Elizabeth Dougherty doesn't want to raise Megan Young's rent. Both women are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and Dougherty would much prefer to have Young as a housemate than rent her place out to a stranger. Young works in artist relations at local music festivals and pays $850 each month to a rent a room in Dougherty's home in North Oakland. Dougherty runs a nonprofit organization focused on water reuse, but relies on rent from the two tenants in her spare bedrooms to pay her mortgage.
"I'm really struggling to figure out how to make ends meet," said Dougherty, who purchased her house in 2003 and pays more than $2,000 each month for her mortgage. "I wanted to raise [Young's] rent by $25, but she said she couldn't do it."
Like many landlords in Oakland, Dougherty knows she could charge higher rents if her current tenants move out. But unlike most other landlords, Dougherty desperately wants to keep her tenants' rent below market rate. She likes Young and she feels a moral obligation to not inflate the price of her rooms just because there is a housing crisis in Oakland.
For Young, a rent increase could push her to look for housing in a different city. "If I needed to move suddenly, I would seriously consider leaving the area," said Young, who is originally from Sonoma County. Before securing her room in Dougherty's house, she spent two months looking for housing on Craigslist and Facebook groups, but competition was steep. "I'm concerned I won't ever be able to rent my own house in Oakland," Young continued. "At 35 years old and with a decent salary, it makes me very sad that I can't afford to live in my own apartment."
If Young leaves Oakland, she will join the growing crowd of renters displaced from the East Bay's largest city. Median rents across Oakland are at an all-time high, pushing low-income families into motels or family members' homes, pricing working-class households out of their neighborhoods and creating fierce competition for available housing at all income levels. Last month, Oakland became the fourth most expensive rental market in the nation, according to Zumper, a technology company that tracks rental data in major US cities. The median monthly rent for a one-bedroom unit in Oakland in November reached $2,190, an increase of 19 percent over the same month last year. For two-bedroom units, median rent soared 13.3 percent to $2,550 a month. Oakland now trails only San Francisco, New York City, and Boston among major US cities in terms of rent prices.
In addition, since 2011, Oakland's affordability crisis has deepened more rapidly than in any other major US city, according to a recent report by the tech analysis firm SmartAsset. As the Express reported online last week, fair market rents in Oakland have nearly doubled since 2011, while the median income earned by city residents increased by only 11.3 percent during that time. That means the average Oakland renter now must pay an astounding 70 percent of his or her income to rent a market-rate apartment in the city.
Fundamentally, Oakland's housing crisis is a problem of supply and demand — more people at all income levels need more housing than what is available. High-income households compete with middle-income households in Oakland's more affluent neighborhoods. And then as middle-income households are priced out of those areas, they seek housing in traditionally lower-income areas, pushing those households out of their own neighborhoods.
The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) reported that more than 286,000 people moved to the Bay Area between 2011 and 2013. With Silicon Valley and San Francisco at the center of the economic boom, housing costs started increasing in both regions more rapidly than in Oakland. From 2010 to 2014, the average monthly rent in San Francisco shot up by 38 percent, and median rent for a one-bedroom in San Francisco skyrocketed to $3,105 (it's now $3,500, according to Zumper). Evictions in San Francisco increased by 59.9 percent from 2010 to 2015, based on annual reports filed by the San Francisco Rent Board. As rents soared in San Francisco, more renters began looking in the East Bay for housing.
The crisis "is primarily caused by the San Francisco and Silicon Valley housing problem," said Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan, noting that neither region has produced the housing required to keep up with its job growth. "Now, Oakland has an affordable housing crisis that we have to solve, even though we didn't create it," Kaplan said.
But Kalima Rose, senior director of the PolicyLink Center for Infrastructure Equity, a research institute, argues that the crisis in Oakland is not simply a result of San Francisco and Silicon Valley's problems. "Oakland itself could do a lot more with local policies than it has," she said, adding that city officials have not done enough to find funding sources for affordable housing development.
In May, Oakland's Department of Housing and Community Development partnered with PolicyLink and published a comprehensive report on the city's housing crisis, officially called "A Roadmap Toward Equity: Housing Solutions for Oakland, California." The report described Oakland's housing problem as "a perfect storm," noting that while the city's median rent has skyrocketed, city government has failed to meet any of its goals for building new affordable housing.
A report by ABAG presented to the Oakland Planning Commission in 2014 stated that 14,629 new housing units — for all income levels — needed to be built between 2007 and 2014 to keep up with the city's demand for housing. According to the roadmap report from PolicyLink, only 25 percent of that housing was built.
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