Row of RVs lined up
Oakland will open a new RV parking program on 66th Avenue, similar to this site on Wood Street. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Wrapping up their policymaking for the year, Oakland officials set the stage Tuesday for several new homeless housing facilities to likely open up in 2022.

During thirteen hours of back-to-back City Council meetings, councilmembers voted on numerous housing matters, including a new RV park in East Oakland, applications for state-funded housing programs, and rules around backyard cottages. 

But even with access to millions of dollars in state funds for housing, a sobering recognition lay underneath Tuesday’s decisions: there’s still not enough resources available to house all of the thousands of homeless people in Oakland, many of them living on the streets in tents, makeshift shacks, and vehicles. At times, councilmembers squabbled over the best use of scarce funds and questioned whether the city has been spending them most appropriately or effectively. 

Here’s what happened in housing decisions Tuesday.

RV parking in East Oakland

The City Council greenlit a proposal from Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan to open a new RV “safe parking” site 796 66th Ave, a city-owned parking lot near the Coliseum. The site will have sanitation services and give preference to residents who lived in Oakland before they lost their permanent housing. RV dwellers will pay a sliding-scale fee to park at the site.

At last count, there were 700 people living in RVs in Oakland, and the site is located in the neighborhood with the largest concentration, said interim Homelessness Administrator LaTonda Simmons: “The need is tremendous.” 

Kaplan said the lack of access to sanitation services is a “public health crisis.” Some don’t have access to running water or places to dump their waste. 

The $1.74 million endeavor is funded in large part by unbudgeted homelessness money Kaplan said she recently discovered was missing due to a spreadsheet error. 

Her proposal initially included two other projects: a tiny-home site on Wood Street and an RV park by I-880 and High Street. Kaplan said she will propose a new location for the Wood Street program, and she accepted Councilmember Noel Gallo’s request to scrap the I-880 project because of parking needs there from BART and nearby affordable housing. 

Homekey housing projects

Officials also gave city staff the go-ahead to apply for up to $120 million in state funding for five supportive housing projects. 

The applications are through California’s COVID-19 “Homekey” program, which funds housing for currently homeless residents. Cities and counties can apply, often on behalf of local organizations, for funds to buy and convert existing buildings like hotels, or otherwise create supportive housing. Oakland received three Homekey awards last year (a fourth project was funded but fell through), and now the city is eyeing the state’s latest $1.45 billion pot of funds for more housing. 

The new applications:

  • Kingdom Builders Transitional Housing, an existing Fruitvale program serving youth and formerly incarcerated people
  • The Phoenix, the affordable housing component of a planned mixed-income development in West Oakland, a co-application with EBALDC and Allied Housing
  • Piedmont Place, a hotel that BACS and Memar Properties plan to buy on MacArthur Boulevard to create supportive housing 
  • Coliseum Way, the conversion of an East Oakland hotel into supportive housing by Operation Dignity and Danco

Together, the four projects include 166 housing units. The council approved a fifth application at the Radisson by the airport, which the city will only submit if the co-applicants can come up with more funding. A sixth staff proposal, applying with BACS to acquire numerous houses or small buildings—similar to their project funded last year—was contentious. Kaplan successfully pushed to put off that decision, saying BACS was given more leeway than other applicants, who were told they couldn’t apply for Homekey if they didn’t know their site addresses yet.

For all projects, the city would be required to contribute local funding—up to $9 million total. In two cases, Piedmont Place and Coliseum Way, the city would also provide around $10 million to support operating costs. While last year Oakland used Homekey funds to buy an old college dorm, in all of these cases, the nonprofit co-applicants would own the properties.

The city’s contribution would come from separate state and federal grants, and staff said it’s important to spend remaining money on maintaining existing homelessness programs. But officials said they were concerned there’s no plan to keep the 92-room Lake Merritt Lodge transitional housing site open past April, when federal support is set to expire.

ADUs in the fire zone

Oakland will begin restricting ADU construction in the darker-pink sections of this map. ADUs are already banned in the light pink areas.

The City Council approved new regulations for accessory dwelling units, or ADUs—backyard cottages and in-law units built on the same lot as an existing house. The vote largely brought Oakland’s rules into compliance with state law, but also further restricted where ADUs can be built in the fire-prone hills.

Numerous state and local policies in recent years have promoted ADUs as a quick and relatively inexpensive way to add much-needed housing units. But the Oakland Fire Department has raised concerns about adding more density to the hills, where increased cars and residents would make an already-risky evacuation process even tougher in the event of a wildfire. OFD has called for an ADU ban in the fire-risk zone.

After dozens of passionate residents turned out to Planning Commission meetings on the matter this year, many of them opposed to OFD’s position, city staff came up with a compromise measure. “We looked at balancing the need for public safety with the competing priority of ADUs,” said planner Laura Kaminski on Tuesday. 

The new rules ban most ADUs in the parts of the designated fire-hazard area where streets are particularly narrow. The area covered by this rule goes further than existing restrictions but falls short of an all-out hills ban. And affected homeowners can still build one internal ADU—or a cottage, if they add off-street parking or have a medical need. 

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.