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Alameda County bought this airport hotel with money from the state, and now staff is looking for organizations to operate permanent housing there. Credit: Pete Rosos

Oakland and Alameda County are gearing up to ask the state for help buying more buildings to shelter and house homeless residents.

Last fall, California’s Homekey Program gave local governments an unusual opportunity to scoop up hotels and motels, as well as apartments and houses, to serve a growing unhoused population put at greater risk by the pandemic. 

Oakland used that grant opportunity to apply for, and receive, millions of dollars. The city used some of the funds to buy one property itself and gave the rest to non-profit organizations to buy and run programs out of other buildings. 

The city purchased Clifton Hall, an old California College of the Arts dorm in Rockridge, to turn it into what is now a senior supportive-housing facility and family shelter. Bay Area Community Services used a Homekey grant to buy numerous single-family homes in Oakland, and Operation Dignity paired up with developer Danco to open supportive housing for veterans at the small Inn at Temescal hotel. That site is half occupied so far, according to Operation Dignity.

A fourth Homekey award went to Oakland & the World Enterprises, the nonprofit run by former Black Panther Elaine Brown, as well as private developers, to buy the Hotel Travelers SRO downtown, to shelter people recently released from prison. But the money had to be returned after the project fell through. Alameda County also used Homekey funds to buy two hotels currently in use as COVID-19 emergency shelters. 

Now, the city and county are working to ready themselves for another expected round of available Homekey funds, possibly as soon as September. Last year, the state doled out $600 million in grants, and city staffers expect at least as much money to be up for grabs this time.

Oakland “was ambitious in its first round of successful Homekey projects, and we are poised to secure more Homekey [funding] to produce more homeless units in this upcoming round,” said Autumn King, a city spokesperson.

Currently, the city is asking property owners to let the city know if they’re interested in potentially selling their building for use in a Homekey project. Simultaneously, “sponsors”—organizations and developers that may want to pitch a project—have also been asked to notify the city of their interest. 

King said the city is soliciting an open-ended range of sponsors, including those who might want to build new modular housing, because the terms of the new Homekey grants are not yet known. 

Homekey helps with push to buy more buildings 

The city’s 2020 purchase of a modern dorm building for shelter and housing was considered a score, but not all residents are happy with the program there. Credit: Pete Rosos

Homekey aligns with an overall shift, in recent months, in Oakland’s approach to creating affordable housing and shelter.

Deeply lagging on its affordability goals, and reckoning with the slow pace and rising cost of building new housing, city councilmembers and housing staff passed a plan this spring aiming to dedicate half of Oakland’s affordable housing resources to buying and preserving existing buildings. Previously, there was more focus on building new complexes.  

Homekey funds help the city achieve these “more immediate, permanent housing solutions at a lower subsidy cost than most traditional affordable housing projects,” King said. In most cases, though, local governments are still required to contribute significant funding to the projects alongside the state grants.

It’s an approach long encouraged by activists and advocates in Oakland, who see a dire need to house the city’s thousands of homeless residents coupled with buildings and land that go underutilized.

But some residents of the Family Matters shelter at Clifton Hall said it’s not enough for the city to simply acquire buildings. The nature of the program that ends up operating inside the property makes all the difference, said Denisha Washington, who moved to the former dorm building in July.

Washington said she feels residents are not treated with the respect they deserve, and deal with strict limitations on when they can leave the property, whereas she feels the residents of the senior housing on the floor above them enjoy more freedom.

“Anybody can buy a building and call it a program,” said Washington, who grew up in Oakland but lived in Redding for a couple years until recently. “It’s what you do with it and where your heart is.”

County looks to turn hotels into housing

Alameda County staffers are also keeping an eye out for the next tranche of Homekey money.

The county was the first to take advantage of an earlier state program, Project Roomkey, to lease several hotels, including some by the Oakland airport. Most have been used as long-term COVID-19 shelters for older homeless people or those with medical vulnerabilities. Others are reserved as quarantine spots for people who tested positive for the virus.

There are currently 457 Roomkey rooms, mostly in Oakland hotels, along with one in Berkeley. The county bought two additional buildings, the former Oakland Comfort Inn and Days Hotel, with Homekey money, and is currently seeking proposals from developers who can renovate the buildings and run permanent supportive housing programs at those sites.Those sites contain 238 rooms in total.

According to the county, 950 of the 2,093 people who’ve stayed in a Roomkey hotel or trailer shelter since April 2020 have been moved into permanent housing.

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.