If a set of Planning Code changes is approved later this year, neighborhoods in Oakland will no longer restrict construction to single-family homes only. Credit: Amir Aziz

The sweeping eight-year Oakland housing plan recently approved by the state is a massive package of policies to prevent displacement, sites to build more homes, and programs to help residents access places to live. But it’s just that—a plan.

On Wednesday, the Oakland Planning Commission reviewed proposals to actually implement pieces of that plan, called the Housing Element, reviewing city code changes that, if passed, will permanently alter what’s allowed to be built in the city and where.

Chief among the proposed changes is the elimination of zoning that restricts construction in some neighborhoods to only single-family homes, instead allowing two to four units on each lot, depending on the size. The proposal would also automatically allow 100% affordable housing projects to be built almost anywhere in the city.

“It’s exciting to see us moving forward really quickly,” said Commissioner Jennifer Renk, “to create the housing measures we promised.”

Renk, a land use attorney appointed to the commission in 2021, commented that it was her first-ever in-person meeting. For the entire commission, it was the first time they’d taken their seats at the dais in Oakland’s council chamber in three years. Some commissioners fumbled with their microphones, trying to remember how things worked before the pandemic. 

City Hall fully reopened two weeks ago, with the City Council holding hybrid meetings in person and on Zoom. The city’s board and commission meetings are being held in person and broadcast over KTOP, but there isn’t a Zoom participation option at this time.

The public will have more time to weigh in on the proposed Planning Code changes, both by emailing the city until May 5, and at future meetings of the Planning Commission and the City Council, which could adopt a final ordinance in the summer or fall.

Allowing duplexes and fourplexes throughout Oakland

It’s been two years since the Oakland City Council voiced support for removing single-family zoning throughout the city.

“There is a long and troubling history of exclusionary zoning being used in ways that disproportionately harm communities of color and that disproportionately undermine affordable housing,” said Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan at the time. 

Her 2021 resolution responded to a growing recognition throughout the East Bay and beyond that rules banning apartment buildings in certain neighborhoods were instated in the early and mid-20th century after white homeowners complained about the prospect of people of color and poor people moving in and property values dropping. 

Studies have found that the Bay Area cities with the highest proportions of single-family-only neighborhoods still have the whitest populations. At the same time, some of Oakland’s least white and lowest-income neighborhoods also have single-family zoning, leading to some concerns that “upzoning” could encourage high-end redevelopment there and further gentrification. 

The new changes proposed by city planners, drawing from the Housing Element, get rid of the zoning designations that allow only one primary dwelling unit (a single-family house) on a lot. It would be replaced by a zoning rule allowing up to four units on lots larger than 4,000 square feet, three units on 3,000 square feet, and two on anything else. 

This shift would “increase inclusion and access to desirable neighborhoods citywide,” wrote city planning staff in a report to the commission. 

This level of upzoning is often referred to as “missing middle” housing, adding density to neighborhoods but at a scale that won’t change them as dramatically as allowing high-rises would.

Existing local and state laws have already chipped away at single-family zoning in Oakland, allowing ADUs (backyard cottages or basement units) across the city, and permitting many homeowners to replace their houses with duplexes or split their lots in two.

The new changes would allow for more density in additional ways, including reducing how far buildings must be set back from the street, increasing permitted heights in many cases, and reducing the minimum number of parking spaces developers have to include in their projects. For example, residences located within half a mile of a “major transit stop” would not need to include parking.

Major corridors in Oakland, like Telegraph Avenue, International Boulevard, Shattuck Avenue, San Pablo Avenue, Foothill Boulevard, MacArthur Boulevard, and College Avenue would get height and density boosts as well, as would areas rich with transit options like those near BART and Bus Rapid Transit stations.

About 10 members of the public spoke at the meeting, some discouraging widespread density and height increases.

“Upzoning doesn’t just affect high resource areas, but very wide areas of East and West Oakland where pressures on renters and homeowners are already intense,” said Oakland Heritage Alliance’s Naomi Schiff, who said smaller-scale density like ADUs would add housing “without destroying economic, cultural, and racial diversity and without losing our characteristic neighborhoods and architectural heritage.”

“Putting apartment buildings and single-family homes next to one another is not destructive of neighborhoods,” countered Aaron Eckhouse of East Bay for Everyone, who said he lives in an apartment on a block with a mix of houses and larger buildings, including one run by the Oakland Housing Authority. 

“I think it enriches neighborhoods and makes them accessible to people from all walks of life,” he said. 

Affordable housing throughout the city, less pollution in West Oakland

Planning Commission
A member of the public addresses the Oakland Planning Commission, at its first in-person meeting in three years. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

City planners are also recommending an “affordable housing overlay” across almost the entire city.

This means that projects with 100% affordable units would be automatically approved without special permits, and in most cases allowed to be built much taller and denser than otherwise permitted for development in a given neighborhood. Areas considered at high fire-risk by the state—a large swath of the hills above I-580—would not be included, nor would historic landmark sites.

Another “overlay” proposed would make it easier to build on sites identified in the Housing Element inventory. Oakland is required by state and regional governments to plan for a certain number of new housing units every eight years—this time it’s 26,000 by 2031—and the Housing Element identifies specific places that could support that much development.

If these changes are approved, development proposals would be automatically accepted for sites in the Housing Element inventory if 20% of the units are affordable for low-income residents or 40% affordable for moderate-income residents.

“The idea is we haven’t been providing very much moderate-affordable at all in the city, and that is a need,” said Laura Kaminski, strategic planning manager, at Wednesday’s meeting.

While many of the proposals eliminate permits and red tape for development, others aimed at reducing environmental harm add new regulations.

Recommended code changes include limiting how much commercial and industrial activity is allowed in zones that have a mix of housing and business, or areas that are near residential neighborhoods. They also call for new site design standards and protocols for businesses that rely on trucks.

“These changes are intended to improve health and eliminate racial disparities in exposure to air pollution for impacted communities,” staffers wrote in their report. The proposals draw on years of work done by community groups in West and East Oakland and prior city plans, which have found that the city’s predominantly Black, Latino, and low-income neighborhoods experience the highest rates of air pollution from industry and trucking

The proposals include a smattering of other changes to the Planning Code, from requiring developers to notify occupants, not just owners of buildings, about project proposals, and creating standard definitions for terms like “affordable housing” and “employee housing.”

Commissioners praised the proposals while asking some technical questions about the zoning changes.

Commissioner Sahar Shirazi applauded the inclusion of environmental injustice mitigation efforts and said the city should encourage striking the term “neighborhood character” from its materials, calling it “historically racist.” Some speakers had previously said the city should limit development in order to preserve neighborhood character.

“Our goal is to keep the community of Oakland, and address past harms as we grow,” said Shirazi, who noted that she’s a renter. “I don’t think we can stop growth; I think we can help shape it.”

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.