Derrick Soo’s occupation of a vacant hill in his childhood neighborhood reflected the Oakland land-use debates that dominated 2021. Credit: Amir Aziz

Land. There’s not a whole lot of it left undeveloped in Oakland, and that became increasingly evident in 2021 as city leaders, unhoused people, and activists alike debated the best use of limited vacant and built-up space, amid dual housing and public-health crises. 

Where should Oakland allow apartment buildings? How should the city use the land it owns? Where can people who don’t have permanent housing set up tents or park RVs? These were some of the urgent questions at the heart of the housing conversation in Oakland this year, and the questions that ultimately pushed policy decisions. 

Read on to revisit some of 2021’s stories and discussions about land use in Oakland.

“We’re going to resist”

Union Point Park residents protested a state-mandated closure of their encampment, and eventually moved to a co-governed tiny-home site in Eastlake. Credit: Amir Aziz

At the end of 2020, the Oakland City Council passed a controversial “encampment management policy,” making it illegal for people to sleep outside in most areas of the city. In 2021, some unhoused residents and activists pushed back, saying they should be able to live in parks, tennis courts, or vacant property, criticizing the limited or unappealing alternatives.

Finding ways to create more housing

Homes on inclined land in the Oakland Hills. Credit: Amir Aziz
Oakland officials vowed to reevaluate—and possibly abolish—single-family zoning in the city. Credit: Amir Aziz

The majority of Oakland’s residential neighborhoods allow only single-family homes—no apartments. In March, the City Council unanimously voted to look into “upzoning” the city, pointing to the exclusionary history of single-family zoning and the insufficient housing supply for Oakland’s growing population. Meanwhile, activists pushed the city to embrace nontraditional forms of housing too, like RVs and tiny houses, and city leaders ultimately passed a law allowing those homes on private property.

Searching for sites

Vacant, developable lots, like this West Oakland property owned by Caltrans, are few and far between in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

When the “community cabin” transitional housing site closed in the parking lot of the Kaiser Convention Center in March, it wasn’t because the city lacked the money to sustain it. A construction project was set to begin on the parking lot, and the city could not wrangle a new site for the cabins in time. When Oakland came up with $4 million for homeless housing solutions a couple months later, the same question arose: Where could the new programs go?

Public land

This empty Eastlake field—the site of a long-delayed and contentious housing development plan—was at the center of the land-use conversation this year, and eventually became the site of a homelessness program. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

One city-owned lot has long been at the center of a debate over the use of public land. 2021 saw another extension for the developer of the long-delayed construction project at E. 12th Street and 2nd Avenue—and the eventual opening of a temporary tiny-home village at the site.

Vacant private property

Empty lot on 7600 MacArthur in East Oakland
The city has tried to crack down on property owners who don’t use their land for housing. But the unhoused owners of this East Oakland lot say the efforts have backfired. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland’s new vacant property tax is meant to push landlowners into using their undeveloped lots and empty homes for much-needed housing. But as the $6,000 tax rolled out this year, some property owners who were hit with the bill said there’s a loophole in the tax language, penalizing people who are trying to do just that.

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.