Image of a large under-construction building with a crane over it. A red traffic light is in the foreground.
The Oakland City Council approved the eight-year Housing Element on Jan. 31, but the state found it out of compliance. Credit: Amir Aziz

Just two days after Oakland officials adopted the city’s eight-year housing plan, the state determined it didn’t meet the requirements, state records show

In a Feb. 2 letter, the California Housing and Community Development Department told Oakland it must make revisions to its Housing Element to be found in compliance. Without that certification, Oakland immediately loses the ability to place certain restrictions on development, and could lose out on significant state funding for housing. 

“Staff are currently reviewing the suggested edits provided by HCD in their February 2 letter and anticipate being able to resolve all comments,” said William Gilchrist, director of Oakland’s Planning and Building Department, in a statement shared with The Oaklandside. “Oakland is proud to be a leader in meeting our housing goals and proving that municipalities can and will do their part to end the housing crisis in California in partnership with the State.” 

The Housing Element is a significant piece of the city’s General Plan, which is undergoing an update. The section spells out how Oakland will plan to build enough housing to meet state targets over the coming eight years, and what policies and programs the city will pursue to achieve affordability and equal access to housing.

The Oakland City Council unanimously approved its Housing Element on Jan. 31, the state-imposed deadline. City planners told the council at that meeting that they’ve been in close contact with state housing authorities, and expected the element to be approved. They said that the council would still be able to make tweaks to the document in the coming days. 

Oakland is hardly the only city to struggle to bring its plan into compliance. A state dashboard shows that about half of California’s 539 jurisdictions are still out of compliance, and many are further behind in the process than Oakland. Berkeley’s latest version was also rejected.

Given that Oakland was not in compliance on the Jan. 31 deadline, a rule called the “builder’s remedy” immediately went into effect for the city, said Nur Kausar, a spokesperson for the state housing department. That label allows developers to ignore zoning restrictions and pursue larger building projects, so long as they meet a required level of affordability. But there is disagreement over the enforceability of that rule.

Where Oakland’s housing element is still out of compliance

A central piece of Oakland’s plan is the identification of specific locations where housing could be developed, so that Oakland meets targets for both affordable and market-rate construction in the coming years. The city is required to plan for 26,000 new units.

The city’s submission is missing details on why these sites are primed for redevelopment, such as whether the property owner is amenable, if the site is vacant, and analysis of recent development trends, the state said.

State planners also said Oakland’s document should include more details about how it will ensure housing access for historically excluded groups, though they noted the element “includes many meaningful policies and actions.” They also told the city that a section on neighborhood improvement shouldn’t be limited to housing plans, but also include goals around infrastructure, transportation, and parks. 

Oakland’s Housing Element process began a year ago, when the city brought on local planning firm Dyett & Bhatia to guide the process, and established the Deeply Rooted Collaborative, a group of community organizations that provided input on the element.

Some housing advocacy groups were startled to learn that Oakland’s plan was rejected.

“This is a surprise to us, as Oakland staff had previously assured the public that the state was ready to certify this,” tweeted East Bay Housing Organizations.

Others called it “whiplash,” as Oakland was recently granted a coveted “prohousing” classification from the state, which will give the city priority when applying for state funding for affordable housing. But the rejection of the Housing Element puts that designation at risk.

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.