A row of white tiny houses
A new, temporary homeless shelter is using Pallet shelters, plastic and aluminum structures designed for homeless housing. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Dozens of unhoused people who’ve lived in tents and parks around Lake Merritt are preparing to move temporarily into private, heated tiny homes on a large, city-owned lot nearby in Oakland’s Eastlake neighborhood.

City leaders and advocates gathered Monday morning for an open house at the new emergency shelter site under rainy skies that demonstrated the urgency of moving people indoors. 

“This is a supportive shelter project that’s using public land for public good,” said City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who’s long pushed for a homelessness or affordable housing project at the E. 12th Street and 2nd Avenue location.

But the longer-term fate of the site, which has sat vacant for years as development plans have languished, is unclear.

In the short term, two separate emergency homelessness programs, approved by the City Council over the summer, are expected to begin housing residents next week. Both programs are using Pallet shelters, huts made of plastic and aluminum that are designed to be assembled rapidly for temporary homeless housing. 

One set of the shelters which will house up to 65 people will be managed by Housing Consortium of the East Bay. The program will include three daily meals and services ranging from housing to mental health help. People already living in tents at the E. 12th Street site and elsewhere in District 2 were prioritized for those shelters. 

City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, who represents Eastlake, has long pushed for temporary housing on the E. 12th Street development site. Credit: Amir Aziz

Next to those huts, the city has set up another group of tiny homes for around 16 homeless people who were made to leave Union Point Park. This section will be the city’s first “co-governed encampment,” where residents will work with service provider Tiny Logic to develop their own rules and procedures. 

Bas said both programs offer amenities that are lacking at other emergency shelters and transitional housing facilities, like the city’s “Community Cabin” sites, which also consist of tiny-house structures. 

“We’ve been listening to what some of the barriers were—why people might not have said yes to other city interventions,” Bas told The Oaklandside. “We’re really looking at this as a positive evolution of what the city has been doing.” 

The Pallet shelters used for both new programs are single-occupancy, except for some double rooms that will allow partners to live together. In many cases, Community Cabin occupants have to pair up with strangers, a common complaint among unhoused people who’ve declined the city’s offers to move to those sites. 

The new shelters will also come with heating, electricity, fire extinguishers, and lockable doors. Showers will be available inside a converted, donated AC Transit bus at the site, and large storage containers will protect residents’ belongings. Lack of storage is another common reason people turn down other shelter offers.

The Pallet shelters have foldable beds and lockable doors. Credit: Amir Aziz

Krystal Prater, who’s set to move into the E. 12th Street shelter, said the promise of heating was a big draw for her, after months of living in a tent at the site.

“The elements are sometimes a bit much,” she said Monday, as the rain soaked her belongings. “And this is a stepping stone to permanent housing.” 

Darin Lounds, executive director of Housing Consortium of the East Bay, said the organization will work with residents to get their personal documents in order, so they’re in a good position to apply for housing opportunities. 

The 65-person shelter will be overseen by a “community council” including housed neighbors, nearby business owners, advocates, and some of the shelter’s residents. The group will provide feedback to the city and Housing Consortium, and may organize forums, volunteer opportunities, and fundraising campaigns. 

Some advocates had pushed for a council made up exclusively of shelter residents. Some have also expressed concerns about possible disparities between the main 65-person program and the adjacent co-governed encampment, where residents will have more direct say in how their program is run, for example handling their own security and making decisions about how to respond to conflict among residents. Conversely, the co-governed camp may not have access to the full range of supportive services available to those managed by Housing Consortium. 

“That’s something we’ve been grappling with and thinking about a lot,” said Lia Azul Salaverry, a Bas staffer working on homelessness policy. But she noted that “there is a lot of consistency in amenities and offerings,” including the physical structures, and opportunities for residents to voice their concerns, whether through the council at the Housing Consortium shelter or the co-governing structure of the adjacent, smaller site.

Development deadline nearing for apartment tower

Unlike at some homelessness facilities, where people are permitted to stay for only a short length of time, the new shelters will let residents remain living in their tiny homes as long as they need to. But days could be numbered for the shelter itself. For years, UrbanCore Development has planned to build an apartment tower on the E. 12th property now covered in Pallet huts.

Neighbors, city staff, and advocates gathered in the rain for an open house at the E. 12th Street shelter Monday. Credit: Amir Aziz

The plans date back to 2015, when the city struck a deal with the company for a market-rate housing complex. The agreement turned out to be illegal, because the state’s Surplus Lands Act requires that public land be offered first to affordable housing developers. 

Later, UrbanCore was selected again to develop the site, along with non-profit developer EBALDC. Their joint project is designed to include 252 market-rate units and 18 middle-income apartments, in addition to 91 low-income units in a separate building.

But the developer has missed several deadlines to secure financing and start building, receiving numerous extensions from the city along the way. Early this year, UrbanCore asked City Administrator Ed Reiskin for more time, saying the COVID-19 pandemic had caused further setbacks. The city administration invoked a clause in the development agreement that allowed the city to extend the timeline based on unforseen events like the pandemic. 

At the time, UrbanCore President Michael Johnson told The Oaklandside he expected to be ready to begin building in late summer 2021. 

The company’s final extension expires in February. If the developer hasn’t secured financing by then, the project would have to go back to the City Council, which could decide to scrap it. Johnson did not immediately respond to questions about whether he expects to meet the deadline. 

“If they meet that benchmark, there may be construction next year, in which case we’ll work to ensure a transition for the residents here, as well as making sure we can move these shelters to another location,” said Bas at Monday’s event. 

If the developer misses the deadline, Bas said she’d like to see “100% affordable housing” built at the site, something neighborhood activists have long pushed for, even drawing up an alternative proposal with Satellite Affordable Housing Associates. 

In the meantime, Bas said, the Pallet shelters demonstrate how the city can “use public land for interim homelessness solutions while developments are in the works.”

Another co-governed Pallet shelter program is slated for a state-owned parcel in West Oakland, at Peralta and Third streets. That 40-person program will also be managed by Housing Consortium, in partnership with the residents.

City Councilmember Carroll Fife’s office, which is leading that project, did not respond to a request for an update on the status by publication time. It is unclear whether construction has begun at that site, but there were two small bulldozers parked on it this week.

The combined total funding approved for both the West Oakland and Eastlake projects was $5.1 million. The money comes from an excess $3.9 million identified in the city budget for emergency homelessness programs, as well as $1.2 million in revenue from Measure Q, a 2020 tax for homelessness services and parks. City staff and officials spent months scouting locations for programs before honing in on those two over the summer.

The E. 12th site was initially slated to open over Labor Day weekend, but it took longer than expected to set up utilities, Bas said. 

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.