In survey after survey, and in interviews with The Oaklandside, Oakland residents have identified homelessness and housing as some of the most urgent issues facing the city. While house and rent prices have skyrocketed, the city’s unhoused population has reached a staggering 5,000 residents.
Oakland’s mayor has the power to set the agenda: They can push for new policies, raise funds for programs, and seek state and federal grants. They can also direct the city administration and hold department heads accountable for meeting goals. In her first term, for example, Mayor Libby Schaaf announced her “17K/17K” plan to build 17,000 market-rate and low-income housing units, and preserve the affordability of another 17,000 existing homes, by 2024.
The city has nearly met Schaaf’s 17,000-unit construction goal—though only a fraction of the homes are affordable. In fact, Oakland is far behind in adding the number of low-income housing units the state has required.
Using a mix of private and city funding, Schaaf spearheaded homelessness programs like the “community cabin” shelters, now a centerpiece of the city’s crisis response, though it’s shown mixed results. Last year, she backed an initiative to make it easier to build more types of nontraditional housing in the city, like tiny houses and RV dwellings.
Some of the candidates running for mayor this year have made homelessness and housing focal points of their campaigns, but they disagree on how to address the crisis. Others don’t have quite as developed ideas for bringing Oakland closer to meeting its distant affordable housing goals and getting more people off the streets.
The Oaklandside conducted in-depth interviews with the candidates, asking them how they’d respond to the housing and homelessness crises, among other pressing issues. We also examined the legislative records of the candidates who’ve held office before, and the professional and personal backgrounds of those who haven’t, to better understand their positions.
More services or closing camps?
The biggest recent development in Oakland’s approach to homelessness was the Encampment Management Policy, or EMP. Approved unanimously in 2020 by the City Council—which included two mayoral candidates, Loren Taylor and Sheng Thao—the EMP spells out where people are allowed to sleep outside, declaring most of the city off-limits. It also explains how the city will prioritize which camps to clean or provide with services.
When the city closes camps, the EMP requires the city and its outreach workers to offer residents spots in short-term shelters or long-term transitional housing programs. Oakland contracts with nonprofit organizations to run these programs. A recent audit revealed that the city spent $69 million over three years on these organizations but largely failed to meet goals for moving participants into permanent housing.
No candidate has been more critical of the city’s current approach to homeless camps than Seneca Scott, who through his nonprofit Neighbors Together Oakland sued the city, accusing it of not implementing the EMP. He also participated in a rally outside an encampment to call attention to what he sees as the city’s failure to close homeless camps. The city says it does follow the policy, citing the EMP as the reason for many camp closures and cleanings.
Scott said that if he’s elected, he’ll ensure the city observes a 60-day notice period before closing a camp, in the meantime cleaning the area and working with organizations that have a track record of getting people to accept services and shelter.
But he would be firm with unhoused residents who live at a camp that’s being closed who don’t accept shelter. “If housing is not something you want, you’re not going to be here in 60 days. Everyone has a responsibility to be a good neighbor, housed and unhoused,” he said.
Scott has at times posted misinformation or rumors about the homelessness crisis. After a fire on Wood Street, he tweeted that he heard the FBI discovered 10 dead bodies in the trunks of cars there, which the Oakland police and fire departments said was untrue. He also quickly linked a fire along I-580 to “illegal encampments,” even though OFD said it was unclear there were any there. Asked about these statements, he stood by them, saying an Oakland police officer told him about the bodies, and that focusing on these comments was “gaslighting” given the frequency of dangerous fires at camps. Candidate Treva Reid also linked the I-580 fire to a homeless camp.
On the other end of the spectrum when it comes to camp closures is John Reimann, who told us he doesn’t believe in “rousting people” from “the only homes they know” without investing in more public housing. He said he supports “massive funding for services” in the next budget, to clean camps and provide safety equipment, for example to prevent fires while cooking. However, he said he’d govern from the ground up, “encouraging a movement from below” to solve the city’s problems instead of weidling his power as mayor.
Allyssa Victory holds views similar to Reimann’s, but said she would take full advantage of her position as mayor to expand emergency housing, invoking emergency powers and funding to quickly move more people into hotels.
She said the EMP amounts to “redlining,” segregating unhoused people in a few select areas where they’re permitted to live. “I want to stop the current encampment policy,” she said.
Victory herself has been homeless in the past—and so has Thao. Both candidates say their experiences have left them with a sense of empathy for the people currently dealing with hardship and have informed their knowledge of what solutions are needed.
Bringing Oakland closer to its distant affordable housing goals
As Oakland’s population has grown by 50,000 people over the past decade, housing construction has not kept pace, with only 9,000 new units opening over the same period. While the city has met targets set by the region and state for building market-rate housing, it’s fallen far short on affordable housing.
In November, voters will be asked to approve a $850 million bond measure for infrastructure, including $350 million for affordable housing. But even that massive amount of money won’t come close to funding all of the roughly 18,000 low- and moderate-income units Oakland needs by 2031.
The mayoral candidates each have different ideas about what else needs to be done to build the amount of housing that can make a dent in affordability, housing insecurity, and homelessness.
One of Thao’s solutions, which will soon come before the City Council, is something called an “enhanced infrastructure financing district,” or EIFD. This special district created by the city would raise money for housing development and other infrastructure by setting aside a portion of future increases in property tax revenue within specific neighborhoods. This is basically the same thing the Oakland A’s want to use to finance their Howard Terminal project, collecting some of the property tax revenue generated by the proposed ballpark, offices, and housing to pay back the construction costs.
A study found that if an Oakland EIFD received just a small portion of future tax increases, around 2.5%, it would generate $1.5 million annually after five years and up to $2.8 million after 10 years. The larger the set-aside, the more money it would raise. The city could use the funds to subsidize affordable housing projects.
Thao said she’d prioritize affordable housing over market-rate construction, given Oakland’s exceeded its goals for the latter, and would focus on historically exclusive areas.
“I’ve been trying to build affordable housing above 580 because I believe that if you want to live there, you should be able to,” she said, referring to the freeway generally considered the dividing line between the affluent hills and lower-income flatlands.
Taylor supports pursuing an EIFD but isn’t sure if it can actually raise enough new revenue. He said another way to build more housing is to reorganize the Planning and Building Department so that permits and approvals are easier to get. He also wants to create more opportunities for local Black and brown developers who are integrated in the neighborhoods where their projects are located.
Reid, who’s also on the council, similarly called for targeting housing funds to benefit Black community members, who are disproportionately represented in Oakland’s homelessness population. She sits on the regional Black Bay Area Housing Advisory Task Force, which recently pushed the state to fund a program for Black homeownership.
Taylor has also proposed a “social impact fund” that would allow Oakland residents to invest in affordable housing projects for small returns.
This sort of plan is in stark contrast to Victory’s vow to meet the city’s affordable housing goals “without relying on private financing.” She’s proposed the creation of a public bank—a bank owned and operated by the city—to fund public housing.
“Why set goals if we’re not prioritizing affordable housing over market-rate?” she said. “There is not the political will.”
Ignacio De La Fuente said that as Oakland mayor he’d focus on urging others to shoulder more of the burden of building.
“I will push the county and push other cities to do their share,” he told us. “I don’t think that Oakland can do it all.”
But De La Fuente noted that while he was on the City Council from 1992 to 2011 he was integral in the creation of the Fruitvale Village, which turned an old cannery into a large center with housing and shops.
In interviews, Greg Hodge was the candidate who spoke the most about efforts to keep housing-insecure residents in their homes, and to keep those homes affordable. He’s in favor of strengthening Oakland’s Just Cause eviction protections—there’s a measure on November’s ballot that will do this—along with funding legal assistance for tenants facing evictions. Hodge also wants to reinstate Oakland’s unfunded mortgage assistance program for first-time homebuyers. And he supports a policy that would give tenants the first chance to buy the building they live in if their landlord puts it up for sale. Known as the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, this plan has been discussed in Oakland but property owners are strongly opposed.
Tyron Jordan also supports using a portion of the $850 million bond measure revenue for mortgage assistance as well as expanding the city’s rental assistance program—a COVID-19 initiative that’s used up nearly all the state and federal money supporting it.
Council records on rent control
While candidates make statements and promises on the campaign trail, the records of those already in office give a stronger indication of how they might lead. On the two most impactful housing policies in recent memory—the Encampment Management Policy and the ongoing COVID-19 eviction moratorium—Taylor and Thao joined the rest of their City Council colleagues in unanimous support (Reid was not yet on council). Later, Taylor advocated for more frequent reviews of the eviction policy instead of an indefinite extension, but ended up voting for the extension nonetheless.
During a recent controversial decision to cap annual rent increases at 3%, Taylor pushed for an amendment favored by landlords. While the policy limits rent increases to 3% or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower, Taylor’s amendment would have effectively allowed the full 3% increase during some years. He ultimately abstained from the vote, while fellow candidates Thao and Reid voted in support of the cap.
Taylor is the only landlord on the council—he owns a single family rental property in North Oakland—and has faced criticism from some colleagues and constituents who believe his position creates a conflict of interest preventing him from voting fairly on tenant protections.
In an interview with The Oaklandside, Taylor strongly disagreed, saying he’s best positioned to make informed, balanced decisions, having been a tenant, homeowner, and landlord at various times.
“It’s important to acknowledge that property ownership is the primary vehicle that wealth has been created in the Black community and other underserved communities over the past couple of generations,” he said.
In this election, the candidate with the strongest visible support from rental property owners and developers is De La Fuente. Greg McConnell, a lobbyist for many real estate developers and landlords started a political action committee to support De La Fuente, and prominent Oakland landlord John Protopappas joined the candidate at City Hall when he filed to run.
When he was on the City Council, De La Fuente often aligned with property owners, including by supporting a law making it easier to convert rentals to condos, and opposing the Just Cause eviction law when it was first proposed in the early 2000s.
Housing and homelessness are, of course, just two of the pressing matters facing whoever is elected in November. Stay tuned for Oaklandside coverage drilling down on each candidate’s’ stances on other issues.
Correction: This story previously stated that Seneca Scott led multiple rallies outside homeless encampments. We are aware of only one rally outside a homeless camp in which Scott participated.