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Firefighters say it could be deadly to add more density to the fire-prone Oakland hills, but where to draw the line is cause for debate. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Oakland hills, where houses are nestled inside forests of dry, volatile trees, are uniquely vulnerable to devastating fires like the 1991 tragedy. The narrow, winding roads with dead-ends and few connections to major streets make it especially challenging for residents to flee the area or for emergency vehicles to enter it.

Desperate to limit the number of people and cars that would need to evacuate the area in a crisis, the Oakland Fire Department and city planners want to ban the construction of new “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs, in the hills, fearing more backyard cottages would create too much deadly density. 

In recent years, state and local laws have encouraged the construction of ADUs to address concerns over housing supply shortages. These structures can refer to any independent residential unit built on the same lot as a main house: granny flats, in-law units, garages converted into one-bedrooms, or basement apartments. ADUs are widely considered a cheaper and quicker, and often less controversial, means of building much-needed housing. 

On Wednesday, the Oakland Planning Commission considered a staff proposal to update the city’s ADU law, mainly to bring the policy into compliance with new state rules that make it easier for homeowners to get approval to build the units. But the bulk of the meeting focused on another aspect of the proposal, which would ban all ADUs across the entire area of Oakland considered by the state to be at high risk for wildfires, which is largely in the hills. 

More than 50 people called into the meeting, most of whom bashed the proposal and implored the city to take a more “surgical” approach by considering the unique safety risks of individual streets or certain neighborhoods instead of blocking off the entire hills area. Many said they’d bought their homes with the expectation that they could build an ADU for aging parents or adult children. Others said the policy was unethical, placing the burden of easing the housing crisis on poorer, already highly developed neighborhoods.

Commissioners seemed startled and moved by the outpouring of concern, ultimately continuing the item to another meeting instead of voting to send it on to the City Council. They asked city staff to come back with an updated proposal and more information in the future.

“This pits three things against each other,” said Commissioner Amanda Monchamp. “Fire risk, the need for housing, and equity. There’s no win here.”

With fire risk at all-time high, OFD fears adding density to hills

Thirty years ago a firestorm tore through the Oakland hills. The risk is exponentially higher now. Credit: Amir Aziz

Higher temperatures, stronger winds, statewide droughts: climate change is making Oakland more and more susceptible to fire. 

“We used to call this the ‘new norm’ in the fire service,” said OFD Deputy Chief Nicholas Luby at Wednesday’s meeting. “We’ve changed that nomenclature to the ‘new extreme.’” The East Bay already had its first red flag warning this year, a fire-danger alert typically only issued in the fall, and recent mass tree death in regional parks has emergency responders extra concerned about this year’s wildfires and those to come in the years ahead. 

Typical fire prevention measures like vegetation management are still important, said Luby, but “when we reach winds at this ferocity, homes become fuel.” The solution? “Reducing occupancy in the area,” he said.

The city has begun using new modeling software, called Zonehaven, which uses the number of people, cars, structures, and escape routes in an area to simulate emergencies and aid in planning for evacuation. (Members of the public will soon be able to use the software to figure out their own evacuation plans, too.) While emergency responders have always been concerned about the narrow streets in the hills, Luby said “chokepoints,” where cars can get backed up at intersections as they’re fleeing, appear to be the bigger issue.

ADU construction should be prohibited “where the existing infrastructure cannot support the increase in population density without significantly compromising public safety because of ‘bottleneck’ issues in traffic flow from vehicles and evacuation choke points,” wrote the Planning Department in its staff report

Since 2017, Oakland policy has limited ADU construction in some narrow parts of the hills. The new proposal greatly expands the ban to include the whole area deemed the “very high fire hazard severity zone” by Cal Fire, the state’s fire department. That zone includes most of the hills, with a very rough bottom boundary along Highway 13, and along I-580 from Mills College to San Leandro. In some cases it includes neighborhoods below those freeways.

The proposal would ban ADU’s in Cal Fire’s Very High Fire Hazard Safety Zone, shaded in gray at the top of the map. Credit: Oakland Planning Department

In a sobering presentation, Luby described the challenges of evacuation during the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, where wider, less densely populated roads, and thorough evacuation planning did not stop people from dying in their cars.

“They didn’t anticipate that when winds picked up, power lines and trees came down and routes got blocked. There were double the cars on the street,” Luby said. “Our infrastructure can’t support large-scale evacuations.”

More ADUs will inevitably mean more cars, city planners said, since transit access is poor in the hills, and ADU law does not typically require homeowners to add off-street parking. Already, many people noted at the meeting, residents frequently disobey parking restrictions in the hills, blocking emergency vehicle access.

“Just because we built housing in areas where we shouldn’t have, doesn’t mean we should continue to,” said Laura Kaminski, a city planning manager.

Homeowners ask for more evidence and nuance in ADU rules 

ADUs have been proliferating in Oakland, where they’re used to house family members or rented to tenants. Credit: Craigslist

At Wednesday’s meeting, speakers said they were blindsided by the proposed ADU ban, some becoming emotional describing how the policy would thwart their plans to care for family members.

“For us, the ADU is probably going to be the thing that allows our adult children to reside in a community where they can’t afford to go buy a home,” said Shumsha Hanif-Cruz. “And it’s eliminating the possibility of sources of income as we get older and retire.” 

Another speaker mentioned moving their mother into an Oakland hills garage unit from a fire zone in Oregon, and another said their disabled neighbor depends on a caretaker who lives in an ADU at their house. 

Many speakers questioned the lack of details provided by the city regarding how many ADUs are expected to be built in the hills, and how many cars they’d add to the streets. In many cases, ADUs are for senior relatives who don’t drive or a millennial who’d rather bike, they argued.

“There’s been no data presented, so it seems a bit hasty to come to a decision tonight to halt all ADU construction in this heterogenous zone,” said a speaker named Sarah. “It seems ironic that there’s no pause on [other] development.” Many mentioned the paradox of this proposal and the existence of Oakland’s vacancy tax, which requires owners of undeveloped lots, including in the hills, to pay a fine for not building on their land.

Hanif-Cruz was among the many speakers who took issue with the breadth of the proposed ban. She lives in the Eastmont hills and said she’d evacuate down any number of available roads, like 82nd or 73rd avenues, not clogging a freeway or major intersection. “Not all of these neighborhoods are the same in terms of access to escape routes,” she said. Others said the state boundary lines seemed arbitrary, in some cases including portions of a given block but not others.

But a handful of speakers, most survivors of the 1991 Oakland-Berkeley firestorm, sided with the city. 

“I still remember the horror of the chokepoints and people trying to get out,” said Howard Matis. “You can’t take a bike—I had a young child. If you allow ADUs in the hills, you’ll be personally sentencing your fellow Oaklanders to die in the next fire.”

Commissioners ask for more data

After listening to the residents, Planning Commissioners said they didn’t feel confident enough in the staff proposal to send it to the City Council for a vote.

“My concern is we still are lacking information,” said Chair Tom Limon. “Who in the hills is interested in building an ADU, and what kind? That would be really helpful to know in determining the risks.” He noted that many people who lost their houses in the 1991 fire rebuilt much larger homes, which now house two aging residents who could accommodate an ADU.

City records show that Oakland granted 346 permits for ADUs across the city in 2020, and 292 in 2019, but it’s unclear how many were built in the proposed fire zone.

Commissioner Leopold Ray-Lynch recused himself from the discussion after noting that he lives in the high-fire-risk area and intends to build an ADU.

It may not be appropriate to expand Oakland’s ADU exemption area to that full Cal Fire zone, said Monchamp. 

“I appreciate it as a state designation, but it seems like it really encompasses a whole lot more in area and we probably could find a way to go somewhere in between,” she said. “I was not quite convinced that we’ve looked at it enough in terms of balancing all the competing factors.”

The commission voted unanimously to ask staff to respond to questions raised Wednesday and to work more closely with the state on crafting the policy, eventually coming back with an updated proposal on an unspecified date.

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.