An old art student dorm in Rockridge is on the list of buildings Oakland wants to buy and turn into housing for homeless residents. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Update, Aug. 28: At a special meeting Friday morning, the Oakland City Council unanimously approved plans to request and use state coronavirus funds to buy two hotels, a dormitory, and 20 single-family homes, to open supportive housing sites for homeless people. The success of these plans is dependent on Oakland actually receiving the $37 million it’s applied for from the state “Homekey” program, however.

If Oakland gets the money, it will keep and lease the Rockridge dorm building, but give the rest of the money to local non-profit organizations to purchase the other sites themselves. Most speakers and officials Friday were enthusiastic about the plans, but some questioned why Oakland wouldn’t just buy all of the buildings instead of giving them to the organizations. City staffers said they expect to hear about the Homekey awards by mid-September, and must use any money they get by Dec. 30.

Original story, Aug. 27: Oakland wants to open several new supportive-housing sites across the city, seizing an opportunity to use millions of dollars in state coronavirus funds to buy buildings for seniors, veterans, families, and people just released from prison.

On Friday, the City Council will convene for a special meeting to vote on approving applications for $36.6 million in state “Homekey” dollars to buy a college dorm, two hotel-style buildings, and a number of smaller properties. The city would spend about $16 million of its own money to match the state funds, a requirement of the competitive grant. City staffers say Oakland will be in a better position to receive the funding awards if officials approve that spending Friday. 

Through Homekey, a California coronavirus relief program, the state is offering a total of $600 million to counties and cities that buy existing buildings and convert them into long-term housing for people experiencing homelessness. One catch: if Oakland gets the emergency funding, the city will need to spend the money by Dec. 30. And the city must promise to fill at least half the rooms within 90 days after that in order to be prioritized for the grants.

Friday’s vote could significantly expand Oakland’s supportive housing inventory in a matter of months, and bring programs to parts of the city that don’t have much housing for homeless residents. One of the buildings is an old California College of the Arts dormitory in Rockridge. Another is the Inn at Temescal hotel, located at 3720 Telegraph Ave.

Only the old college dorm would stay in the city’s hands. Nonprofits specializing in homeless services would take over the Inn at Temescal hotel, the Hotel Travelers downtown, and about 20 single-family houses in East Oakland. 

Art dorm turned senior living in Rockridge

About $10 million in state Homekey funds could buy Clifton Hall, the former art student dorm at 5276 Broadway. The city would contribute $5.4 million as well.

The 63-unit dorm was built less than 20 years ago and was recently vacated by the California College of the Arts, which is closing its Oakland campus and consolidating its operations in San Francisco. The city is proposing to lease the building to an undetermined housing provider, and use 42 units for permanent housing for homeless seniors who are at risk of getting the coronavirus, prioritizing tenants who are temporarily staying at “Project Roomkey” hotels in Alameda County. Another 21 units, managed by the East Oakland Community Project, would shelter families. Organizations that link unhoused people with services would get office space at Clifton Hall, too.

City Councilmember Dan Kalb said he’s been encouraging the college to turn the dorm into affordable housing since before the pandemic. The city eventually decided to pursue buying the building outright, and Kalb said he negotiated a deal along with Mayor Libby Schaaf and city staff. 

“The fact that we could find a location where the building is already built—that is too good to pass up. That’s a godsend,” Kalb said in an interview. “Seniors who have been homeless for a while now will have a place to live.”

Neighbor Andrea Dooley said she’s delighted to see a proposal for permanent housing in higher-income Rockridge, where “there really isn’t much” in the way of homeless shelters. 

“I think it’s important that every neighborhood in the city be considered,” she said. “Using existing properties to reduce homelessness makes a lot of sense.”

Dooley runs an email listserv for her street, where she said one resident posted a lengthy critique of the Clifton Hall plan, incorrectly calling the project a drug rehab center. Others argued in favor of it.

“I don’t see how substituting seniors for college kids is a bad trade,” Dooley said, laughing. “I really want to figure out how to welcome them as neighbors, not treat them as some ‘other.’”

Many neighbors have been critical of a separate plan to develop large housing complexes on the main CCA campus across the street once the college is fully vacated, however. But one of the people leading the effort to scale down that project said he’s excited about the Clifton Hall plan, as long as it’s operated thoughtfully.

“I think it’s great if that dorm is used for homeless people, but the city has to manage it properly,” said Kirk Peterson of Upper Broadway Advocates.

Latest in Hotel Travelers saga

The latest iteration of the Hotel Travelers building downtown could be housing for formerly incarcerated residents. Credit: Pete Rosos

A single-room-occupancy hotel, or SRO, at the center of a years-long saga is also on the city’s Homekey list.

The Hotel Travelers is an 82-unit building located at 392 11th St. in downtown. In 2016, real-estate investor Danny Haber bought the building and began demolishing and rebuilding parts of the interior, saying he wanted to attract a higher-income group than its existing SRO tenants and open a restaurant and bar on the ground floor. The same owners had previously converted another SRO into a dorm-style home for tech workers. Some of the Hotel Travelers residents sued the owners for harassment, alleging Haber tried to push them out by removing services and safety measures during construction. In 2019, the lawsuit was settled for $575,000.

Now, the city is attempting to return the building to something closer to its previous use. If Oakland receives around $14 million in Homekey funds, the city is proposing to contribute another $7 million so that the non-profit organization Oakland & The World, run by former Black Panther Elaine Brown, can buy the hotel along with developers Memar Properties and McCormack Baron Salazar. 

If the deal goes through, the Hotel Travelers would house formerly incarcerated tenants, initially those who are among the 8,000 people released by the state from San Quentin and other prisons because of the spread of COVID-19 inside.

“Successfully re-entering society after incarceration is extremely difficult,” Shola Olatoye, Oakland’s housing director, wrote in a report about the proposal. “Many formerly incarcerated persons are in need of services such as housing, health care, mental health and substance abuse treatment, employment, and education.” Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency has an agreement with the county to provide services for residents at sites like the Hotel Travelers, according to the city report.

Two current Hotel Travelers tenants who are extremely low-income seniors would be able to continue living there, according to the city.

On Twitter, several people who’ve followed the chain of events at the building expressed skepticism about the proposal. Some wrote that Haber and Brown are benefiting financially from the previous displacement of low-income tenants, and questioned why public money would be used to buy the building from Haber for more than he bought it for. Others cheered on the major increase in housing for a vulnerable population.

Oakland is also asking for $3.15 million in Homekey funds, to pair with $1 million from the city so Operation Dignity and developer Danco can buy the Inn at Temescal hotel. That site, at West MacArthur Boulevard and Telegraph Avenue, has 22 units where veterans who are currently homeless could live.

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Alameda County is also looking at buying several hotels where homeless people are currently staying on a temporary basis to avoid the threat of COVID-19. 

The availability of millions in state relief funds is an unprecedented opportunity, but it’s one that comes with strict deadlines and hurdles that could threaten the success of the city and county’s ambitious plans.

Oakland eyeing 20 houses, too

Lastly, this new slew of housing proposals includes the purchase of 20 single-family homes, scattered around East Oakland, where about 100 people at high risk for the coronavirus could “have a safe and healthy place to live” at “deeply affordable” rents. The staff report pitches the housing model, where about five people would “co-live” in each home, as an “alternative to big-box development.”

The city has applied for $10 million in Homekey dollars so Bay Area Community Services can “aggressively pursue” the purchase of these houses. The nonprofit organization has already bought some of them, according to the city’s report.

This project doesn’t require matching funds. The pricier Homkey projects, like Clifton Hall and the hotels, do. In those cases, the city is drawing from Measure KK revenue, the affordable housing trust fund, and other sources for its contribution.

Kalb said the city has other efforts underway, but typically “the challenge with all affordable projects is finding the money.”

Correction: The deadline for cities and counties to spend Homekey funds is Dec. 30, 2020, not Dec. 31, as previously stated in this article.

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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.