Oakland’s overlapping crises of housing affordability and homelessness have been intensifying for years now and there don’t seem to be any solutions within sight. The city’s average home price brushed up against $1 million this year, putting ownership out of reach for most residents. Some tenants are still struggling to pay rent because of the ongoing pandemic, which is causing financial pain for some landlords. And the homeless population keeps growing, as city policies don’t seem to be reaching the scale that’s needed.
The Oaklandside’s news editor Darwin BondGraham spoke with housing and homelessness reporter Natalie Orenstein about what she views as the biggest developments of the past year, and what might happen in 2023 when it comes to where and how people live in Oakland.
Natalie, can you briefly set the table by describing the scope of Oakland’s affordable housing needs, and the scale of its homelessness crisis?
The scale is enormous! And we got a lot of new information this year that further revealed the extent of the crises. In the spring, we finally got an updated count on the number of unhoused people living in Oakland, after that survey was postponed a year due to COVID. It found that Oakland’s homeless population has now surpassed 5,000. Just five years ago, there were 2,800 people unhoused in this city.
Around the same time, the county released a first-of-its-kind report on homeless mortality, finding that a staggering 809 unhoused people died in Alameda County from 2018-2020, largely from medical conditions and drug overdoses, at a much higher rate than the general population. County leaders called many of those deaths preventable.
To address the lack of housing for homeless and other residents, the state and region has tasked Oakland with planning for a whopping 26,000 new housing units in the coming eight years, more than half of which must be affordable.
One revelation this year was that the city spent nearly $70 million on homelessness services over three years, but it did a terrible job tracking the performance of the nonprofits that carried out this work. The city and its contractors couldn’t show that enough homeless people were successfully transitioning into housing. What’s the fallout been from this?
Right, this was the long-awaited second part of an audit on how the city addresses homelessness. The first part last year was a scathing report on encampment management. The findings in this new part—on shelters and related services—were more mixed, but revealed that many programs are not moving nearly enough residents into housing. Many are returning to the streets. This includes some of Oakland’s marquee shelter sites, like the “community cabins.” But the auditor also found that the data collection at these sites is a mess, with the city failing to provide adequate oversight to ensure accurate results are documented—so it’s not even clear how seriously to take these findings.
The audit comes with 30 recommendations for changes, which the administration has agreed to put in place, but they have until summer 2024 to complete it all. The audit’s revelations have prompted some officials and activists to call for quicker, bigger changes in how the city spends its money, allocating more for housing than programs run by nonprofits. But yet another report found that it could cost billions of dollars to house everyone.
What about the people who aren’t being served by these programs and live outdoors? What happened this year on Wood Street in West Oakland, at the city’s largest encampment?
Well, the most recent thing that happened at the Wood Street camp was an elaborate holiday party! But that celebratory event capped a rollercoaster of a year. Until a few months ago, there were some 300 people living over blocks and blocks of land there, some owned by Caltrans, some by the city, some by a railroad, some private. Now, a majority of the site is empty and fenced off, with the remaining residents clustered on the north end or living in RVs on surrounding streets. What happened in between was a months-long push and pull between the government and the residents there, including a lawsuit. Ultimately, Caltrans got permission from a federal judge to close the part of the encampment located on state land. Now the city plans to close the rest of it in January, but the residents, who’ve formed an incredibly strong community there, say they’ll protest.
The city approved an encampment management policy in 2020. It’s supposed to determine how Oakland handles camps, from cleaning and services to closure. How did the rollout of this policy go? Two years later, is this what’s guiding the city?
It’s historically been difficult to glean exactly what drives the city to close certain camps and not others, and how often this is happening. One of the stories I found most interesting to report this year was a data-driven look at where and when the city closed encampments during 2020-2021, trying to get at the “why.” I found that the city stopped closures at the beginning of the pandemic, following federal guidance. Then the council passed this controversial policy in October 2020. It took some time to get underway, though, with closures returning to pre-COVID rates, then exceeding them, starting May 2021.
The city does cite this policy—which makes most of Oakland off-limit to camps—as the force behind most of these closures and how they’re handled. The policy is reviled by many unhoused people and advocates. Others say the city isn’t implementing it enough, even suing Oakland over this in one case. But this year also saw the settlement of another lawsuit brought by homeless residents, requiring the city to give more notice before closures and better store people’s belongings.
You talk to a lot of people who are experiencing homelessness. What kinds of resilience and ingenuity have you seen among people enduring this crisis?
I had an incredibly moving conversation early this year with Sergio and Alejandra Ruiz, adolescent sweethearts who grew up together on High Street and have now been married 18 years. They’ve experienced extraordinary tragedies together and apart, and became homeless a few years ago after raising their family in Oakland. When we spoke, they were living in a tent just a mile from where they grew up. It was clear that their deep bond and support for one another is a large part of what’s enabled them to survive out there.
There are also so many resourceful tricks and projects people have come up with to make living outdoors more feasible in Oakland. I think of the brilliant hydrant attachment program devised by a group of homeless and housed residents to vastly improve clean drinking water access at camps.
Home prices reached new heights this year. What impact are these mostly out-of-reach prices having on the average Oakland resident?
Some people might hear that question and think, “Aren’t house prices dropping?” They are—for the first time in a decade, thanks to interest rate hikes. But homes had gotten so expensive that even the reduced prices are still way out of reach for most Oakland residents. The average house in the city reached around $1 million earlier this year. Some of the people feeling the emotional and logistical impact of this trajectory are the second- and third-generation Oakland residents who grew up in houses their families owned back when the city was affordable. Now they’re living a much less stable life here. One of my favorite stories to report this year was a feature on seven people who are in this position—who are priced out of homeownership in the neighborhoods where they were raised and are facing tough decisions about their futures as a result.
These prices have also prompted others to pursue more creative paths to homeownership and stability—like the multi-generational cooperative that worked with a land trust to purchase their 12th Avenue Victorian after dealing with foreclosure and eviction threats.
What were some big new changes to Oakland’s rental housing laws this year?
There were a bunch! The City Council passed a law capping annual rent hikes at 3% for rent-controlled apartments in Oakland. Previously, increases were tied directly to inflation, so tenants were staring down a 6.7% increase this year before the cap was passed. Then voters overwhelmingly approved Measure V which expanded eviction protections to more types of renters. Meanwhile, both the city and county’s pandemic eviction moratoriums are still in effect. But between an ongoing landlord lawsuit seeking to stop the policies, the election of a county supervisor backed by the real estate industry, and the upcoming closure of California’s health emergency, I imagine we’ll see those eviction bans either end or get scaled back this year.
Do you think the new mayor and council will bring a different kind of focus to these issues?
Over the past year especially, there was visible tension between a large faction of the City Council and the city administration over housing. Those councilmembers—particularly Carroll Fife, Rebecca Kaplan, and Nikki Fortunato Bas—have pushed staff to act with more urgency and creativity in addressing the homelessness crisis. The city administration, which works under the mayor, often responded that they’re doing the best they can with minimal resources and legal limitations.
A recent example of this was Fife’s proposal to use the old army base as a massive shelter. It will be really interesting to see what changes with the incoming leadership. Mayor-elect Sheng Thao is a renter who’s been vocal about supporting tenants rights, and has been a close ally of that council cohort, and she’ll select a new city administrator. Given the stronger alignment between the administration and council, will more get done? We’ll see.
You cover a lot of heavy topics and intractable problems. But have there been any stories that were really fun to report? Any light-hearted aspects of housing in Oakland?
I’ve had a lot of fun writing our Oakland Home Histories series. This is a series where residents ask us to look into the history of their apartments and houses, telling us something that’s curious or compelling about where they live. I dig into the history of people who’ve lived there in the past, the neighborhood, the architecture, and so forth, often telling a broader story about the area or a moment in Oakland’s history through the changes that have taken place at this one residence. An especially fun installment followed a queer couple who found out the live-work building they bought used to be a legendary lesbian bar—one of many that used to exist here, it turns out. I’m looking to start up the series again in 2023, so please get in touch if you’d like to participate!