The director of Oakland's Housing & Community Development Department is responsible for guiding the city's strategy around building and maintaining quality and affordable homes. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland’s top housing official left her post this month to become the chief operating officer of the non-profit developer Eden Housing.

Shola Olatoye. Credit: Olatoye/LinkedIn

Shola Olatoye was appointed director of Oakland’s Housing & Community Development Department in January 2020. She previously served a tumultuous term leading the New York City Housing Authority.

In Oakland, her job was quickly dominated by the pandemic. Olatoye oversaw the city’s rental assistance program and its efforts to secure state COVID-19 funds for new housing sites. She prioritized preserving and creating affordable housing in existing buildings, in addition to new development, and expanding the city’s collection of housing data.

The Oaklandside grabbed coffee with Olatoye during her last week on the job. She reflected on the impact of the pandemic and shared insights into the future of housing in Oakland. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Right after you began this job, the pandemic struck. It posed one of the greatest challenges Oakland ever faced on the housing front. But it also presented unusual opportunities, right?

Yeah, I did not think I would be running a $48 million emergency rental assistance program—but we did it and it’s served close to 3,000 households. 

Then we heard through the grapevine that the state was going to do this program, Homekey. I didn’t know anything about it, but I was like, ‘We’re doing it.’ My colleague Christina Mun [now interim director] and I just kind of MacGyvered the first round, I’ll be totally honest, in terms of finding projects and qualified sponsors who could deliver on a really aggressive schedule. And we learned so much about how to move quickly and work across the city, because we did in eight months what usually takes 12-36 months. It was unheard of. I do think it speaks to the fact that if you have a vision and you create a regulatory path—meaning get rid of some of the stuff that takes up time—and you put real money in the project, we can actually address the homelessness crisis. You need more housing for people who are at that very low-income level, and that’s what Homekey did.

Under Homekey, the city only purchased one building itself, an old college dorm in Rockridge.  For the other Homekey sites, the city worked with nonprofits that bought the buildings. It raised a question about the best way to use significant state housing dollars. You previously ran the New York Housing Authority, and some people here believe Oakland should similarly be buying up property, as well as providing public housing.

I don’t think they should. I think we’re really good at some things and not other things. It takes on-site, nimble property-management staff to manage buildings. That’s not the city. Our buildings close at 5 p.m. They’re operated by incredibly hard-working people who have a set of labor restrictions they’re operating under, which is costly. 

CCA was almost once-in-a-lifetime, an opportunistic moment. It was the location, it was the timing, it was a maybe 15-year-old building that didn’t need a lot of work. When it came up on the market, we had to strike while the iron was hot. I do hope we get more opportunities to acquire and build properties in “higher opportunity” parts of the city.

Why isn’t more affordable housing getting built or created in Oakland? The city has blown through the targets for new market-rate units in recent years but consistently fallen far short of low-income housing goals.

Money. Oakland isn’t funded to deliver those projects. It’s no surprise that the market-rate numbers have been met, because we were experiencing a boom and the market did what the market did. The city had $100 million [for housing from the Measure KK bond] versus estimates of a couple billion dollars that have happened in terms of real estate investment in the area. You need the money, and it doesn’t come from just impact fees. You need another source of capital to do it. 

The other public sentiment is “affordable to whom?” and I think it’s a really fair criticism. It’s a challenge for all cities; Oakland is not unique, but people feel it is, because of what we see on the streets. In order to build units for those very, very low-income people, you need operating dollars too, for maintenance and services. Typically, Section 8 is the primary way in which cities help support that. Oakland hasn’t had any demonstrable increase in its Section 8 allocation in more than five years. There was a special allocation of about 500 emergency housing vouchers, which go through the Oakland Housing Authority. I think one opportunity going forward is closer alignment between the city and OHA, to ensure the city’s policy goals and sense of urgency are mirrored in the housing authority space.

What’s the future of the eviction moratorium?

I’m very sensitive to landlords who have experienced their own financial challenges because their tenants aren’t paying rent. It’s not a rent moratorium. If you have the ability to pay rent, you should be paying. 

But in the rental assistance program, we’re seeing people who’d put off all other expenses, and they came to us when they literally had exhausted everything but had always paid their rent. And they had their incomes disappear overnight. We’re starting to get numbers, and it will be interesting to see now, two-and-a-half or three years in, how many people truly are still not employed, still not able to pay their rent. 

There’s a lot of rhetoric around “mom and pop” landlords, but not a ton of data around what that means. Larger companies are going to be fine. But for smaller property owners—for me that would be 10 units and below—a missed rental payment has significant challenges for them. It’s not an easy issue, and I think once the election stuff gets sorted out, policymakers will have to revisit [the moratorium]. And I would hope that there’s a regional, statewide approach to thinking about how we address the outstanding debts that folks have—both the renters and property owners. I don’t think Oakland is going to solve it alone, and the city government doesn’t have the ability to write off this debt like the federal government does.

Let’s talk about city support for first-time homebuyers. The city’s mortgage assistance program, MAP, has been unfunded for quite some time. Was that a priority for you, and should it be a city focus going forward?

Yes, that MAP program has been very successful. One of the first things that I did when I got here was complete an application going to CalHome [the state’s grant for city homebuyer assistance]. We’ve been denied three years in a row. This is where one part of government sort of works in conflict with another. There are questions about the efficiency of state dollars in high-cost cities, and CalHome actually reorganized its scoring system such that it disproportionately hurts high-cost cities. Because the average home price is $1 million here, we are not even competitive. 

Our city staff are super nimble and creative, and for the last three years we’ve used recycled interest payments, to support a smaller program. We have people on the waitlist and in the last year, we helped one homeowner. The year before I believe it was 11. If voters approve the [affordable housing] bond in November, I think a significant portion of those funds should go towards homeownership. How do we keep the people who are here? It was not lost on me that the housing director had a hard time finding housing in the city of Oakland when we got here. We rented for a year at a friend of a friend’s place, and then we were very lucky to be able to buy something. 

Shola Olatoye (in red pants) introduced HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge at the Homekey site in Rockridge in late 2021, alongside other local officials. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Your departure is part of a larger pattern of turnover among top housing and homelessness officials in Oakland. Why are people working in this field leaving, or is it a coincidence?

I can’t speak to the homelessness organizations. All of those folks have been there for a very long time. It’s also the end of Mayor Schaaf’s term. I came to Oakland because I wanted to work for Mayor Schaaf—a woman who had taken on Donald Trump, who’d declared that affordable housing was one of her main priorities. Oakland is a little unique in that when the political leadership turns over, the administrative staff don’t turn over. But it’s like that in most every other big city.

What are you most proud of accomplishing? 

I wanted to do five things when I got here, though clearly, those things changed with the pandemic. I knew the department needed a plan to both spend down the resources it had—the Measure KK bond—and to lay out a capital plan going forward. 

In order to do that we needed good data, and the department didn’t have that. So we created partnerships with the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford’s Changing Cities Lab. The next piece was using that data to usher in an era of transparency. People needed to see that the public money was being stewarded, and when it wasn’t moving, to be able to explain why.

Fourth was we just needed to hire people. We had a tremendous number of vacancies, particularly in the unit that closes real estate deals. There were six or seven people in that department and now there are 14. 

The last thing was I really wanted to center racial equity in the work in a way it hadn’t been. People think that if you invest in low- and moderate-income communities, that’s doing racial equity work. Yes, and we can be more intentional to make sure our resources are targeting the people most affected.

What do you wish you’d done differently?

I think about the emergency rental assistance program. One of the challenges for any city, but certainly in the city of Oakland, is our contracting process. It’s very laborious, very complicated. There are some cities across the state that also chose to accept their own allocations [instead of having the state administer the program], but just had a bit more nimble ways to get the money out. We should have tried to be a little bit more creative.

Has all the money been distributed?

[Rounds one and two] are spent and out. We have about $3.5 million left, and still have about 2,500 people waiting. We’re processing about $400,000 a week in requests, which represents about 40 applications, at the average point of $10,000 per application. That’s great for those families, and I would love to double that. 

What else should people know about this work?

I think it’s really challenging to remain focused. When you have a council during an election season, everybody wants to have the great idea of the next program, and the administration is constantly being pulled in different directions. We’re like, ‘Okay, you want us to focus on equity, and getting money to as many partners as possible, but then you also want us to go full force to these organizations that you really, really like, but we’re telling you that they can’t really do the job.’ 

Maybe that’s an inherent tension, but I’m in awe of some of my colleagues—you don’t even know the time that it takes to put together an agenda packet and how many people are involved.

My hope is that—and I think this comes with good data and transparency and relationship-building—council and the administration can be a bit more aligned with the priorities. I’m excited, and I hope that the new administration kind of takes some of those lessons. I’ve really enjoyed working with [Councilmembers] Nikki Bas and Carroll Fife and Loren [Taylor] and Treva [Reid]. So hopefully you get through the election period, and then you can have a bit more of a plan and a vision, and part of that is being able to articulate what you support.

What are you hopeful for?

I’m really excited about the leadership at Oakland’s Housing & Community Development Department. People like me will come and go, but you have long-term staff supporting them who do really good work. They’re really committed and, I think, representative of Oakland. 

But there’s a ton of work to do, and this is no victory lap. We haven’t gotten the 5,000 people who are sleeping on the street off the street. There’s real challenges ahead. There is a plan, but it’s going to take a level of focus and patience, and a sense of urgency, that I think can get lost sometimes in election season. We made the case that we needed more resources, and the voters will decide in November if they agree.

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.