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Oakland Moves to Stop Cannabis Displacement

Photo Rachel Mack


Oakland Moves to Stop Cannabis Displacement

Oakland, California’s city council has passed an ordinance protecting tenants from being evicted by cannabis businesses in the city’s “Green Zone,” keeping in line with the city’s stated goal to promote “cannabis equity.” This highlights the dilemma of cannabis-fueled displacement — a phenomenon also reported from places like the more freewheeling Denver, which has been less committed than Oakland to principles of equity.

On March 8, the city council in Oakland, California unanimously approved a measure that protects existing tenants from being evicted by cannabis businesses.

Although the ordinance awaits a second reading before actually becoming law, this should prove no obstacle. The legislation was sparked by complaints from residents of one of the 25 “work/live” buildings — former industrial spaces opened up to artists and craft workers over the past two generations — within the city’s “Green Zone.” This is a strip of mostly industrial areas following the city’s waterfront that in May 2016 was officially designated for the burgeoning cannabis industry.

A city council staff report called to study the issue noted the vulnerability of artists in the Bay Area’s harsh housing squeeze: “The lucrativeness of the cannabis industry poses a threat to other land uses in the designated Green Zone, particularly work/live spaces that provide space for Oakland’s small business, arts and maker communities.”

The two amendments passed by the council prohibit cannabis businesses from seeking to operate in spaces that are currently occupied by work/live or residential uses, but also allow cannabis business to share a work/live property with a residence, “provided each uses its own section of the property.” The ordinance was introduced by council member Rebecca Kaplan and supported by Mayor Libby Schaaf.

Speaking to KQED, Kaplan hailed the measure as an example of “responsible regulation that both brings the cannabis industry into effective legal use while also protecting community needs.”

The push for the measure came from residents and business owners at the Oakland Cannery, a converted factory in East Oakland that has been a work/live space for artists since the 1970s. Cannery tenants urged officials to protect their spaces after a Denver-based canna-business purchased the building and made clear its intent to evict them in order to turn it into a commercial cannabis facility.

“Profits do not require displacing people from their homes; there’s plenty of other non-residential space available for cannabis investors,” said Cannery resident Rebecca Firestone in city council testimony, as reported by the East Bay Times. “There is another way, and that is for us to co-exist peacefully together.”

The legislation may ultimately be in the enlightened self-interest of the cannabis companies in terms of winning good will from Oakland residents. The company in the Cannery case, Green Sage, had clearly aroused ire. Cannery tenant Alistair Monroe complained to San Francisco’s KPIX of “carpet-baggers from Colorado that are coming in and swooping up real estate left and right and bulldozing, and they just do not care.”

But it isn’t just out-of-state “carpet-baggers” that have been accused of displacing artists. One former tenant at the Cannery, Brett Amory, says he was evicted from his ground-floor commercial studio last year by Harborside — a renowned dispensary in Oakland, which briefly owned the space as part of its ambitious expansion plans. “We were being evicted through Harborside. Anyone with a commercial lease on the ground floor got served a notice,” he told local CBS affiliate KPIX.

Oakland is officially committed to a policy of “cannabis equity,” in which the new industry is to be shaped in the city following principles of social justice. But legal cannabis will pose the same social pressures as any other capitalist sector, and with a city facing a housing crisis, this fight over displacement is mostly likely a long-term one.

The Cannery case may also point to a cultural chasm between Northern California and Colorado. The specter of cannabis-fueled displacement is already causing concern in Denver.

According to a 2017 report in City Lab, the amount of gentrification caused by cannabis businesses in Denver is hard to quantify. But, because the state has awarded more than 300 licenses to Denver-based grow operations, it’s certainly had an impact on the affordability of low-rent warehouse spaces that artists often occupy.

“Artists who crave the raw square-footage and affordability of warehouse space for their studios have found that the same real estate also fits the needs of cannabis growers,” City Lab reports. “Dustin Whistler, a broker and founder of Forte Commercial Real Estate, says rents for industrial spaces have risen 40 percent since 2012. Spaces that before legalization were all but unrentable are now going for $10 to $12 a square foot, he says.”

Hopefully, the win-win solution that was approved in Oakland can provide an example for other areas of the country where the cannabis economy is booming.

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