Urban Innovator of the Week: Jose Corona
Jose Corona, the Director of Equity & Strategic Partnerships for the City of Oakland’s mayor, credits his father for the socially-minded values that were instilled in him at an early age.
“My dad was a social entrepreneur before the term was trendy,” he says. “Everything about the way he treated his employees, the higher wages he paid, the quality of the work environment he provided – that culture is really what people define now as being a social entrepreneur, and he was doing that 40 years ago.”
Corona admired his father, a Mexican immigrant who worked his way up to being a business owner, for his hustle, his entrepreneurial mindset, and his social justice values. As an adult, Corona realized quickly that the corporate sector wasn’t for him, and he found his way to the nonprofit sector to pursue work more in keeping with those values.
As Development Director of the Mission Economic Development Agency, an organization that provides free business development and financial capability services to low- and moderate-income clients in San Francisco, Corona says he really learned how organizations approach helping areas grow through business development, and he focused on helping companies scale financially.
From there he went on to work as Chief Executive Officer of Inner City Advisorsfor 10 years, leading the organization in the creation of 3,000 jobs, 80 percent of which offered health benefits and paid above a living wage, during his time there.
“We knew we were doing something good there, and then I got a call from the Mayor asking me, ‘How about you doing what you do there but for entire city of Oakland?'”
And so it was that Corona became the Director of Equity & Strategic Partnerships for the Office of Mayor Libby Schaaf in July 2015.
It would seem this was not a moment too soon – just two months after taking the position, Uber announced it would open part of its global headquarters in a former Sears building in downtown Oakland.
The past couple of years – literally, one or two – have seen monumental changes in Oakland. It was probably inevitable that spillover from the San Francisco tech industry and its absurd real estate costs would eventually impact Oakland, but it was a very short time ago – much like in recently fashionable cities like Detroit and New Orleans – that Oakland seemed all but left for dead by outsiders and investors.
“Five years ago we still heard investors and developers saying, ‘We will never go to Oakland,’ and now it’s the hottest market in the country and the fourth most expensive city in the country,” Corona says.
Changes are certainly afoot in Oakland, but a delicate balance must be struck between crusading capitalist newcomers like Uber (and others sure to follow) and long-time residents and businesses who make Oakland one of the most diverse communities in the United States, a hotbed for artists and political activism.
“The very thing that attracts people to Oakland – its diversity, its culture, its artist community – are the very things being displaced and pushed out,” says Corona. “We are focused on creating an equitable economic development strategy – how do we create a thriving city where all its people are able to achieve their potential regardless of race and needs? How do we really grow the job base of businesses that are already here?”
One of their strategies is to bring together all of the local stakeholders – private investors, philanthropic organizations, other public sectors, counties, school districts, the state – to leverage all of their resources and create one economic development strategy in order to make sure that investment is benefitting everyone, and not just certain people or certain areas.
Corona says one of the most pressing issues right now is the affordability of housing. “We haven’t been building housing because there hasn’t been investment,” he explains. “It’s not just developers interested in market rate housing, and companies like Uber who buy a whole block and need places for employees to live, but also a spillover of residents from San Francisco because Oakland is still cheaper.”
There are currently 17,000 market rate units in the pipeline, he says, which will alleviate some of the pressure, though not all of it.
“Oakland is one of the last cities in California to not have inclusionary zoning for affordable housing,” he says, meaning city and county planning ordinances that require a certain amount of new construction to be affordable for people with low and moderate incomes.
Their strategies for addressing affordable housing include enforcing tenant protection “so greedy landlords don’t run amuck and jack up rents just because they can,” as well as encouraging landowners to maintain lower prices by taking advantage of the state tax credits available to affordable housing units. “There are already some on board because they value the people and the culture already here.”
The Mayor’s Office is also focused on building stronger access to the capital ecosystem so entrepreneurs can own businesses, get capital, grow, and create jobs.
But in addition to working with small business owners, Corona is also responsible for managing the city’s relationship with large corporations when they come into town – like Uber.
Because Uber bought the Uptown Station building outright, there is no public subsidy or zoning variance forcing them into any kind of corporate philanthropy. While other Oakland organizations have approached Uber with lists of demands, Corona believes a different approach is more effective.
“The approach that I’m taking is really engaging them in the conversation,” he says. “Let’s sit down and discuss what their values are as a company and how we can align them with our values. That has done so much for us. It’s not a mandate, but instead asking, ‘How can we work together?’ In the end I really believe that’s the formula for success and really maintaining Oakland as Oakland.”
Corona’s approach encourages companies like Uber to be good corporate citizens by considering the community and what it means to be doing business in it. This might mean supporting the local economy by using local vendors and encouraging employees to eat at local restaurants; encouraging employee volunteerism within the community; or striving together for equity in top-notch tech training and jobs for youth, offering internships for young people of color, making investments in youth job training, and making meaningful commitments to diversify their workforce.
Oakland just launched its own Cradle to Career initiative to increase the number of Oakland youth who graduate from college, which includes increasing literacy levels and creating scholarships for low income students. “We don’t want lack of resources to prevent people from graduating,” Corona says. “We have already raised $25 million form private companies. They see the investment in Oakland youth as in investment in their future workforce.”
Corona says they are engaging the business community in ways they haven’t engaged it before, asking corporations to be mindful of the community in which they’re residing and helping to preserve the values of this community. The Mayor’s Office is also making these businesses aware of the affordability crisis and displacement by greedy property owners.
“Oakland has to thrive for the whole region to thrive, and everyone now in the business community is looking at Oakland as part of the region,” he says. “Things like affordable housing and jobs – they don’t discriminate boundaries. These are issues that affect us on a regional basis, not just Oakland but San Francisco and San Jose. From my perspective I feel hopeful that we can engage in deeper discussions on things we care about, but the challenge remains that prices and rents still going up.”
He asks rhetorically, “Can we completely stop that? It’s hard to stop the market, but there are choices we can make to soften the blow to our community. Mayor Schaaf is determined to make sure we really build a thriving city where everybody benefits and not push out the people who are here.”