Can you spot our new housing reporter Natalie Orenstein hard at work in this photo? Credit: Berkeleyside

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My name is Natalie Orenstein, and I’m honored to be The Oaklandside’s housing and homelessness reporter. I will work to listen closely and deeply, earn your trust, serve those directly impacted by local housing crises, demystify complex issues, and cover stories that don’t get told. 

I grew up in Berkeley and have lived in the East Bay nearly my entire life. I’m sensitive to the immense change Oakland and the region have undergone in recent years, as it’s gotten much more difficult—and for many, impossible—to afford rent, buy a home, or stay in their home. I’ve reported on the housing crisis at Berkeleyside, and I’ve watched loved ones get priced out of Oakland or settle for unhealthy living situations so they can stay here. Those who’ve been forced to leave have taken with them important knowledge about Oakland, and left behind weakened support networks in their communities.

As a reporter, I plan to cover the systems and decisions that have created this crisis in Oakland. But I’ll also highlight the hard work many groups and individuals are doing to solve the problems, whether they’re unhoused residents supporting one another, organizations trying to buy vacant houses for low-income tenants, or policy wonks pushing city officials for fairer zoning rules. 

Perhaps most importantly, I’ll work to demystify policies that aren’t transparent and answer your immediate questions—where you can access shelter and key needs, whether you’re allowed to build a cottage in your backyard, when your landlord can legally enter your apartment, and so on. We’re committed to partnering with other local organizations to help get the word out about the information we’re providing, especially to those who need it most. 

We spent months asking Oaklanders about their information needs before launching The Oaklandside, and I was not at all surprised to learn that questions about housing were top of mind for many of you. In surveying folks about what you’d like to see covered, we received more than 400 responses about housing or homelessness, far more than any other category, in fact.

You told us you want to see more reporting on rising rents, senior living, empty buildings, tent cities, development incentives, neighborhood disparities, and housing for the middle class.

One person lamented that “each year Oakland feels less like home due in part from gentrification,” and others questioned how to mitigate their impact as self-described “gentrifiers.” Some of you talked about worrying you’ll be pushed out of your beloved neighborhoods, and one person complained that they “can’t afford to leave.”

I was also interested to read two related comments from the same listening session: one person who lives in their car wrote that they’d like help finding housing, and another person asked how they can help their unhoused neighbors. It’s my hope that The Oaklandside can also serve as a venue where important connections can be forged between Oakland residents who might not otherwise meet but might have something to share with each other.

While my beat is “housing and homelessness,” I believe strongly that there is no part of daily life in Oakland that doesn’t intersect with these broad issues. There’s a good chance that decades-old racist housing policies impact where your kids go to school today. You can’t take a job you really want—and enjoy the material benefits that come with it—if it’s difficult to get to work from the neighborhood where you can afford to live.

As the coronavirus pandemic got underway, it was immediately clear that the crisis would worsen local housing problems. When Alameda County issued its first “stay-at-home order,” unhoused people were exempted for obvious reasons. But what does that mean about who’s likeliest to get sick—and will the COVID-19 strategy of putting people up in hotels lead to any permanent solutions? Others who’ve always had stable housing began worrying for the first time about how’d they’d pay rent or their mortgage after losing their jobs.

For unhoused people, current attention on police violence and mass criminalization has also brought more attention to longstanding questions about law enforcement responses to homelessness. For one thing, Black people make up 47% of the county’s homeless population but just 11% of the county overall. 

A few months ago, issues of housing, homelessness, race, and police came to a head in Oakland through the activist movement known as Moms 4 Housing. After Black mothers and their children moved into a vacant, investor-owned house in West Oakland, sheriff’s deputies forcefully evicted them from the property and made arrests. After large protests and negotiations with officials, Wedgewood Properties agreed to sell the house to the Oakland Community Land Trust, which could convert it into permanent affordable housing. Some observers saw this as a reward for illegal squatting, but others heralded the outcome as a step toward safety and security for residents living in dangerous circumstances.

At The Oaklandside, we’ll closely watch whether these approaches are replicated, and look into the history and context behind explosive moments like the January eviction. 

Housing, homelessness, safety in its many definitions—these issues can be personal, painful, and nuanced. I hope to learn from people in Oakland who have first-hand experience with the topics we report on, and learn how I can best serve you as your community reporter.

Please say hi. You can find me at natalie@oaklandside.org or @nat_orenstein on Twitter, and you can always get in touch with us via our simple web form, too. Talk soon!

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Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.