Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas wants to see a tiny-house village on this E. 12th Street site, but it’s promised to a developer. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Oakland has almost $4 million to spend on emergency homeless shelters—RV parks, sanctioned tent camps, or tiny houses.

So why hasn’t the city used that money yet to open new facilities? An ongoing discussion—and at times a tussle—between city staff and City Council members has failed to identify obvious locations. Most of the undeveloped land owned by the city is either already in use, rented to someone else, or too sloped to support a shelter, and private lots require more money and tricky negotiations with landlords. 

But the dual crises of thousands of people sleeping on the streets and a pandemic threatening residents who can’t isolate easily has increased the urgency of acting quickly to establish more safe refuges like modular shelters. With some City Council members (especially Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas and Rebecca Kaplan) imploring staff to immediately open emergency facilities, staff in turn asked elected officials to help by identifying feasible sites in their districts.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, each official described the sites they’re pursuing, and what kind of shelters they’d like to see there. Some proposals were more fleshed-out than others. Some sites were aspirational, and others feasible. But the discussion revealed where Oakland may be likeliest to see tiny houses and trailer parks pop up this year, supported by $3.9 million the city has culled from delayed and closed programs and COVID-19 aid.

The city is also anticipating an unprecedented opportunity to apply for county, state, and federal money for homelessness programs this year, and Kaplan warned her colleagues Tuesday that Oakland must be prepared with concrete proposals or risk squandering the chance to fund them. At the same time, many current programs that rely on COVID-19 aid could close in a year if the city doesn’t scrounge up more funds.

As Oakland juggles those opportunities and financial cliffs, here’s a look at what you might see coming to your neighborhood. At the June 1 council meeting, staff will report back on their research and cost estimates for each district plan.

District 1: North Oakland

Councilmember Dan Kalb said he’s in talks with BART about “interim housing” on a vacant lot owned by the transit agency at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and 40th Street, next to the MacArthur station. “It will take some negotiations with BART,” Kalb said. Further east on 40th, at Howe Street, is a city-owned parking lot where Kalb wants to build permanent housing. The facility would be constructed above the lot, retaining the parking spaces underneath. “I feel optimistic about this, but we have some vetting to do,” he said.

District 2: Chinatown and Lake Merritt

Bas, who represents D2, wants to open a Pallet Shelter “village” on a large public lot by Lake Merritt, at E. 12th Street and 2nd Avenue. She said she’s identified a service provider for the envisioned 60-person emergency shelter, and has even run a successful test of the small structures. So what’s the hold-up? The developer UrbanCore has a deal with Oakland to build an apartment tower at the site, and this year the company received the latest of several extensions from the city to pull together financing for the stalled project. On Tuesday, Bas said the waiting game has gone on too long: “To have parcels of land our city owns sitting vacant for years is completely unacceptable. I feel like I’ve been strung along and my constituents have been strung along.” She’s also eager to see initiatives at the E. 12th median in San Antonio and the Athol tennis courts by the lake.

District 3: Downtown, West Oakland, Jack London

Councilmember Carroll Fife wants to build a welcoming facility for existing Wood Street unhoused residents, but like so many other undeveloped sites, it comes with complications. Credit: Pete Rosos

To identify possible sites for homelessness initiatives, Councilmember Carroll Fife took a “tour” of her district, visiting vacant property and homeless camps. She zeroed in on the Wood Street encampment in West Oakland, possibly the city’s largest, eyeing a city-owned parcel near 18th Street. Fife is interested in a tiny-house village like Youth Spirit Artwork’s in East Oakland, prioritizing current Wood Street residents. However, the city has a development agreement with MidPen and Habitat for Humanity to eventually build affordable housing at the specified site—and it has “toxicity issues” that could complicate, but not necessarily prevent, an interim project there, staff said Tuesday. Fife also gave staff a list of numerous other possible sites in her district, which already hosts several homeless shelters. 

District 4: Oakland hills

Councilmember Sheng Thao was absent from Tuesday’s meeting. According to a staff memo, she’s looking into private lots and hotels along the MacArthur corridor, which the city could rent or buy for use as a shelter. While West Oakland, downtown, and the East Oakland flats support the bulk of the city’s homeless facilities, there are few to no major initiatives located in D4. The staff memo says there’s little available land located near services or transit, but that Thao is “committed” to identifying a site.

District 5: Fruitvale

Councilmember Noel Gallo directed city staff to study the possibility of opening a modular emergency housing site at E. 12th Street and 23rd Avenue. He’d like Lao Family Community Development to manage the site and offer a job training program. But Gallo expressed serious reservations about moving forward with any initiative, complaining about cleanliness issues at existing encampments and saying “too many promises” by the city to manage programs in his district have been broken. “I want to make sure we respect our schools…and respect the rights of small businesses and our residential owners,” he said.

District 6: East Oakland

A place for RV-dwellers to park is the most pressing need in D6, according to Councilmember Loren Taylor. He said Tuesday that he’s negotiating with a private property owner to use a lot for a new safe-parking program. 

District 7: Deep East Oakland

The list of sites given to staff for further review Tuesday did not name a location in D7, which is home to many existing homeless shelters. Councilmember Treva Reid said she supports a “collective approach and strategic approach to ensuring equity in housing throughout the city,” seemingly indicating she’d like to more evenly distribute programs to districts that currently host few. But the staff memo said she’s open to a new modular housing program on city land in D7 as well. 

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.