Some Oakland City Councilmembers want to prioritize funding assistance programs for renters, property owners, and new homebuyers. Credit: Pete Rosos

In June, the Oakland City Council will pass its new two-year budget, but you can get a glimpse now into what programs and policies each councilmember would like to fund in 2021-23.

See the budget priorities from each councilmember and the mayor.

Each elected, including the mayor, fills out budget priority documents at the start of each cycle, offering a preview into the initiatives, whether they end up well-funded or not, that Oakland’s top officials are most likely to pursue in the coming months.

In their lists, most officials say that addressing the overlapping housing and homelessness crises, and preventing further displacement of longtime Oaklanders, are urgent priorities. Here’s what each wants to do about it.

Use available land and buildings

Councilmembers want to use more city-owned vacant land for homeless housing. But many of the few possible sites already host programs, like the trailers and Youth Spirit Artworks tiny houses at this Hegenberger Road parking lot. Credit: Pete Rosos

There’s a notable push to take advantage of land already owned by the city, and buildings already constructed, for affordable and transitional housing.

Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas, representing Chinatown and Lake Merritt, said the budget should “double” the number of homelessness programs—including sanctioned encampments, parking sites, or tiny houses—using at least one piece of public land in each district. “Fund the utilization of all vacant city property for transitional housing with case management,” Councilmember Carroll Fife, of downtown and West Oakland, similarly wrote in her priority list. Deep East Oakland Councilmember Treva Reid also said the city should identify public land for affordable housing development. 

The focus is unsurprising: Fife and Bas are among the officials and activists who’ve been vocally urging city staff to seek out unused public land for emergency housing. In March, staff produced a list of vacant city-owned sites, most with issues that complicate construction, and told the officials to give them direction on which places in their district to pursue at an upcoming council meeting.

Many councilmembers also want to see existing buildings refashioned or kept as affordable housing, a much cheaper alternative to building new housing. “Allocate funds to purchase naturally occurring affordable housing and other existing buildings, so they are managed and maintained as affordable,” wrote North Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb in his budget priorities memo. 

During the COVID-19 crisis the city has a rare opportunity to get reimbursed fully by the federal government for the costs of renting hotels and similar buildings for emergency shelters. The city also has a chance to apply for state funds to purchase these hotels outright. Oakland has already bought a former dorm building in Rockridge, rented the old Lake Merritt Lodge, and given money to nonprofits to buy another hotel and houses. Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, who represents the whole city, wrote in her priority list that Oakland should immediately rent more hotels to “help get people off the streets.” 

More services at homeless camps

The city provides bathrooms, handwashing stations, and trash pickup at several homeless camps, but officials and advocates say maintenance is spotty and too many sites miss out. Credit: Pete Rosos

Several councilmembers want increased services at homeless camps: portable bathrooms, handwashing stations, regular cleaning, trash pickup, and showers. Last year, the city expanded sanitation services to about 40 camps. Stil, unhoused people and advocates say maintenance of these services is inconsistent and many sites were passed over. In their budget priorities, both Bas and Fife listed several specific camps in their districts to be first in line for better services. They say outreach at those camps should include connecting residents with transitional or permanent housing.

“Increase funding and capacity for city outreach teams in order to be able to visit more locations, build more trusting relationships, and provide more wrap-around support,” wrote Kalb, urging Oakland to work with the county to connect with individuals who have high needs.

Loren Taylor, who represents parts of East Oakland, is the only councilmember who expressed support for putting money in the city budget to enact the Encampment Management Policy, a controversial law that limits where homeless people can live outside in Oakland and spells out when the city can service or close camps.

Safe parking sites

“Safe parking” options for people who live in RVs and cars is a popular idea. Oakland already has some sites where RV dwellers can park and sleep without fear of getting ticketed or told to leave. These sites have staff and sanitation services. Fruitvale Councilmember Noel Gallo, Fife, Kalb, Taylor, Reid, and Bas all said the 2021-23 budget should allocate money to more parking programs. These sites should focus on moving RVs from areas deemed unsafe or in the way, into the city lots, Gallo said.

Rental assistance

Fife, whose day job is leading the renter advocacy organization ACCE, said Oakland should dedicate more money to enforcing its tenant protections. She named a dollar amount—$3 million—she’d like to see support tenant services like legal help and language translation. 

Direct rent help from the city and state has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, when layoffs and new duties at home have caused some tenants to miss rent payments. (Find out if you’re eligible to apply.) Taylor said the new budget should keep up that “momentum,” including assistance to property owners struggling to pay their mortgages, too. 

In their priority lists, some councilmembers said Oakland should fund more opportunities for tenants to buy their buildings, usually with the help of a land trust. Taylor also proposed increasing funding for Oakland’s first-time homebuyers program, helping longtime and recently displaced Oakland residents with down payments.

Taylor and Kalb also want to launch a citywide “rent registry,” tracking for the first time information about every rental property in Oakland. State Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, who represents part of Oakland, has proposed a similar program for all of California. Landlord groups have lobbied against these efforts.

Homelessness administrator

Residents of Union Point Park and rights activists in protest of the houseless encampment removal by Public Works.
Councilmembers say the budget should include funding for the speedy rehiring of a homelessness administrator. Daryel Dunston (right) abruptly left the position in March. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland’s first ever “homelessness administrator,” Daryel Dunston, left abruptly in March. He’d been on the job less than a year, working with multiple departments on homeless outreach, and spearheading the creation of the encampment management policy. Assistant City Administrator LaTonda Simmons is filling the role for now. Several councilmembers said the city should “expedite” the hiring of Dunston’s permanent replacement, and make sure the housing department is fully staffed, too.

Wildfire prevention and response

Oakland hills residents are constantly under threat from wildfires. So it’s no surprise that the two councilmembers whose districts include parts of the hills—Sheng Thao and Kalb—include in their budget priorities funding for fire prevention and emergency response training. They want to fund planning for evacuation procedures and brush clearing around houses. Both Thao and Kalb support creating a Wildfire Prevention Assessment District like Oakland used to have, which levies a special tax on residents in fire-prone areas, using the revenue for fire prevention and response resources.

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 lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.