An under-construction apartment building next to an existing building
Oakland's new plan identifies sites where more than 26,000 new homes could be built in the coming years. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Oakland City Council unanimously approved the city’s next Housing Element on Tuesday, giving a glimpse of how the city plans to build and preserve housing, and address homelessness and over the next eight years.

The adoption of the document, which needs state approval, is a milestone, but the council will still have multiple opportunities to make changes later. The Housing Element is a central piece of the city’s General Plan, which is undergoing an update for the first time in over 20 years.

Tuesday’s vote is the culmination of an elaborate year-long process led by city staff and the local planning firm Dyett & Bhatia, along with an Equity Working Group comprised of residents, and, for the first time, consulting from a coalition of a dozen community organizations, called the Deeply Rooted Collaborative.

“It was amazing to see how far we got,” said Needa Bee, founder of The Village, an organization of unhoused people that was a member of the collaborative. She became emotional speaking at the meeting, saying The Village has been pushing for years for many of the homelessness policies now included in the Housing Element.

“I get choked up when I think of all the struggles and hardship people had to go through, getting arrested, losing what little shelter they had, and putting their bodies on the line,” she said. “But we’re here now and this is a historic moment.” Youth volunteers worked with the Deeply Rooted Collaborative to collect input from unhoused residents across the city, much of which made it into the element, she said.

Where can Oakland build 26,000 new apartments? 

The Housing Element suggest many sites where more homes could be built in Rockridge, per guidance from the state. Credit: Pete Rosos

One of the primary tasks of the Housing Element is to determine how Oakland can meet building targets set by the state, called the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, or RHNA. This cycle, Oakland must plan for 26,251 new housing units by 2031, including more than 10,000 for low-income households. 

These goals almost double what Oakland was tasked with over the last eight years. In that cycle, Oakland blew past the targets for market-rate development, but fell far short of the affordable housing goals.

The Housing Element identifies specific sites where the city could develop housing, called the “housing inventory,” and proposes zoning changes, all aimed at meeting the RHNA requirements. The city must demonstrate that these plans promote racial integration and fair access to housing, instead of reinforcing segregation and concentrating poverty in certain areas. 

Responding to an earlier draft of the Housing Element, the state told Oakland it should further analyze why housing is scarce in affluent neighborhoods like Rockridge and promote more development there. The final draft adopted Tuesday included zoning changes and the identification of sites where an additional 1,000 units could be built in Rockridge. This doesn’t mean that any of these units will be built, only that the city has flagged locations where developers can build up to that many new homes.

Councilmember Dan Kalb, who represents Rockridge, said he’s in support of increased density there and elsewhere, for environmental and workforce reasons, but said upzoning shouldn’t be framed as a reversal of systemic exclusion. 

“I don’t want to imply that we’re going to solve some historic discrimination with things that aren’t going to address it, even if those things are good to do anyway,” he said.

From rental inspections to parking minimums

Another section of the element lays out policies to meet goals of preventing homelessness and displacement, expanding affordable housing, supporting unhoused residents, and “promoting neighborhood stability and health.” 

These, too, are merely suggestions, but the Housing Element is meant to serve as a roadmap, signaling support for the programs included and encouraging staff and officials to pursue them in the coming months and years.

A few of the new policies and programs included are: a tenant’s right to a lawyer at rent hearings, a “local preference” policy giving priority to longtime Oaklanders at affordable housing projects, regular city inspections of rental properties, eliminating single-family zoning in the city (which officials have already indicated support for), revising how many parking spaces are required in new developments, expanding emergency shelters, making it easier to build homeless shelters, relaunching a first-time homebuyer program, and encouraging more senior housing development given the city’s aging population. 

The element also includes an “affordable housing overlay,” allowing developers of 100% affordable properties to construct taller buildings than what’s otherwise allowed across the city, and to skip typical permitting steps.

The Deeply Rooted Collaborative also submitted a list of amendments they’d like to see approved later on, policies the organizers say would help Oakland better meet the needs of marginalized groups, like revising the Encampment Management Policy.

Tuesday was the last day the city could adopt the Housing Element without incurring steep fines from the state, making it virtually impossible for the City Council to request any changes at the meeting this week. Staff told the councilmembers that they’ll have 60 days to pursue changes after the document is certified. 

Receiving state approval comes with additional urgency this year. Oakland was one of only seven cities to recently win a “prohousing” designation from the state, a label that gives the city a leg up when it’s applying for funding to build affordable housing and other projects. If the Housing Element does not meet state satisfaction, Oakland will lose that advantage.

Councilmembers will dive into changes after adopting draft

Mills College_20220124_9450
Not everyone’s been pleased to see the Mills College campus on the list for potential development and upzoning, but the plan does not guarantee that housing will ever be built there. Credit: Amir Aziz

Despite their unanimous approval, several councilmembers, along with members of the public, raised concerns about pieces of the Housing Element at Tuesday’s meeting.

Councilmember Carroll Fife questioned the stated goal of acquiring more Section 8 vouchers, since it’s difficult to find landlords who accept them. She also zeroed in on the goal of adopting a “tenant opportunity to purchase act” or “community opportunity to purchase act,” a policy she supports. Fife said she is concerned that it’s framed in the document as a far-off objective. 

Bay Area tenant groups have been pushing for these policies—which give renters or nonprofits the first right to make an offer when their building is put up for sale by their landlord—for years, often facing strong pushback from property owners. Several community members, including from the organization APEN, called in Tuesday to ask for the speedy adoption of TOPA/COPA, while others called to discourage Oakland from pursuing the policies at all.

“There’s absolutely no prohibition on moving more quickly,” William Gilchrist, director of the Planning and Building Department, told Fife. 

Councilmember Kevin Jenkins asked about the inclusion of the Mills College campus in the site inventory as a potential housing location, questioning whether that was a request by the school itself. Planning staff responded that it wasn’t, explaining that the city was looking for “infill” opportunities along the I-580 corridor. 

The element suggests changing the zoning at Mills (which recently merged with Northeastern University) to allow taller buildings, which has raised some alarm from neighbors who want to see the preservation of the campus and fear that developers will seize the opportunity to propose building there. 

Councilmember Janani Ramachandran also brought up a request from several local affordable housing developers for below-market-rate construction to be exempt from certain city fees until after a project is done. “Building permit fees are a big financial barrier to start construction,” the developers wrote in a letter to council. There is a section on improving the fee structure in the Housing Element, but Ramachandran said the language is unclear.

Shortly before the council adopted the element unanimously, Kalb set he’d establish a working group with councilmembers Fife, Treva Reid, and Rebecca Kaplan, to pursue these and other amendments immediately after state certification.

While the Housing Element is one of the few pieces that requires state approval, other elements—covering safety and environmental justice—are part of this first phase of the General Plan update. The entire process won’t conclude until summer 2025.

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.