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A report on the feasibility of launching a 1,000-person homeless shelter at the old Oakland Army Base was among several housing-related items heard by the City Council on Tuesday. Credit: Courtesy city of Oakland

Oakland renters, landlords, and politicians will soon have access to a lot more information on rental housing in the city.

The city’s first-ever rental housing registry—approved by the City Council unanimously on Tuesday—will likely include data on who owns which properties in Oakland, whether they’re covered by rent control, how much landlords can charge tenants, and the eviction history for any unit. The registry will include all housing covered by Oakland’s rent control and eviction laws, which is most rental buildings constructed before 1995.

“This is a long time coming,” said Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas at the meeting. Many cities with rent control already have registries, allowing tenants and city staff to monitor whether landlords are complying with the law. Currently in Oakland, a renter has to file a complaint if they suspect they’re being overcharged.

“It’s the final step in moving from a complaint-driven program to active enforcement,” said Chanée Franklin Minor, manager of Oakland’s Rent Adjustment Program. Her staff will be able to communicate directly with tenants and landlords about rent limits for the first time because they’ll have each unit’s address. Officials said the registry will also be a boon for policymaking, finally illuminating what the average rent price is in the city and other information that can inform programs and laws.  

Landlords will be required to submit information about each of their rental units annually to the city, or be prohibited from evicting tenants or raising rents beyond the standard amount. Councilmember Loren Taylor said Oakland should pair this registration with other required steps for landlords so they don’t forget to register, and the city should design the database so it’s user-friendly.

Minor said those decisions will come next. Tuesday’s vote authorized a rent registry, and now the city will seek a developer for the database. 

1,000-person shelter at the army base? Maybe not

The rent registry was among several housing-related items on the packed council agenda. A passionate conversation on homelessness, and how the city is handling the crisis, came toward the end of the night, prompted by a report looking at a potential homeless shelter at the old Oakland Army Base. 

Councilmember Carroll Fife had asked for the report, believing the site in her West Oakland district could provide temporary housing for a full fifth of Oakland’s homeless population. It’s an idea that was raised by her predecessor, Lynette Gibson McElhaney, too. But at Tuesday’s meeting, city staffers were less enthusiastic about the idea of a 1,000-person homeless shelter at the base. City Administrator Ed Reiskin called the site “unusable” and an “environmentally unjust location,” saying Oakland doesn’t have the time or money to remediate toxic hazards there to make it habitable.

Two major recycling companies, California Waste Solutions and CASS, have long planned to relocate to the site in question, the North Gateway parcel of the base, and construction could begin at the end of this year, according to the city. 

An exasperated Fife said she “takes a bit of offense” at the idea that she’d propose a toxic site for a shelter, explaining that she’s spoken to experts about ways to make the base safe.

“Forgive me if I’m zealous and pushy about trying to find solutions,” she said, complaining that even small endeavors, like a new bathroom at a city-sanctioned camp, take too much time for the city to execute. “The hunger, frustration, and tiredness I’m feeling pales in comparison to what people on the street are feeling.” 

Reiskin pitched a list of alternative sites for new temporary shelters, saying staff would pursue those locations if the council approved them and allocated funding. 

Councilmembers indicated they wouldn’t pursue a program at the army base.

Social housing on the ballot

Also from Fife: a ballot measure that will ask voters in the November election to lay the groundwork for building or converting up to 13,000 subsidized, affordable “social housing” apartments in Oakland. The council voted unanimously to place the measure on the ballot. 

To be clear, approval of this item by voters in November would not guarantee the construction of any of this housing, nor would it create any funding for development. But the California constitution says voter approval is needed for cities to build publicly funded housing, so if it passes, the measure would authorize Oakland developers and land trusts to pursue projects in the future.

Fife said the 1950-era constitutional provision in question, Article 34, “is a relic of a segregationist past,” stemming from opposition to the integration of California neighborhoods. For years, voters have used their authority under Article 34 to reject countless public housing projects, though the provision has less of an impact these days. In contemporary times, low-income housing is often not funded by city dollars, so a vote is not required. 

But Fife says Oakland should open the door to “municipally owned and managed housing,” giving working-class residents a shot at affording homes in the city.
“In order for us to meet our housing goals for the individuals who need it the most, we need to create an exemption” from Article 34, Fife said. “This will make it that much easier to move forward.”

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.