Housing construction lagged behind population growth in Oakland over the past decade, according to the 2020 census, and affordable housing development was minimal. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland’s population increased by nearly 13% in the past decade, but housing production grew at less than half that rate, according to newly released 2020 census data.

The census counted 440,646 people living in Oakland, a 12.78% increase over the 390,724 people living in the city in 2010. During that same period, the number of housing units in Oakland increased by 8,759, or 5.16%. 

Meanwhile, the number of vacant housing units plummeted in the city, from a 2010 vacancy rate of 9.38%, or 15,919 units, to a 2020 vacancy rate of 5.92%, reflecting 10,560 units. 

“In dictionaries where you have the definition of a ‘housing shortage,’ Oakland is it,” said Darrell Owens, a policy analyst with California YIMBY, an organization advocating for more housing development. 

The new census data reflects where things stood in April 2020, so many changes that occurred during the pandemic are not captured in the data released last week. But other reports have shown that Oakland has continued to gain a significant number of residents during the crisis. The California Department of Finance estimated that Oakland gained more than 3,000 residents in 2020, even as the state’s overall population shrank. Some San Francisco residents spoke to The Oaklandside last August about moving across the bay for more space and cheaper rents. 

With only 5% growth in the housing stock, Owens said, newcomers either move into the dwindling vacant units or housing that’s already occupied. “That’s how gentrification happens,” he said. “Oakland is going to have to start taking some drastic action,” to build at a much faster pace.

Oakland saw large increases in the Hispanic and white populations in the 2020 census, but the Black population has decreased significantly since 2010. The new data shows a 28.04% increase in Hispanic residents, an 18.64% increase in white residents, a 12.93% increase in Asian residents, and a 14.14% drop in Black residents. 

In addition to counting newly constructed units and vacant units, the census tracks the change in occupied units—how many more or fewer units had people living in them. While Oakland’s population grew by almost 13% since 2010, the number of occupied units increased by only 9.18%. Put another way, Oakland gained almost 50,000 residents, but they were distributed among only 14,000 newly occupied units. That disparity likely suggests widespread overcrowding.

Some housing advocates and analysts say it’s not enough to just build any kind of housing. They contend that new construction must be more accessible for all the diverse residents moving to Oakland. “Our housing production numbers show it very clearly: We need affordable housing,” said Naomi Schiff, an advocate for homeless residents. 

The census housing “numbers do not put into context the income disparity in Oakland and the Bay Area as a whole,” added Mark Dias, co-chair of the Oakland Tenants Union. He advocated for more comprehensive rent control and affordable housing requirements. State law currently exempts new construction from being subject to local rent-control policies.

Oakland has soared past regionally set targets for market-rate construction in recent years, but it’s lagged tremendously on building affordable housing. The city has only issued permits for 22% of the affordable construction it’s required by state and local governments to plan for by 2023. 

“We’ve built lots of market-rate and not much else,” Schiff said. “I don’t, in general, believe in the ‘trickle-down’ theory where if you build a lot of expensive units, poor people will vanish from our streets.” 

The Oaklandside asked the city of Oakland whether the 2020 census housing data matches the city’s own records of what’s been built since 2010. A city spokesperson responded to say staffers were looking into it, but did not respond further by publication time.

A recent city report included housing production data for 2020, stating that 2,855 market-rate units were built in Oakland last year, compared to 183 affordable units. The same analysis found that all housing construction has declined over the past few years, attributed to COVID-19 pressures and rising building costs. 

Owens said Oakland’s population increase has been driven in part by major job growth without much housing expansion in San Francisco and the South Bay. Many of those tech-sector workers and other higher-income residents who come to Oakland could afford to live in new, market-rate highrises as opposed to moving into the older housing stock in gentrifying neighborhoods, he said. 

While the vacancy rate has dropped significantly, there are still more than 10,000 unoccupied units in Oakland. It is not clear from the census data how those units are distributed among older and newer buildings, or where they’re located in the city. 

In recent years, activists have called attention to the prevalence of vacant units while the city’s homeless population exploded. During the Moms 4 Housing movement, led in part by now-City Councilmember Carroll Fife, several Black, homeless mothers occupied a vacant, investor-owned house in West Oakland. 

In 2020 the city began taxing owners of vacant and undeveloped properties, to encourage use as housing. 

Schiff said she’s aware of multi-unit buildings sitting empty in Oakland, and advocated for a more aggressive push by the city to turn those properties into housing for homeless people. Various state and federal COVID-19 aid programs have enabled local governments to rent and buy properties to use as emergency shelters and housing. The city is currently seeking proposals from property owners interested in leasing or selling their buildings.

“I’m all for acquiring existing properties for homeless housing, but we lost vacancies by a third,” said Owens, referring to the number of vacant units decreasing by 33.66% since 2010. He said the diminishing number of open units is distressing, as it limits the ability of Oaklanders to move around to places better suited to their shifting needs.

“There are Oakland workers expecting a child who need a bigger house,” he said. “Or seniors whose kids have moved out and who have arthritis and need a building with an elevator.” 

The Census bureau will release more 2020 data on housing and demographics in the coming months. 

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.