At upcoming workshops, the public can weigh in on where it wants to see more construction, and what housing policies the city should pursue. Credit: Amir Aziz

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How will Oakland provide housing for all of its diverse residents in the coming decade?

Weigh in on the General Plan and Housing Element

  • Sunday, Feb. 6: Oakland Asian Cultural Center New Year celebration, 388 9th St., 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (virtual options)
  • Sunday, Feb. 6: Akoma Market General Plan pop-up, 7101 Foothill Blvd., 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  • Thursday, Feb. 10: Housing Workshop, online, 6-8 p.m.

That’s the overarching question the city must answer in its Housing Element, a sweeping “roadmap” for housing Oakland’s population, with a focus on equitably distributing development to better serve low-income residents and groups at risk of displacement.

The Housing Element is one important and initial piece of the city’s General Plan, which is undergoing an update for the first time in more than 20 years. State law requires that the housing section be finalized by early 2023 in order to guide policy for the next eight years.

“It is the vision of the city,” said Planning Commissioner Vince Sugrue at a meeting Wednesday.

In the coming months, the public will have many opportunities to weigh in at community meetings and workshops. Those eager to play a larger role in the process can apply to serve on the Equity Working Group, helping shape the General Plan. The city has tapped Oakland-based planning firm Dyett & Bhatia, which has worked on general plans for many California cities including Emeryville, Castro Valley, San Pablo, and Concord, to help oversee the update. The Deeply Rooted Collaborative, a coalition of over a dozen community organizations, will also serve as a consultant.

City staff and consultants gave an early glimpse into the Housing Element process and initial findings at the Planning Commission meeting Wednesday.

Driving the project is a state requirement that Oakland plan for over 26,000 new housing units by 2031. That’s Oakland’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation, or RHNA. The state sets a required number of new units for the Bay Area—441,000 this Housing Element cycle—and a coordinating body of local governments known as ABAG distributes them among the cities. 

The 26,000 figure is “nearly double the allocation Oakland received last cycle,” said Alison Moore of Dyett & Bhatia. The RHNA units are broken down by income level, and Oakland must plan for more than half to be affordable to low- or moderate-income residents. 

Last cycle, the city blew past its market-rate allotment but fell far short of the affordable housing targets, “driving the point home that we’re going to need to focus on low- and very-low-income housing sites, and moderate-income sites,” Moore said. 

While the Housing Element does not have to propose specific development projects to meet the RHNA numbers, the plan must identify sites that could support the new construction—or propose policy changes, like rezoning to allow taller buildings, if they can’t find enough sites eligible to meet the targets. 

Recent state laws require a greater focus on equity with this Housing Element, mandating that the plan analyze and address segregation patterns and disparities in opportunity, planning to distribute affordable development throughout the city, not only in poorly resourced neighborhoods. 

Nearly a quarter of all households in Oakland are considered extremely low-income, according to the city’s initial findings—significantly higher than the proportions in Alameda County and the Bay Area overall. Nearly half of all households are considered “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than a third of their income on housing—and nearly half are considered at risk of displacement.

Hunting for housing sites

How will city planners go about finding sites for developers to build 26,000 new housing units in Oakland?

They’ll start with the “low-hanging-fruit sites likely to develop with housing,” Moore told commissioners. Those include vacant land zoned to permit housing, sites from the previous Housing Element that are still not developed, city-owned land, property around BART stations, and lots where projects are approved but not yet built. 

“There are still a number of sites downtown, near Lake Merritt BART, and along International Boulevard that were identified last time,” Moore said. 

Several state and local policies passed recently aim to encourage more housing development. Most property owners in Oakland can now build “accessory dwelling units”—like backyard cottages—which count toward the RHNA goals. State law SB 9, which just went into effect, allows property owners to build duplexes on lots zoned to allow only single-family homes. Some large lots can be split in two, allowing up to four units. 

Rajeev Bhatia told the Planning Commission his firm will conduct an analysis to see how these new policies will impact Oakland, but “obviously that’s still going to be a guess, not knowing how individuals themselves will act.” Oakland can’t “bank on” more development from SB9 in the plan, but ADU development is easier to predict based on existing trends.

City planner Laura Kaminski noted that Oakland officials have indicated interest in eliminating single-family zoning throughout the city, regardless of state law. 

The planners asked commissioners to give initial direction on other policies to include in the Housing Element. 

They discussed requiring more affordable units in market-rate development, rather than allowing developers to pay an “impact fee” instead. Other commissioners suggested the city find ways to require more building in the hills, diversify the types of housing that’s built, and land bank

The Housing Element will also include an analysis of the successes and failures of the previous plan.

In a very broad overview of that section, consultants said Oakland’s shown success in creating emergency shelters, transitional and senior housing, and housing for extremely low-income households, but it has failed to meet the RHNA targets for all categories except above-moderate-income households.

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.