On September 30, hundreds of Oakland citizens filled the City Council chamber for a special hearing, with many lining up late into the night to deliver their stories of fear, anxiety, and urgent concern that the city take concrete action to address the rapidly escalating housing affordability crisis. The fact that tech giant Uber had announced the week prior that it had purchased the iconic Sears building in downtown Oakland to fill with 3,000 future employees, only added to locals’ mounting worry that the floodgates of gentrification had irreversibly opened, and it was only a matter of time before native Oaklanders would be priced out of their neighborhoods. Those in the audience represented the over 10,000 school-age children and the quarter of the population of African Americans lost from the city over the past decade.
While Oakland often celebrates the fact that it is the most diverse city in America, it mirrors other tech-giant cities and regions. It is home to the second highest increase in rents nationwide and ranks seventh in income inequality among America’s largest cities. As gentrification forces low-income and even higher-income workers and their families out of San Francisco, Oakland has become a crucible for the ongoing debate on how to manage neighborhood change and development without wiping out entire historic communities.
The issue of gentrification and displacement is one that PolicyLink has tackled for over a decade, both nationally and in its headquarters city of Oakland. A year ago, as eviction notices were mounting in Oakland, PolicyLink joined up with the City of Oakland to develop the Roadmap Toward Equity: Housing Solutions for Oakland, California, an action plan for addressing the housing crisis. The City gathered stakeholders and brought forward the challenges facing families coming through the Housing Assistance Center.
PolicyLink and the City sought input from families facing displacement, public administrators, housing advocates, tenants groups, home owners, developers, elected officials, business associations, and other community stakeholders. Urban Strategies Council did data analysis on the changing tenure and demographics of neighborhoods, and mapped public and underutilized lands. PolicyLink conducted a nationwide survey of best practices that could translate to scalable solutions. The resulting Roadmap puts forward a 12-point policy agenda that is tailored to fit Oakland’s circumstances and staunch the loss of long time residents.
It was this policy agenda that, after four hours of public testimony and council discussion, was unanimously adopted by City Council at the special hearing on the 30th. Causa Justa: Just Cause, ACCE, Oakland Tenants Union, East Bay Housing Organizations, the California Nurses Association, Pastors of Oakland, and other advocacy groups turned out their members to urge Council to action.
Though adoption of the framework does not guarantee policy change, the City Council will look to the array of Roadmap policy solutions to address gentrification and displacement within their borders. Framework-adopted policies include: strengthening tenant protections and funding enforcement; advancing seismic retrofitting for the estimated 22,000 rental units located in soft-story buildings vulnerable to earthquakes; extending the condo-conversion ordinance to protect the supply of 29,000 rental units currently unprotected in 2-4 unit buildings; acquiring current market rate units and taking them off market to preserve affordability; allowing secondary “in-law” units to increase density; adopting impact fees and inclusionary zoning; new policies for public lands and vacant lots; and, a regional housing bond to support the construction of up to 2,500 affordable housing units.
Even if the city of Oakland executes all of these policies, it may not be enough to stem the tide of gentrification. Ultimately, the housing crisis is a regional and even inter-state challenge that will need to be addressed beyond Oakland’s borders. Both federal and state housing subsidies continue to fall short, and the loss of redevelopment funds in California have left a gaping hole in one of Oakland’s historically reliable sources for funding affordable housing. Facing the fact that the region is expected to add 2.1 million people by 2040, but the city has only managed to meet 25 percent of its Regional Housing Needs Allocation goals in recent years, Oakland will likely experience ongoing housing cost increases that could jeopardize housing security for many of its long-time residents.
There are signs of hope to be found: the Mayor has convened a Housing Implementation Cabinet; the Cabinet has taken up the charge to specifically address the African American community losses; City Council members are taking up assignments for drafting policies; California’s new climate-focused Cap & Trade program is bringing hundreds of millions of new funding into green affordable housing; new philanthropic and community development investment pools are innovating new funding models for affordable housing; and Bay Area counties are seeking to unify their application of tools like impact fees. Until federal housing policies and programs match the pressing need for housing affordability, however, even if cities like Oakland tap every tool possible to preserve and protect its vibrant and diverse social fabric, they are likely to fall short.
These economic, geographic, and political pressures leave many residents uneasy even after the Roadmap’s adoption—especially when the city’s planning director reportedly denied recently that the city’s housing crisis even exists. At the end of the day, there will be winners and losers as the tech boom’s influence on housing costs spreads across the East Bay, but we all stand committed to working to ensure that long-time residents, Oakland’s heart and soul, stand a fighting chance in the battle against displacement.
(Photo: Oakland residents testifying at a City Council special hearing on their impending eviction. Credit: Kalima Rose)