Oakland's Perfect Storm 

As the city has failed to build enough housing and has been slow to respond to the affordability crisis, more and more people are being displaced.

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Kat Otto moved to West Oakland in June, in part because of its proximity to her work in San Francisco — just an eight-minute BART ride away. For two years, Otto lived in San Francisco's Tenderloin district in a two-bedroom apartment with a small kitchen and no communal living space. She worked as a waitress and paid $550 monthly to share one of the bedrooms with a friend. "There's no way in hell I could have paid more than $550," Otto said of her financial situation at the time.

In 2014, one of her roommates moved out of state and Otto's rent spiked 68 percent to $925 a month. She had secured a job as an operations manager at a technology education center in downtown San Francisco, but her salary couldn't cover the rent.

Otto also was attracted to West Oakland because it's more affordable than the city. She now has her own room in a four-bedroom apartment for $550, and her household, made up of four twentysomething white women, collectively pays $2,300 in rent — several hundred dollars less than what her old apartment in the Tenderloin is now renting for.

Otto knows she's associated with gentrification in West Oakland. "Oaklanders see what's happening in San Francisco, and they are not going to take that shit lying down," she said of the West Oakland community's efforts to stop displacement. "Is there a possibility for me to be part of the solution?" she asked. Like many renters, she doesn't know what the solution is, but she wants to see both newcomers and City Hall take action to prevent more displacement.

click to enlarge Kat Otto moved to West Oakland, in part because of its proximity to her work in San Francisco. - LUCAS WALDRON
  • Lucas Waldron
  • Kat Otto moved to West Oakland, in part because of its proximity to her work in San Francisco.

In October, Kaplan and City Councilmember Desley Brooks introduced a measure to immediately increase funding to "vital community needs." Citing the housing affordability and displacement crisis across the city, the measure allocated $200,000 to "rapid rehousing funds," which are used to pay first and last months' rent and deposit fees for homeless people trying to return to permanent housing.

The measure also allocated $100,000 to education about and enforcement of tenants' rights laws, namely Oakland's Just Cause ordinance. The ordinance explicitly bans landlords from evicting tenants in order to raise the rent or to carry out renovations on the property. Landlords are permitted to evict tenants if the landlord is moving into the unit, housing a family member there or otherwise taking the unit off the market — known as an Ellis Act eviction — but the measure bars the landlord from renting out the unit again for at least 36 months.

The funding measure introduced by Kaplan and Brooks passed on October 20, and council staffers are due to report back on the implementation of the funding in January.

Over the years, the city has tried to aid Oakland's poorest households by building more government-subsidized affordable housing, but funding for affordable housing has dried up. After Governor Jerry Brown dissolved redevelopment financing for cities in 2011, Oakland's annual budget for affordable housing production plummeted from $20–$25 million annually to $5–$7 million, according to the equity report.

The Oakland Housing Authority (OHA) manages citywide affordable housing initiatives as well as federally funded Section 8 vouchers, which are part of a program that subsidizes housing costs for renters in market-rate units. In March 2015, the OHA distributed Section 8 vouchers of up to $1,585 per month to 609 Oakland families. According to Michelle Hasan, OHA's director of leased housing, only 19 percent of the 609 vouchers were used, indicating that even with the subsidy, low-income families can't afford housing or compete for market-rate units.

In addition to funding shortages, the equity report highlights some of the legislative problems plaguing Oakland's housing market and offers suggestions for creating better policies. Though the city has individually negotiated with market-rate developers to include funding for or construction of affordable housing in past projects, the city does not require market-rate developers to build affordable housing units or contribute to an affordable housing fund. In San Francisco, market-rate developers are required to pay an affordable housing fee or make 12 percent of their units affordable to low-to-moderate income households. Without such a policy, the equity report notes that Oakland is missing out on considerable funding.

"I really want to make sure we streamline our development process," said City Councilmember Annie Campbell-Washington (District 4), who supports establishing a housing "impact fee" for all market-rate developments in the city. The fee would be paid by the developers to the city as a prerequisite for approval of projects. "Oakland is a very attractive city to invest in right now and I want to make sure we get that impact fee in place," Campbell-Washington said.

Like San Francisco, both Berkeley and Emeryville already have impact fees. Both cities charge market-rate developers $28,000 per unit in order to help fund affordable housing. They also have so-called "inclusionary zoning" policies that require market-rate condominium developers to include affordable units in their projects or pay in-lieu fees. The Oakland City Council is expected to take up housing impact fees in early 2016, but it's not clear whether it will adopt inclusionary zoning as well.

The equity report also proposes creating a uniform policy for relocation assistance for displaced renters. Currently, the city has multiple policies governing when and how much assistance must be distributed to households displaced by eviction, but does not provide any funding for enforcing payment. The equity report recommends that city officials "explore new strategies to fund and recover relocation costs" to help tenants undergoing evictions that are not caused by the tenant breaking the lease or failing to pay rent.

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