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Oakland is suing to stop a new Athletics ballpark

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Oakland is suing to keep the A’s in a sewage-infested lemon. Why might they be in the right here?

Silent Sensei from Santa Cruz, USA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

The Oakland Athletics play baseball in what is widely considered one of the ugliest, worst ballparks in the country. It’s not just ugly. The stadium has a chronic raw sewage backflow problem. Mice find their way into vending machines and then die, which might be from constant E. Coli scares from the aforementioned raw sewage. In other words, what is now (unfortunately for me) called the RingCentral Coliseum is one of the worst major league sports venues in the country, and that’s why the NFL’s Raiders bolted from Oakland to Las Vegas to escape the Coliseum, which they previously shared with the A’s.

Unfortunately for the Athletics, they lack the financial clout to simply walk away from the bright side of the bay. The team wants to build a new stadium at Oakland’s Charles P. Howard Terminal, even signing a terms sheet with the Oakland Port Authority. The Athletics, to their credit, want to finance the ballpark privately, and to do so are planning to sell and develop the land on which the Coliseum currently sits. There’s just one problem: they don’t own all of that land. So the team reached a deal with Oakland-Alameda County to buy the rest of the land for $85 million, which they could then develop and use the profits on their Howard Terminal Stadium.

That is, until the City of Oakland unexpectedly sued the county to block the sale.

For A’s President Dave Kaval, the lawsuit just filed by the city of Oakland to block the team’s partial purchase of the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum site was like getting beaned by a fastball, one thrown by his own pitcher. . . .

“We always felt that any issue would be negotiated by sitting down at the table. Instead, we wind up in a courtroom just when we are hosting 50,000 fans for a wild-card playoff game,” Kaval said Tuesday. “We were just totally blindsided.”

For Kaval, the real shocker was that the suit was filed on the same day he had spent 90 minutes with Betsy Lake, the city’s lead negotiator on the waterfront ballpark deal the A’s are trying to nail down at the Port of Oakland’s Howard Terminal.

At issue is a law called the Surplus Land Act, a California law which requires that when a municipality or other government entity sells surplus land— that is, land the government agency in question no longer needs— it must first attempt to develop that land for use as affordable housing. This is actually a very good and very important law; studies have found a massive affordable housing shortage in the United States. Earlier this year, Brenda Richardson reported for Forbes that by the end of 2019, less than half of America’s housing stock would be affordable by the average family. A number of examples help highlight those problem, starting with NPR last year.

“There is no county in the U.S. where you can work a minimum wage job and afford a two-bedroom apartment,” says Rob Dicke, executive director of the housing authority in nearby Dane County, home of Madison, the state capitol.

Dicke says the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in his county is $1,091 a month. He calculates that with a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, it would require someone to have three full-time minimum wage jobs to be able to afford such a place.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are seven million fewer low-income homes than families in need of them, leaving those families homeless.

The U.S. has a shortage of seven million rental homes affordable and available to extremely low-income renters, whose household incomes are at or below the poverty guideline or 30% of their area median income. Only 37 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low-income renter households. Extremely low-income renters face a shortage in every state and major metropolitan area, including the District of Columbia. Among states, the supply of affordable and available rental homes ranges from only 19 for every 100 extremely low-income renter households in Nevada to 66 in Wyoming. Among the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S, the supply ranges from 13 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 extremely low-income renter households in Orlando, FL to 51 in Pittsburgh, PA.

Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies concluded that about half of all middle-class families in the United States pay more than a third of their income towards housing costs, making it almost impossible to save for more permanent housing.

Pair those numbers with the fact that the amount of low-rent housing in America is dropping rapidly. About 4 million low-rent units (or those which cost $800 per month or less) disappeared between 2011 and 2017. Some areas of the country, like Seattle, Austin, and the Bay Area, have seen as much as 67% of their low-rent housing stock disappear during those six years. Only a tiny amount of new rental units being built are low-rent.

Add to that the fact that most of the dwindling low-rent housing left in America is old—43% of it was built 50 years ago or more, according to the report—and you’re left with a picture of a housing market where people are paying more of their incomes for housing, while the amount of housing available to them decays or disappears.

The Bay Area is no exception; it’s lost two-thirds of its low-income and affordable housing since 2011.

So the reason for the Surplus Land Act is fairly clear: people need affordable housing, so whenever the government sells land, its highest and best use should be for affordable housing rather than a baseball stadium. The Court agreed, entering a temporary restraining order which concluded that Oakland was likely to succeed on the merits of its lawsuit.

The suit took on added significance Tuesday when Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch issued a temporary restraining order on the sale and set a Nov. 14 hearing on the lawsuit.

“We were very close. This will put a chilling effect on us being able to close the deal,” Kaval said following the judge’s order.

The Athletics, for their part, say that they wanted to make affordable housing a part of the redeveloped Coliseum site. However, even if the team made that promise in writing, the statute requires the government owner of the land to spend 90 days offering the land to other government agencies for exclusive housing purposes, and there’s no dispute that kind of negotiation didn’t happen here. Instead, Oakland-Alameda County argues that the Surplus Land Act doesn’t apply to the Coliseum site, and instead assert Oakland is balking because it doesn’t have the money to finalize the sale.

Meanwhile, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred met with Oakland leaders last week, warning the city that the team could join its erstwhile neighbor and leave Oakland for Las Vegas if the lawsuit isn’t dropped. We already know that Las Vegas is deeply interested in recruiting an MLB franchise, particularly given its flirtations with the Arizona Diamondbacks earlier this year. But if the city were to drop the lawsuit, there’s no reason a private party or one of the many affordable housing non-profits in the area could file a suit of their own. In other words, if the Surplus Land Act applies— and, from the plain language of the statute, it likely does— the Coliseum land isn’t getting sold any time soon.

So where does that leave us? The most ideal outcome would be a redevelopment of the Coliseum site which included a partnership between the team and a local housing authority for large-scale scatter-site affordable housing. Such an agreement would likely satisfy both the statute and the City of Oakland. But it might not satisfy the Athletics, who would stand to make far less money from that kind of redevelopment than they would from high-end shopping malls and luxury homes. But Oakland’s stand here is a righteous one, trying to combat homelessness within its borders. As awful as the Coliseum is, whether the stadium is occupied by a bad baseball stadium or a luxury shopping mall makes no difference to the homeless person who can’t use either.


Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and Legal Director at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.