnell said. “We’ve had a pretty steady stream of phone calls, but I know there are tens of thousands of people that should be calling us.”

Proposition 47, also known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, changes crimes like drug possession and petty theft charges from felonies to misdemeanors. Including the following offenses when less than $950 is involved: shoplifting, check and credit fraud, forgery, theft and possession of stolen goods. Those with histories of violence or sex offenses are ineligible for the lighter sentences. People eligible for resentencing or reclassification must file applications by Nov. 5, 2017.

McDonnell says the public defender’s office is doing regular outreach throughout the county by speaking to various community groups, attending the monthly community homeless court and reaching out to case managers at local agencies that offer support to newly released inmates.

“For a lot of people going to court in the past has been a negative experience, so they have a lot of anxiety,” McDonnell said. “But the nice thing about Prop 47 is people just need to call us and don’t have to come to court or pay anything. And doing this can really have a positive impact on their future.”

Barry Krisberg, a criminologist at U.C. Berkeley, says he’d like to see more resources allocated to make people aware of the program.

“The problem with getting the word out to people with prior felony convictions is significant,” he said.

“If we were being true to the spirit of the law, there would be public education campaigns sponsored by the state and many additional resources given to public defenders to help in these petitions,” he added.

In addition to offering opportunities for lessened sentences, millions of dollars—saved from the associated expenses of imprisoning people for longer sentences—will be sent to local communities to support mental health and substance abuse, truancy and crime victims assistance and rehabilitation programs. A process, Krisberg says, that requires just as much oversight.

“We’re going to have to watch very closely that the state board of corrections delivers the funds in a timely fashion and then it’s going to be up to each county to make sure the money gets spent consistent with the voters’ wishes,” he said.

Residents in Contra Costa County with questions about Prop 47, can contact Ellen McDonnell, Contra Costa County Deputy Public Defender, at 925-335-8075 or prop47@pd.cccounty.us.

Q&A: Mayor Tom Butt and the Search for Richmond’s Bright Future

Interview • Vernon Whitmore and Malcolm Marshall

Editor’s Note: Richmond Mayor Tom Butt spoke to Chamber of Commerce Chair Vernon Whitmore and Richmond Pulse Publisher Malcolm Marshall about rebranding the city, working with the Richmond Progressive Alliance and creating a culture of expectation for young people in Richmond.

Vernon Whitmore: I was at a meeting with [California state] Senator Loni Hancock (D-9), and she asked me, “You know, Tom [Butt] is an entrepreneur, always running the show. How does he like being a mayor, working with the city staff and with elected officials?” Different ballgame? Fun?

Mayor Tom Butt: Well, I mean it’s not like I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve been doing it for 20 years along with continuing to work in my business, which I’m also doing. But it’s getting a little dicey.

I have a great staff here and they’re doing a great job and they really do most of the work for me. I’ve served on regional boards and commissions for several years, far more than anybody else on the Richmond City Council, and through that I get to know a lot of elected officials from other cities.

The short answer is that it’s kind of like what I’ve been doing, but I’ve got more help, I’ve got more resources, I’ve got more clout — so it’s just better.

VW: How is your relationship with the Richmond Progressive Alliance now that you’re mayor?

TB: Well, you know, I really appreciate the support I’ve gotten from the council members who are part of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. Over the years, without their support I would not have been able to do a lot of the initiatives that I’ve been able to do. I also vote with them on public policy issues almost all the time. There are a very few areas where we have diverged, and one of them right now is rent control and just cause [for eviction].

But from my standpoint, there’s no major schism going on here. No animosity or anything like that. But they believe strongly in what they believe in, and I think the city needs to go a different direction and I’m going to advocate for that, but at the end of the day I would like to think that I get along with them fine.

VW: That’s a good segue into this whole housing issue and the debate around just cause for eviction. How do you see this whole thing playing out?

TB: I’m sorry to say I think it’s going to play out where we’re going to have rent control and just cause. I just think that’s what’s going to happen eventually. But I’m going to take it on for as long as I can. From a practical standpoint, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have just cause unless you have rent control… Just cause is kind of the camel’s nose under the tent, and then when that’s done you do rent control and then you’ve got the whole nine yards. I just think it’s the wrong thing for Richmond right now. There are a lot of existing laws that protect renters from being abused by landlords. If anything, I would like to make sure that people have access to the legal resources they need to make sure that they are able to enjoy the rights they have as renters. And maybe there’s some way we can help with that.

But I think the thing that scares me the most is that there’s been no market-rate housing built in Richmond for well over a decade, and I think we need to build up our housing stock, we need to build up Richmond — and just cause and rent control turns those people off. They’re just going to go somewhere else.

VW: Next, let’s talk a little bit about this campaign that you’ve launched, to rebrand Richmond and improve the city’s image.

TB: When I interviewed over at [TV station] KRON-4 the other day, the interview started out something like, “Well of course everybody thinks of Richmond as being all crime and blight, but you’re out to change that, right?” Which is like, I rest my case!

I think that if we’re going to see Richmond come into its own, we’ve got to use every tool in the tool box, and one of them is dealing with our image and the perception people have of us, and trying to get that to a place where it’s the best it can be. And nobody’s going to do it for us. For me it’s like a business decision. If you’re in business, you’ve got to go out and market your business. I mean, unless you’re lucky enough to be some business that you’re the only person in the world that can do that and you’ve just got to fight people off, you’ve got to go market your business.

I’ve been marketing my business now for 40 years, and I do it every day. And I think if you’re a city, you’ve got to do the same thing.

Malcolm Marshall: What would you like Richmond to symbolize to the rest of the country? At one time it was known as the murder capital of the United States. What’s the image now, and what should it be?

TB: You know what? If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be collecting $100,000 to go through the process. We need to go through this process, we need to find out what the facts are, we need to find out what people’s image is of Richmond and what people’s perceptions [are] all over the Bay Area. And we need to break it down by different groups of people — bankers and developers and media and all the people. So that’s the first part of it.

The second part is deciding how we want people to think of us. And it’s not my decision. I think it’s a decision that ultimately has to be made by the City Council, and it’s a decision that a lot of people in Richmond want to have some input into.

MM: In the coming years, where do you expect to see more opportunity for young people living in Richmond, and what kind of future would a 16- to 21 year-old have if they stay in Richmond?

TB: I think any young person’s future is largely determined by the extent to which they embrace and avail themselves of educational opportunities. And that’s why I was so excited about doing this Richmond Promise program. I mean, you’ve heard this before, but it’s not so much about providing a scholarship so somebody can go to college. It’s about creating a culture of expectation, where college or some kind of higher education is something that kids just expect. They don’t look at it, “Will I be able to go to college, should I go to college, am I smart enough to go to college.” It ought to be something where when kids start kindergarten or first grade, they’re told, “You’re smart enough to do anything you want to do, and one way or another you’ll be provided with the means to get there.”

Black Families on Front Lines of Displacement in Richmond

News Report, Edgardo Cervano-Soto

 

Richmond resident J.C. Farr, 72, remembers the days black families populated his neighborhood in Richmond’s Southside. Walking through Booker T. Anderson Park, Farr points to a house where a black family used to live. It was sold, gutted and flipped by another owner, he says.

“We have people who come in and buy a house, renovate it, put in about $30,000 and leave with $200,000,” says Farr. “I tell everybody, ‘Don’t sell your house. Rent it. Make the money. You still own it and it’s part of you.’ But no, they sell it.”

This traditionally black neighborhood is changing as more Latino, Asian and white families move in. There is more diversity, Farr says, but he’s worried that with the way things are going, South Richmond will no longer be familiar to him.

Richmond’s black population dropped by a striking 35 percent between 2000 and 2013.

A study released in February by UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society found that the black population of Richmond fell from 35,300 in 2000 to 22,800 in 2013. During the same period, the Latino population nearly doubled to 42,600, while the Asian and Pacific Islander population grew from 12,500 to 15,800.

The study found that Richmond is in the early stages of gentrification, as neighborhoods in the Iron Triangle, North and East, North Richmond, the Richmond Annex and Southside are seeing housing prices rise. These are the same neighborhoods that have seen a decline in the black population.

However, the study did not explore why black families are leaving Richmond.

“The Census data only tells you where people are at, specifically at the time. It doesn’t tell you where they moved to or why they moved,” explains Eli Moore, researcher and one of the authors of the study.

In order to identify the reasons for the decline, Moore says the city and community of Richmond need to engage in a serious effort – either through community forums, workshops or funding more research — to find out whether the black population is leaving Richmond for greater opportunities or if they are leaving because of pressures they face in the city.

‘It’s deja vu’

Anne Omura, director and attorney of the Eviction Defense Center, says 100 percent of her clients who are evicted from their homes in Richmond are low-income black and Latino residents.

A housing rights attorney for over 20 years, Omura says the same pattern she saw in Oakland, particularly the displacement of low-income black households, is about to intensify in Richmond.

“It’s deja vu from the late ‘90s during the dot-com boom, when all of a sudden we went from regular clients to a grandmother walking in with a 30-day notice when they have lived 40 years in the home,” says Omura. “We are seeing the exact same ingredients in Richmond. All low-income folks being evicted from Richmond are African American and are being priced out largely because there is no rent control there.”

Unlike some other Bay Area cities – including San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Hayward, Fremont, East Palo Alto and San Jose – Richmond does not have rent control.

Nearly half of Richmond’s residents are renters, many of them low-income. According to the Haas Institute study, nearly 49 percent of Richmond households are renter occupied. That figure is as high as 80 percent in North Richmond, central and south Richmond. Among renters, more than one-third (37 percent, or about 6,740 households) earn less than $35,000 annually and spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

According to Omura, this leaves low-income renters, including many black families, more vulnerable.
“With a large working class base, why is Richmond behind other major cities? Why isn’t there rent control? They have those protections; why don’t we? Its about fairness, and the fundamental right that you shouldn’t just be able to lose your home,” says Omura. “Richmond would be on top of my list [in establishing rent control].”

‘There is no affordable housing in Richmond’

Stephanie Hervey, 42, a single mother of two teenagers and former North Richmond resident, was evicted from her home in May 2014. She and her children have been homeless and staying with friends until they can find housing in Richmond.

“For two bedrooms, there is no affordable housing in Richmond that we can find, that does not have a one year waiting list,” says Hervey. “And these are in not the best neighborhoods.”

Beginning in January 2014, Hervey was in dispute with her landlord for what she claimed were poor and unsafe housing conditions. She said the landlord did not fix home utilities and let pit bulls run into her space. Hervey was evicted by the Richmond Superior Court after a second hearing when, according to the judge, Hervey didn’t pay her complete rent.

Hervey says in order to find a home in Richmond, she and her family will have to share with other people. Yet her biggest challenge has been finding potential housemates who have good credit.

“It could be that I’m not looking in the right places,” says Hervey.

‘Once poor people are evicted, it’s really hard to stay’

Melvin Willis, community organizer at the Richmond chapter of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), sees a need for a just cause eviction ordinance and a rent control policy in Richmond.

“With things changing in Richmond, crime going down, new business in the market, it makes it seem that Richmond is thriving. Yet as rent goes up significantly, we have not seen an increase in living wages, which unintentionally forces people out,” says Willis.

“We want to work together and make sure we have rent control and just cause eviction so vulnerable tenants are not displaced, and so landlords are not allowed to jack up the rent as much as they want,” he says.

In January 2013, the Richmond City Council debated stricter just cause eviction protections, and establishing rent stabilization and a rent control board. According to a report by Richmond Confidential, the City Council did not vote on these, opting instead to allow the Planning Division to take all of 2013 to research eviction and demographic data, and the cost of maintaining a rent control board.

On Feb. 17 of this year, the City Council passed a motion for city staff to convene a working group to bring the Council clear policy recommendations or a draft ordinance. According to City Council minutes, the motion directs staff to “establish a Just Cause requirement for evictions and consider the use of a Rent Board or a smaller Tenant Protection Commission.” The staff has until mid-May to give their recommendations.

But for Mayor Tom Butt, rent control addresses the symptoms, not the root cause of the problem.

“I think it’s a solution that sounds really simple to people but by and large it doesn’t work,” said Mayor Butt in a phone interview. “I don’t think a day goes by that you don’t read about the housing crisis in San Francisco and Oakland and Berkeley.”

Instead, Mayor Butt advocates “attracting business, job developers and building affordable housing are the way to go.”

“Rent control and just cause ordinances just scare the hell out of housing developers,” he said. “It could turn around and bite Richmond.”

Meanwhile, Omura of the Eviction Defense Center says that whether the City Council passes an ordinance, residents organize a ballot measure, or the city pursues other methods, Richmond has to act now.

“In Oakland, we failed the first time to place [rent control] on the ballot, but succeeded the second time. But that only stopped the bleeding,” she says. “So much damage had been done, entire neighborhoods wiped out. Once poor people are evicted, it’s really hard to stay.”

For Hervey, who has been homeless for a year now, the future remains uncertain.

“I want to stay in Richmond,” Hervey says, “because Richmond is really about change. I have established roots here and I don’t want to throw it all away.”

Black Families on Front Lines of Displacement in Richmond

News Report, Edgardo Cervano-Soto

Richmond resident J.C. Farr, 72, remembers the days black families populated his neighborhood in Richmond’s Southside. Walking through Booker T. Anderson Park, Farr points to a house where a black family used to live. It was sold, gutted and flipped by another owner, he says.

“We have people who come in and buy a house, renovate it, put in about $30,000 and leave with $200,000,” says Farr. “I tell everybody, ‘Don’t sell your house. Rent it. Make the money. You still own it and it’s part of you.’ But no, they sell it.”

This traditionally black neighborhood is changing as more Latino, Asian and white families move in. There is more diversity, Farr says, but he’s worried that with the way things are going, South Richmond will no longer be familiar to him.

Richmond’s black population dropped by a striking 35 percent between 2000 and 2013.

A study released in February by UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society found that the black population of Richmond fell from 35,300 in 2000 to 22,800 in 2013. During the same period, the Latino population nearly doubled to 42,600, while the Asian and Pacific Islander population grew from 12,500 to 15,800.

The study found that Richmond is in the early stages of gentrification, as neighborhoods in the Iron Triangle, North and East, North Richmond, the Richmond Annex and Southside are seeing housing prices rise. These are the same neighborhoods that have seen a decline in the black population.

However, the study did not explore why black families are leaving Richmond.

“The Census data only tells you where people are at, specifically at the time. It doesn’t tell you where they moved to or why they moved,” explains Eli Moore, researcher and one of the authors of the study.

In order to identify the reasons for the decline, Moore says the city and community of Richmond need to engage in a serious effort – either through community forums, workshops or funding more research — to find out whether the black population is leaving Richmond for greater opportunities or if they are leaving because of pressures they face in the city.

‘It’s deja vu’

Anne Omura, director and attorney of the Eviction Defense Center, says 100 percent of her clients who are evicted from their homes in Richmond are low-income black and Latino residents.

A housing rights attorney for over 20 years, Omura says the same pattern she saw in Oakland, particularly the displacement of low-income black households, is about to intensify in Richmond.

“It’s deja vu from the late ‘90s during the dot-com boom, when all of a sudden we went from regular clients to a grandmother walking in with a 30-day notice when they have lived 40 years in the home,” says Omura. “We are seeing the exact same ingredients in Richmond. All low-income folks being evicted from Richmond are African American and are being priced out largely because there is no rent control there.”

Unlike some other Bay Area cities – including San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Hayward, Fremont, East Palo Alto and San Jose – Richmond does not have rent control.

Nearly half of Richmond’s residents are renters, many of them low-income. According to the Haas Institute study, nearly 49 percent of Richmond households are renter occupied. That figure is as high as 80 percent in North Richmond, central and south Richmond. Among renters, more than one-third (37 percent, or about 6,740 households) earn less than $35,000 annually and spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

According to Omura, this leaves low-income renters, including many black families, more vulnerable.

“With a large working class base, why is Richmond behind other major cities? Why isn’t there rent control? They have those protections; why don’t we? Its about fairness, and the fundamental right that you shouldn’t just be able to lose your home,” says Omura. “Richmond would be on top of my list [in establishing rent control].”

‘There is no affordable housing in Richmond’

Stephanie Hervey, 42, a single mother of two teenagers and former North Richmond resident, was evicted from her home in May 2014. She and her children have been homeless and staying with friends until they can find housing in Richmond.

“For two bedrooms, there is no affordable housing in Richmond that we can find, that does not have a one year waiting list,” says Hervey. “And these are in not the best neighborhoods.”

Beginning in January 2014, Hervey was in dispute with her landlord for what she claimed were poor and unsafe housing conditions. She said the landlord did not fix home utilities and let pit bulls run into her space. Hervey was evicted by the Richmond Superior Court after a second hearing when, according to the judge, Hervey didn’t pay her complete rent.

Hervey says in order to find a home in Richmond, she and her family will have to share with other people. Yet her biggest challenge has been finding potential housemates who have good credit.

“It could be that I’m not looking in the right places,” says Hervey.

‘Once poor people are evicted, it’s really hard to stay’

Melvin Willis, community organizer at the Richmond chapter of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), sees a need for a just cause eviction ordinance and a rent control policy in Richmond.

“With things changing in Richmond, crime going down, new business in the market, it makes it seem that Richmond is thriving. Yet as rent goes up significantly, we have not seen an increase in living wages, which unintentionally forces people out,” says Willis.

“We want to work together and make sure we have rent control and just cause eviction so vulnerable tenants are not displaced, and so landlords are not allowed to jack up the rent as much as they want,” he says.

In January 2013, the Richmond City Council debated stricter just cause eviction protections, and establishing rent stabilization and a rent control board. According to a report by Richmond Confidential, the City Council did not vote on these, opting instead to allow the Planning Division to take all of 2013 to research eviction and demographic data, and the cost of maintaining a rent control board.

On Feb. 17 of this year, the City Council passed a motion for city staff to convene a working group to bring the Council clear policy recommendations or a draft ordinance. According to City Council minutes, the motion directs staff to “establish a Just Cause requirement for evictions and consider the use of a Rent Board or a smaller Tenant Protection Commission.” The staff has until mid-May to give their recommendations.

But for Mayor Tom Butt, rent control addresses the symptoms, not the root cause of the problem.

“I think it’s a solution that sounds really simple to people but by and large it doesn’t work,” said Mayor Butt in a phone interview. “I don’t think a day goes by that you don’t read about the housing crisis in San Francisco and Oakland and Berkeley.”

Instead, Mayor Butt advocates “attracting business, job developers and building affordable housing are the way to go.”

“Rent control and just cause ordinances just scare the hell out of housing developers,” he said. “It could turn around and bite Richmond.”

Meanwhile, Omura of the Eviction Defense Center says that whether the City Council passes an ordinance, residents organize a ballot measure, or the city pursues other methods, Richmond has to act now.

“In Oakland, we failed the first time to place [rent control] on the ballot, but succeeded the second time. But that only stopped the bleeding,” she says. “So much damage had been done, entire neighborhoods wiped out. Once poor people are evicted, it’s really hard to stay.”

For Hervey, who has been homeless for a year now, the future remains uncertain.

“I want to stay in Richmond,” Hervey says, “because Richmond is really about change. I have established roots here and I don’t want to throw it all away.”

 

New City Councilman Discusses Working With Business Community

Interview by Vernon Whitmore

EDITOR’S NOTE: Richmond’s newest city council member is Vinay Pimple (pronounced Pim-PLAY), a 47-year-old attorney who has been on the job for less than a month. Pimple was selected unanimously by the city council from a group of 17 contenders to fill the seat vacated by Mayor Tom Butt. Born in India, Pimple has been completely blind since the age of 10. He came to the United States in 1993. Vernon Whitmore, Chair of the Board of Richmond Chamber of Commerce, sat down with Pimple to discuss his approach to working with the Chamber of Commerce and the local business community.

 Vernon Whitmore: How has your adjustment been to your new life as a city councilman?

Vinay Pimple: It is exciting. I’ve gone to quite a few neighborhood councils and it’s really nice to meet the people and I definitely feel like people are very warm, very welcoming. You know, I didn’t quite know how people would react but now I’m getting kind of used to people being so welcoming of me. Initially I just felt very touched by it because of the first council I went to was the Santa Fe Council.

VW: Yes, we were so happy to have you there!

VP: I was just really touched by it, you know? It was just, it was so warm and welcoming, you know?

VW: And then I saw you at the Marina Bay neighborhood council meeting last week and they were very receptive.

VP: Oh yeah, there, too. And so it was just really nice. You go in thinking that yes, I’m here because I want to help people out, you know? Because otherwise there’s no point in this job. But you so often read the media and the media tends to be very negative about politicians. And so you just have this fear, as someone who is new to this, that people probably don’t look at you in a very nice way. But actually most of the people who are actively engaged, if you go out to them and if you engage them and try to help them out, they’re actually very appreciative.

I have to say that I’ve been welcomed by not just the folks in neighborhood councils but even the political people so far. Certainly even the political people that I have talked with across the board, they have been pretty welcoming. That could be a false perception but at least it seemed to me like they are pretty welcoming. Everyone from RPA to Chevron, they all seem to be very welcoming and positive, prepared to work with me, and so I feel that I really want to work with everyone on the council and every one of our engaged constituents.

VW: As chairman of the Board for the Chamber of Commerce, one thing I’ve been doing recently is to work on the huge disconnect between the city and the Richmond Chamber of Commerce. As you know, the chamber has found out information late, so we’re always a day late and a dollar short. When you show up to the council after the deal is done, what can you really do? What is your vision for working with the chamber and the local business community?

VP: Well, see my thing is this… Not just does it happen that you are late, but also it means that you are not always able to gather and give all the pertinent information. You’re going to give your opinion rather than an opinion backed by information. And so what I would ideally like to do is any important thing that is going to affect our business community should be told it beforehand. I’m interested in your perspective, sure, but more than the perspectives, I’m interested in systematic information… because sometimes opinions differ.
I know that Mayor Butt was saying to me how the Richmond Chamber of Commerce is not connected with the National Chamber of Commerce, and I certainly don’t agree with a lot of the policies of the National Chamber of Commerce, I don’t think they are good for small businesses. I think they’re maybe good for big businesses. I don’t think they’re good for small businesses and small businesses are very important for us. And so sometimes my opinions may be quite different but definitely I always want information. I want information first and perspectives based on that information. The more time we give you the more likely we are going to get that information.

If I work with the chamber I might also tell you, hey, let’s try and figure out some of the information that we may need about our business. So we have a good sense of how many businesses do we have or how many larger businesses do we have or of what sectors are our businesses in, so when we try to design policies we know exactly what the impact is likely to be.

I think that perspectives can be more important in things like how do you recruit a businesses, because recruiting businesses is often not just about information. You can tell people all you want about the advantages of Richmond but if they’re not open to that, they wont do it. It’s not like because I’m into facts, I will put facts ahead of everything. You have to understand with which situation facts are more important, and which situation opinions are more important.

VW: I saw Mayor Tom Butt was a little distressed after some council members went against city staff at the last city council meeting on the youth projects.

VP: Yeah, well, you know, I did vote against most of those spending measures and I was the one who voted against the largest number of those ’cause I voted against almost everything. I really felt that there was not a process being followed and people were putting things on the agenda without any idea of how much it would cost.

I was kind of shocked that people voted, like, OK, say initially it was $4,000 for the plaque and many of the people thought that was for the chair plus the plaque; it was just for the plaque. And then they cut it down to $1,000, even though five minutes before they had checked on the web that a plaque cost $60. I’m like, Well, why are you spending $1,000 when you just found out that it costs $60? I tend to be kind of reluctant to see money go.

Some people’s approach is I’ll say yes unless there’s a really good reason to say no. Mine is the opposite. I will say no unless you convince me to say yes. With spending of money, one thing where I do think I need to work on is I tend to be more focused on saving than on growing the money. I think that is the kind of place where I think interfacing more with the business people would actually help.

Residents at Troubled Housing Complex to Soon Move Out

News Report, Malcolm Marshall

During the first week of February, newly elected Mayor Tom Butt announced that residents of the dilapidated Hacienda public housing complex will receive federally funded Section 8 vouchers to move into new housing.

At a press conference at the 150-unit Hacienda complex at 1300 Roosevelt Ave, Butt—along with Richmond Housing Authority Director Tim Jones and Congressman Mark DeSaulnier—announced the new developments.

The news came a year after the Center for Investigative Reporting published a series of articles detailing terrible living conditions in the complex filled with mold, roach and mice infestations and leaky roofs. A month after the stories broke, the Richmond City Council voted to relocate residents, many of who are elderly and or disabled.

The vouchers, which were recently approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), will allow residents to move to other public housing structures or private market housing.

The Richmond Housing Authority will help residents with costs associated with moving, and has opened a relocation office to assist tenants with finding new places to live.

After all the tenants have moved out of the building built in 1966, the Hacienda will undergo around $20 million in renovations, paid for by HUD. Jones estimates the renovation will take 18 to 24 months to complete and current tenants will have the option of returning after it’s done.

“The residents of Hacienda were in dire need of safe and improved living conditions,” said DeSaulnier in a statement. “I am pleased to have assisted the City of Richmond in expediting the issuance of vouchers which will allow individuals and families to immediately begin finding and settling into a better housing situation.”

Sandra Burell says she has lived at the Hacienda a little over ten years. She says the last year has been difficult, “waiting, not knowing what their going to do, not knowing how long I’m going to live here.”

“I’m the type of person that believes in action,” said Burell after the press conference. “Now they’re actually doing something, and I’ve heard it from the horses mouth, so I’ll believe it.”

Burell says she would like to stay in Richmond, close to the area she’s in now. “Hopefully right around Kaiser. All my doctors are at Kaiser and everything is a walk away for me and I’m in the chair now,” she said, referring to her wheelchair.

Jacobi Williams, 32, says he’s lived in the complex for the last five years and describes his last year at the Hacienda in the same way, “full of waiting, waiting, waiting, and waiting.”

“But not just last year,” he said. “This goes back to the relocation process that was happening in 2012.”

“There has been a few things changed,” said Williams. “They did the floor in here and they painted. You can change the comforter but if you don’t change the sheets your still going to get dirty,” he added, detailing the ongoing issues with health hazards that he said include rotting and mold growth on walls throughout the building.

Bernice Smith, a longtime Hacienda resident, said she’s heard promises of improvements at the Hacienda for years. “They been saying this for ten years,” she said. “I’ll believe it when I see it. They’ve disappointed us so much and I’m still paying rent.”

“What they say they’re going to do they don’t do it,” she added.

Edward Dunlap hasn’t lived in the building as long — just three years — but after losing a beloved dog because of, he suspects, the toxins in the building, he is ready to leave.

“I want to go somewhere else, I’m tired of this place,” he said. “All I want to do is live out my last days.”

Q&A: Myrick Sees Mandate to Bridge Richmond’s Political Divide

EDITOR’S NOTE: Incoming Chair of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, Vernon Whitmore, sat down with newly elected councilmember Jael Myrick to discuss the council’s vacant seat, the prospects for district elections in Richmond and the future for Richmond Promise—Myrick’s pet project to help every Richmond youth go to college.

 

Vernon Whitmore: You won your recent election with a really high margin. Do you take that as a mandate of youth, mandate of political strength, or are you just happy that you won?

Jael Myrick: I do take it as a mandate. I think there are a few things that played into the margin. First of all, I ran with a lot of diverse support. A lot of people supported me that don’t usually support the same candidates and I think that’s sort of a big testament. And, I think some of that had to do with me—but I’m not naïve. Some of that had to do with who my opponent was.

At the end of the day, it does put me in a unique position to bring people together who wouldn’t otherwise be working together.

VW: How so?

JM: I’ll give you a perfect example. There was a little bit of a controversy shortly before the election where these two different PAC’s (political action committees) came out, both with a version of the name “working families.” There was the “working families” PAC that ACCE and SEIU had put together and there was another “working families for jobs” PAC that the building trades had put together, all of whom were supporting me. Well one thing that I found interesting about it was these groups have more in common than they realize. They both want to make sure that UC Berkeley and LBNL (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) treat Richmond with respect, and hire local and make sure that local individuals are able to take the most advantage. They both want to make sure we get some sort of community benefits.

So really there’s opportunity for them to work together to achieve that goal and it’s such a heavy lift, that they have to work together to achieve that goal. The fact that I am sort of the only candidate that’s on the Council that’s supported by both those groups puts me in a unique position to try to bring those folks together to work on common.

I think one thing, if there was a clear mandate it was to try to get our council back to a place where it’s serious, where it’s deliberative, where it’s working on the issues. We may agree sometimes and may disagree sometimes, but we’re going to do it in a professional fashion.

VW:  Okay, so now after the election the talk of the town is who will the empty council seat. I’ve heard a number of names thrown out there. But, I’ve also heard that due to the Richmond Progressive Alliance faction maybe the best option would be a special election, even though it’d be costly for the city. Do you see the council going in that direction?

JM: Maybe it will go to a special election, but in the past we haven’t had to go to a special election and I don’t see any reason why that would be different in this case.

I’ve heard comments from other colleagues, including at least one colleague in the RPA who mentioned that she didn’t think we would end up needing a special election and I take that as a positive sign.

VW: Who would you like to see in that seat?

JM: I’m interested in a whole range of different people, but I want to see some diversity. I want to see some diversity of thought. I want to see some diversity of region. I want to see diversity of race, gender, all those sort of things. I don’t know who that person is yet– but I don’t think there’s any reason that at least four of us cannot come together and, and find someone who would be a good fit.

VW: Another thing that came out of this election that really kind of surprised me was the conversation about district elections, and how now is the time to implement them. What do you think about that idea?

JM: I’ve said this publicly; I am for, at least, exploring it. I don’t know that it’s the answer. It may work, it may not work, but I think it’s worth exploring.

Berkeley, which is similar is size, has had district elections for decades. I talked to a Berkley council member and we were comparing how much I have to raise to get elected to what he has to raise to get elected, and it was significantly higher for me because of how much it cost to run an election citywide, as opposed to in a district.

I’m not complaining about having to raise money but it does mean that there’s a bigger emphasis on fundraising in Richmond than in Berkeley.

And we often debate how to deal with campaign finance reform and you can come up with different plans to try to mitigate it, but the root cause is that elections are expensive. So, if district elections allow us to have cheaper elections than that means a number of things. It means, number one, the influence of money can be lessened, but it also means that candidates who aren’t necessarily backed by big groups—RPA on one side, or the business community on the other side — can have a better shot.

VM: That’s a good point, because since we’re in the same neighborhood (Santa Fe), you’re the only elected official at City Hall that sees what I see.

JM:    There were three councilmembers from Point Richmond, the most affluent neighborhood in the town, and nobody from Hilltop, nobody from Belding Woods, nobody from Iron Triangle, nobody from anywhere else in the south — in Santa Fe — except for me. There’s a question of fairness to that. I think there’s actually going to be two from the annex now because Eduardo lives in the annex and Gayle lives in the annex, which is another more affluent neighborhood. So you’ve got two from the annex, two from Point Richmond and we’ll see who gets that other seat. It begs the question of district elections.

VM:  As incoming chair of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce I’ve been frustrated over the years by the lack of partnership and understanding between the city and the business community. How do you envision the business community and the city working together?

JM:    I think there are a lot of issues where the city and the business community obviously have the same interests, in that we want a vibrant, healthy and successful city. Are we going to agree on everything? No. There are going to be issues where the business community, their interests, their bottom line, may be against what some of us on the council think is the right thing to do for our community. But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk, and that doesn’t mean we can’t have a relationship and work those those differences out and still have a good relationship on the issues we care about.

VM:  OK. Next, I want to talk about Richmond Promise, the exciting scholarship program for local students. What can you tell our readers, especially the youth, about it?

JM: Richmond Promise was an issue I ran on the first time, in 2012. We (the council) were successful in our negotiations with Chevron in getting them to fund it at $35 million for the next ten years, and that’s going to make sure that every young person in our town, over the next ten years, has money for college. The details are still being worked out.

VW: Have you taken any other steps, since securing funding, to develop it further?

JM: In November I went to a conference in Connecticut where we talked to a bunch of other city officials, who run similar programs, and learned from some of their mistakes and successes. What’s clear is each city is able to develop the program in its own way and make it unique to the needs of that community. The benefits have been enormous in many of these towns.

We’ve seen graduation rates increase, we’ve seen cities where 90 percent of the kids not only graduate but also go to college. We’ve seen cities where things you don’t even think about as being a part of it, like teen pregnancy, go down. We’ve seen, black GPA scores raised dramatically in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

There’s all this potential benefit if we do it right here in Richmond and with $35 million to at least get started, we’ve got the potential to do it right.

Obviously a lot, a lot of details still have to be worked out. We’re going have to raise more money to make sure it’s sustainable and to make sure it’s implemented in a way where the most kids get the benefit.

The Richmond Promise sort of tells all the kids, if you live in Richmond we expect you to go to college. We expect you to get an education and have a long-term career and I think that’s the biggest part of it.

Richmond Residents Look to ‘Fresh Start’ With New Mayor

 

News Report,  Malcolm Marshall | Photos by David Meza

It was all smiles in a packed house at the Richmond City Council chambers Tuesday, where newly elected Mayor Tom Butt and a handful of council members were sworn in. Notable among the faces was California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who gave the oath to Butt.

The festive atmosphere – after years of contentious battles behind these same walls – was a welcome breath of fresh air for city leaders and could point to a fresh start in local politics.

“[This is] one of the most diverse cities, in the most diverse region, in the most diverse state,” Newsom told the crowd of public officials, police, local leaders and community members. “What makes Richmond great is its capacity to celebrate all of its interesting differences, as Bill Clinton would say, but unite around our common humanity, as Martin Luther King would say.”

Butt replaces outgoing Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, whose progressive policies won her both friends and opponents in a city where racial and economic disparities abound.

Butt is widely seen as a pro-development centrist.

“He’s not always beloved. I read the paper,” Newsom joked to the crowd before the swearing in. “At least you know where Tom stands. Isn’t that nice? He doesn’t say one thing privately and another thing publicly. And I admire him. And that why I was honored and quick to get over here.”

Newsom added that he looks forward to working and collaborating with Butt. “I think the state’s vision can only be realized on the local level,” he said.

In his remarks, Butt thanked family, friends, his campaign team and even the reporters who covered the election and put him in the national spotlight.

“If my name had been Smith however, I know that Rachel Maddow would not have not taken interest,” Butt said, to laughter from the crowd.

He also thanked McLaughlin for eight “great” years.

“I’ve done this for 20 years,” he said. “People always ask me, ‘Is it fun?’ For many years, I’ve said, ‘No, it’s not fun.’ But the last six years, they’ve almost been fun. They’ve certainly been productive. They’ve been some of Richmond’s best years, I think.”

Outside the chambers attendees shared their views on what the change in mayor means for the city.

“Each mayor has their own strengths and weakness. I’m sure that they will come into play,” said Juan Reardon, a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. “We will get some good things from Tom Butt being mayor and perhaps we will miss a few things that Gayle had.”

“But I’m confident that the strong presence of Gayle and the progressives on the city council will help the new mayor reaffirm the direction that we want this city to realize, “ said Reardon.

Despite leaving her post as mayor, McLaughlin remains a presence as one of the city’s newest council members. She was sworn in alongside Jael Myrick, Jovanka Beckles and Eduardo Martinez.

The evening also marked the departure of council members Jim Rogers and Corky Booze. Both lost their seats in an election that will be remembered for the losses suffered by candidates tied to oil giant Chevron.

Antwon Cloird, founder of the local nonprofit Men and Women of Purpose, said he wants to see Mayor Butt embrace the whole community and engage with Black leaders on economic development for the Black community.

“He understands development and how it can affect our community. I think with the re-entry population, Tom will understand the needs and values of the whole community, though he’s often pointed out as a Point Richmond person.”

Point Richmond, on the western edge of the city, is a pocket of relative wealth in this largely working class city.

“Hearing the views of activists like myself, he’ll get a better picture of how to address the issues of the Black community and our bottom youth,” Cloird added.

Richmond resident and community activist Don Gosney believes the new mayor will move the city away from some of the more progressive policies pursued by McLaughlin.

“I don’t believe he will embrace the eminent domain issue the way [McLaughlin did], or some of the immigration issues. He will definitely have more influence in Sacramento and Washington DC,” said Gosney.

McLaughlin spearheaded a push to allow the city to make use of eminent domain laws to keep homeowners in properties on the brink of foreclosure.

Former mayoral candidate Uche Uwahemu says it’s not about whether the city becomes less or more progressive. “It’s really about creating opportunity for people,” he said. “I hope that this mayor takes it there. You can’t create upward mobility when there’s no opportunity. That’s really where I hope this new mayor will go.”

Richmond resident and elder statesman Betty Reid-Soskin sees a more balanced city on the horizon. “I think the city that has found its direction, and that direction is going to need more discipline. This Mayor is going to provide that. I think it’s all good.”

A Wage Hike for Richmond’s Lowest Paid Workers

By Nancy DeVille

Richmond’s lowest paid workers will get a raise Jan. 1 when the city’s minimum wage jumps from $9 to $9.60 an hour.

The ordinance, which was approved by the Richmond City Council in June, includes increases over the next few years, to $11.52 in 2016, $12.30 in 2017 and $13 per hour a year later. In 2019, the minimum wage would increase annually based on the Consumer Price Index.

Full-time employees, who qualify for the 2015 increase, will see roughly $100 more in their paychecks each month.

“This is an instrument to help workers and their families avoid poverty and economic hardship and enable them to meet their basic needs,” said Gina Baker, a compliance manager with the City of Richmond. “It’s very pricey to live in the Bay Area and imagine people who have to live here on $8 an hour.”

The hike is lower than raises in other Bay Area cities. San Francisco’s minimum wage will jump to $11.05 on Jan. 1 and Oakland follows with an increase to $12.25 in March, while the state wage is $9 and the federal rate is $7.25 an hour.

But, Richmond’s ordinance comes with two exceptions. Employers who pay less than 800 hours of wages in a two week period will be exempt. (But still must pay the state’s minimum wage of $9 an hour.) And businesses that derive more than 50 percent of their income from transactions outside of the city are allowed to pay their employees an intermediate wage, which is hourly pay ranging between the state’s and city’s minimum wage.

Low-wage workers at big box chain stores like Wal-Mart, fast food restaurants and locally owned businesses will be impacted.

“This is a start, but we still have a long way to go,” said a Richmond Wal-Mart employee, who didn’t want to give her name.

While workers welcome the wage hike, some employers worry the increase might affect their bottom line.

Zoe Smith, owner of Zoe’s Cookies and Other Delights in Richmond’s Marina Bay, is comfortable with a minimum wage around $11 but says the jump to $13 in 2018 is a bit excessive. She starts her employees off at $10 an hour.

“I don’t know if the city council members realize the impact the high minimum wage will have on a company like mine,” she said.

Smith regularly hires high school students to pack and wrap desserts a few times a week, but she may be forced to cut back on their hours come 2017.

“My company is a roller coaster ride and sometimes I might have to work in the red for a year before I actually see a profit,” she said. “Some years I can stay ahead and others I fall behind and have to borrow. It’s frustrating because I already know this is going to be hard.”

Baker says the city has distributed flyers to all employers and answered questions from business owners who want to make sure they are in compliance. It’s the employee’s responsibility to inform city officials if business owners are not complying with the hike, she said.

“We’ve had a couple of business owners that were upset, but most have been positive about it,” Baker said.

From Felony to Misdemeanor

News Report, Nancy Deville

Kimberly Gamboa is doing her best to readjust to life after incarceration. She is enrolled in reentry programs, meets with her parole officer regularly and spends countless hours looking for employment.

But, since her release in April, she’s only landed temporary jobs. Gamboa says two felony child abuse convictions are the barrier between her and a good paying, full time job.

In 2014, she served a six-month sentence in West County Jail and now has a four-year felony probation. Her charges are considered “wobblers,” which means it could be reduced to a misdemeanor but only after she’s completed her probation, she said. But Gamboa is hoping the recent voter approved Proposition 47 might give her the break she needs. She’s not sure if her case qualifies, but will look to the Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office for help.

Also known as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, Prop 47 reclassifies some non-serious and non-violent drug or property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Crimes covered by the measure include drug possession and the following offenses when less than $950 is involved: shoplifting, check and credit fraud, forgery, theft and possession of stolen goods. Those with histories of violence or sex offenses will be ineligible for the lighter sentences.

Prop 47 will redirect hundreds of millions of dollars to K-12 schools, crime victim assistance, community health services and rehabilitation programs. The proposition passed by 65.8 percent in Contra Costa County.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimates roughly 4,770 inmates are eligible to petition for resentencing. The law is also retroactive and qualifying prior felony convictions can be reduced to misdemeanors regardless of how long ago the person was convicted.

Supporters of the initiative believe the legislation will bring financial benefits to the state and be a game changer for the countless inmates either serving time or those like Gamboa who are trying to re-acclimate to society.

“My convictions just keep me in a place that I can’t do the things I need to do,” Gamboa said. “When I do fill out applications and they do a background check, I’m automatically dismissed. I do temporary work but right now I don’t have an assignment. So it hinders me from being financially stable.”

The Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office is working to ensure the inmates are resentenced or released as quickly as possible. Judges heard the first batches of cases the Friday immediately following the election passage of the proposition in November and thirty-eight people were granted release.

“The voters showed they were ready to bring about long needed criminal justice reform, that they are ready to reduce incarceration and shift that money to improving public safety,” said Ellen McDonnell, a Contra Costa County public defender. “For those with low level non-violent felony convictions, we believe Prop 47 relief will reduce the barriers many have faced to finding employment, housing, and access to various types of government programs.”

Since the initiative went into effect, dozens of felony cases have been reduced to misdemeanors and close to a hundred people have been set free in Contra Costa County, McDonnell said. The maximum jail time for most misdemeanors is one year in county jail, and if an inmate has already served more time, they should be released. People have three years to file a petition for prior convictions.

“By overturning some of these lower level offences it can open many doors for people to have opportunities that would not normally exist,” said Tamisha Walker of The Safe Return Project, a local organization that offers support to newly released inmates.

“In Richmond, this will create an opportunity for some to get things off their record, but for most it won’t wipe their slate clean, overall they still would have some felonies,” she said. “My number one job right now is to connect with those coming home through Prop 47 and help them figure out the best way to integrate to be successful.”

Despite the obstacles, Gamboa isn’t giving up.

“People don’t understand how tough it is because they are not in this predicament,” she said. “But to know that my felonies could be dropped to misdemeanors will sure make things better.”

Those with questions about a Prop 47 case can contact Ellen McDonnell, Contra Costa County Deputy Public Defender, at 925-335-8075 or prop47@pd.cccounty.us.