As Displacement Looms Over Residents, Downtown Oakland Specific Plan Outlines Initiative to Create Up to 7,275 Affordable Housing Units

Lockehouse, Oakland, Alameda, Tidewater Business Park

By Meghan Hall

Oakland has a vibrant economic, political, cultural and artistic history, in part due to the diversity of its residents and their interests. As the city continues to gentrify and local housing prices soar, maintaining Oakland’s varied population has become key for city officials. In a draft version of the anticipated Downtown Oakland Specific Plan, Oakland’s Planning and Building Department, Strategic Planning Division and Planning Bureau presented a preliminary strategic framework to ensure that sufficient housing is built that caters to all “Oaklanders.” According to the Draft Plan, Oakland is aiming to bring between 4,365 and 7,275 new affordable units to downtown by 2040.

Over the course of previous market cycles, the Draft Plan notes that the city of Oakland had trouble attracting investment for even market-rate residences, let alone affordable housing units. That tide has changed dramatically over the past eight years as the region’s local economy and job growth have exploded. Since 2011, 531,400 new jobs have been created, but only 123,801 new housing units have been delivered, far past what the report notes as the healthy balance of 1.5 jobs per household. The drastic increase in demand is pushing many long-time residents out of downtown Oakland and the rest of the city, including artists, culture-makers and those of a range of economic, social, ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Generally, across the city of Oakland, 7,176 new housing units have come online between 2015 and 2017, 481 of which are low-income units and 11 of which are moderate-income units. Downtown Oakland alone possesses 25 percent of the city’s affordable housing stock, which also include single-room occupancy units, which are naturally less expensive than the going market rate. But, in order to afford the median monthly asking rental rate of $2,553, renters in Oakland would need to earn $48.71 per hour, or nearly four times the minimum wage. This is the wage, the Draft Plan states, is needed to prevent housing cost burden in which a household spends no more than 30 percent of its income on housing.

However, the Draft Plan also notes that the now lack of available housing stock is disproportionately effecting households of different racial backgrounds. The Downtown Oakland Disparity Analysis reported that the median income of Oakland’s Black households came in at $35,983 annually, while Asian and Latinx households earned $44,418 and $45,731 respectively. White households, on the other hand, earned a median income of $85,489 per year. 

As a result, White renter households traditionally had the lowest housing cost burden, with 29 percent classified as paying more than 40 percent of their income towards housing, while about 63 percent of Black renter households were considered cost burdened. 

The number of homeless in Oakland has also significantly increased, and Oakland’s homeless population represented 49 percent of the total number of individuals experiencing homelessness in Alameda County, according to a 2017 Point in Time Count. The 2019 Point in Time Count saw the number of individuals experiencing homelessness increase by 47 percent, expanding beyond the capacity of the city’s current housing system.

“With growing levels of displacement, and many people locked out of the high-wage jobs that are more and more needed to afford market-rate housing, the city is experiencing high levels of homelessness, tent encampments and associated deterioration of health, mental health and social outcomes,” the Draft Plan states.

As a result, both the City of Oakland and the Draft Plan place an emphasis on addressing human rights and racial equity issues, such as displacement and homelessness, through the production of affordable housing units. 

“…The greatest threat to equity identified in Oakland today is displacement… Anything that the City pursues to promote equity requires a focus on slowing and stopping displacement to ensure that Oakland’s diverse populations are still here to benefit from any city improvements,” the report explains. “Pathways must be built for new development to prioritize those who have either been pushed out of the city or are exposed to that threat based on current trends.” 

In an effort to address the housing requirements of its residents, the Draft Plan has proposed several measures in order to reach its goal of at least 4,365 affordable units by 2040. The targeted number is based off of the projected 29,100 total units, including market-rate, that are expected to be developed over the same period of time. Several steps Oakland plans to take includes strengthening protections for retaining downtown’s current rental stock by strengthening the requirements of the current condominium conversion ordinance, increase protections and assistance for low-income renter households and those at risk of displacement, encourage homeownership as well as the deployment of first-time homebuyer programs and affordable assistance. 

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