Keep Building Oakland
By Robert Ogilvie, Oakland Director
June 15, 2017

New homes are going up at Grand Avenue and Valdez Street, but Oakland will need to build more — in more parts of town — if it wants to address the housing shortage. Photo by Sergio Ruiz

As the pace of residential development picks up in downtown Oakland and the Broadway-Valdez area, it’s worth remembering that Oakland is much, much bigger than those two small neighborhoods and that very little is being built anywhere else. If we really want to alleviate the housing shortage, if we really want to give low- and middle-income Oaklanders the opportunity to remain and thrive in Oakland, and if we want Oakland to be a place of opportunity for its young people, we need to build much more housing, in many more parts of the city.

This not just an Oakland problem. As a new report from the California Department of Housing and Community Development notes:

  • home ownership rates in California are at their lowest level since the 1940s
  • homelessness is high
  • existing homes cost too much for low- and middle-income residents
  • we are not building enough housing to keep pace with demand

The governor and California Legislature are currently considering up to 130 bills to tackle the many aspects of the state’s housing shortage. While we wait for Sacramento to act, there are many things we can do locally. Perhaps the three most important are to keep up the current pace of building, to build even more and to build in more places.

Keep Building

Currently there are 3,500 housing units of various sizes under construction in Oakland. As SPUR has noted before, this is a great step in the right direction given that between 2000 and 2015 only 8,813 units were built. Our first suggestion is to keep this up and make sure that the buildings that are now in the development pipeline actually get built by demonstrating that the city is supportive of new market rate housing and by making the approvals and permitting process faster and more certain. There are currently just over 18,000 housing units in Oakland’s construction pipeline. (That includes projects under construction, those with building permits and those awaiting approval.) If all of these projects are built, then Oakland will far surpass the target of 10,000 new residents downtown that former Mayor Jerry Brown set, and almost achieved, during his administration. But, unlike that effort, this should not be a one-time burst of activity; it is the level of construction that Oakland needs to aim for every year, over a prolonged period of time.

Build Even More

During the same time that Oakland built 8,813 housing units, Seattle, a city one-and-a-half times Oakland’s size, built 70,000 — nearly nine times as much housing as Oakland. During the same time period, San Francisco, a city twice Oakland’s size, built 38,000 units, or nearly five times as much as Oakland. Seattle is now building 10,000 units a year, and though rents in Seattle have increased, they are still half of what Oaklanders pay. Oakland needs to be creating housing at the level that Seattle is. And Oakland isn’t the only city in California that needs to build at a much greater pace. The California Legislative Analyst recently noted that the state should be producing about 180,000 units of housing a year to keep up with growth, but we’ve been producing less than half that.

The California Legislature currently has two bills under consideration that, if passed, will produce a few billion dollars for affordable housing that could fund between 15,000 and 20,000 new subsidized units across the state. This number could quadruple if the federal affordable housing matching tax credit program remains robust. Hopefully all of these things will happen, but even 80,000 affordable housing units spread over many years won’t come close to meeting the state’s housing needs. We have to actually fix the housing market if we want to stop the displacement and make housing affordable.

There are two main reason’s for California’s anemic housing production: 1) zoning codes that reject height, density and multi-unit buildings in many places, and 2) arduous approval processes that subject virtually all projects, even those that comply with local zoning codes, to years of delays and hearings. This in turn makes projects smaller and more expensive. Though these obstacles exist all around the state, in the Bay Area they have led to five decades of declining housing production. Fortunately this can be remedied locally, at least partially.

A recent paper by Columbia University planning professor Lance Freeman and economist Jenny Schuetz recommends that local governments take the following steps to stimulate housing production:

  • make the development process more transparent and certain
  • reduce the regulations on development
  • make it easier to produce small accessory dwellings (a.k.a. in-law units)
  • change zoning to allow greater heights in a range of different neighborhoods

Build in More Places

Oakland has lots of room, and throughout most of town the density is very low. It is too low to support good public transportation, and it is too low to support vibrant neighborhood retail districts. Oakland is frequently compared to Brooklyn, that famously livable low-rise borough adjacent to a bigger city. Those who wonder why Oakland hasn’t thrived to the extent Brooklyn has, take note: Oakland is 79 percent the size of Brooklyn, but Oakland’s population is only 16 percent of Brooklyn’s. (Oakland has 410,000 people in 56 square miles. Brooklyn has 2.6 million people in 71 square miles.) This puts Oakland’s population density at 7,400 per square miles while Brooklyn’s is over 37,000. As anyone who has spent time in Brooklyn will tell you, it is very much a city of neighborhoods, each with their own defined character and thriving commercial districts. All of this depends on having enough people living in each neighborhood to support the local businesses, churches and cultural institutions that make a city great.

If Oakland and other cities around California are serious about addressing the housing crisis, they will not only need to build more, they will need to build in more parts of town. A good way to start in Oakland would be to follow the proposal advanced by East Bay Forward, which calls on Oakland to allow for the construction of small and medium-sized apartment buildings in neighborhoods like Rockridge and Temescal. This kind of building was once common in these neighborhoods and many still exist, but their construction is currently illegal. The East Bay Forward proposal could also be extended to Oakland’s once great commercial streets, including San Pablo, MacArthur, Foothill, International and others. Many of these streets are miles long, and reopening them to mid-rise construction could turn them into thriving neighborhood hubs.

A Place Where More Can Thrive

Two years ago when we published our report A Downtown for Everyone, we noted that downtown Oakland’s renaissance was fragile and that the future was not guaranteed. One of our concerns was that growth could happen in a way that would displace many people and harm Oakland’s character, particularly its cultural dynamism, racial and ethnic diversity, political activism and identity as a welcoming community.  Housing in Oakland has become very expensive, not because it has become more luxurious but because it has become scarce. The solution is to make housing in Oakland more plentiful — much more plentiful. That can help make Oakland, a place that so many of us love, into a place where more can thrive.


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