row of houses, fenced in
A new program will subsidize rents for a select group of tenants. Credit: Pete Rosos

Two hundred Oakland families are receiving ongoing rent help from a new $3.4 million pilot program through Mayor Libby Schaaf’s office.

Participants in the “shallow subsidy” initiative receive checks each month—an average of $750 per household per month—designed to cover enough of the cost so that the tenants are no longer spending more than half of their income on housing. The pilot, which began in July but was announced Tuesday, will last for 18 months.

“With ongoing support to bridge the gap between what people earn and what the rents are,” Schaaf said at a virtual press conference, “we can stabilize families and prevent homelessness from happening in the first place.” 

Over the past decade in Oakland, both homelessness numbers and rents have exploded. At last count in 2019, more than 4,000 people lacked permanent housing in Oakland, with Black residents disproportionately likely to be homeless. The majority was previously housed in Alameda County. Oakland rents increased 108% between 2010 and 2020.

The shallow subsidy program is privately funded, including support from Marc and Lynne Benioff, Kaiser Permanente, Crankstart, and Tipping Point Communiy. Juma Crawford, CEO of the Oakland Fund for Public Innovation, which is involved in the pilot, declined to answer a question about how much money each funder contributed. 

The 200 people were selected from existing applications for Keep Oakland Housed, another rental assistance program.

“I was falling behind on bills and rent” before receiving the subsidy, said recipient Laura Sloan in a promotional video about the program. “I don’t know what I would have done” without the assistance.

Applicants were prioritized if they lived in “historically disenfranchised” neighborhoods where rents have risen tremendously, and if they’ve had experience with homelessness and were paying more than half of their income on rent, said Logan McDonnell, an associate director with Bay Area Community Services. BACS is administering the shallow subsidy program and is one of the organizations operating Keep Oakland Housed as well.

The federal government considers a household “rent burdened” if the tenants spend more than 30% of their income on rent, and “severely rent burdened” if they spend over 50%. 

“The traumas of poverty, and having to find other resources so you can survive, [make it so] you can’t get anything done,” McDonnell said at the press conference. With the rent help, “they can focus on the things they need to focus on, to thrive and be part of the communities they grew up in.”

The shallow subsidy program is not the only rent relief available to some Oakland tenants. The federal Section 8 program provides ongoing rental subsidies, too. However, a landlord must agree to participate in the program and there are often long waitlists to receive the limited number of vouchers provided to each region. There are also stricter eligibility criteria, requiring voucher recipients to be U.S. citizens and have formal lease agreements with landlords, which the shallow subsidy pilot does not require, said Jonathan Russell, chief strategy officer with BACS. 

“We don’t see this as an either/or, or a which is better, but evidence that we need a whole spectrum of interventions that serve the whole range of community needs and situations,” Russell said in an email.

Oakland is also distributing millions of dollars in federal and state COVID-19 rent relief to households impacted by the pandemic. That assistance comes in the form of a one-time payment covering missed rent.

“Traditionally, our homelessness prevention programs, like Keep Oakland Housed, are one-time emergency assistance programs,” Schaaf said. “We know that racism is not a one-time emergency.”

The shallow subsidy program shares many characteristics with Oakland’s guaranteed income pilot, another initiative led by Schaaf which provides monthly, no-strings-attached payments to a select group of low-income residents over a period of 18 months. But the new rental subsidy amounts are calculated based on the recipient’s rent burden, rather than the flat-rate guaranteed income, and are meant to be used specifically on rent, Russell said. 

Dr. Margot Kushel of UCSF will lead an evaluation of the program, analyzing the impact of the subsidies and comparing outcomes for tenants who receive the assistance with those who don’t.

“We think this will allow us to make a better case to policymakers” to potentially fund a permanent program, she 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.