Oakland Building New Housing, But For Whom?

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Oakland started constructing this year are in this development by the MacArthur BART station. (Photo by Euan Slorach)

Here are two essential facts on the housing situation in Oakland. In the last four years, more than 15,000 people have moved into the city. During those same four years, the city has built only a little over 3,000 housing units. The math does not add up.

In the words of Rachel Flynn, Oakland's planning and building director, the city is just not meeting demand. That is why rent is going up and housing for middle- and lower-income people is disappearing. Flynn says the city just does not have the resources to build enough housing -- especially, she says, since Gov. Jerry Brown cut all state redevelopment programs in 2011.

More money would certainly help. But Flynn says in the face of market forces like the ones in the Bay Area, no government can fully address affordable housing. She says, “The demand for affordable [housing] is so much greater than governments have the ability to address.”

Rising housing costs and gentrification are becoming increasingly pressing issues for Oakland, as people priced out of San Francisco move in and tech expands into the city. The mayor's office realizes how important it has become.  In early November, the mayor's office took a handful of journalists on a tour to show off what it has been doing about it.

On the bus tour, we saw that Oakland is building new housing. This year it has begun construction on 1,000 affordable units for low-income residents and seniors. In the pipeline it has 7,500 units, most of them market rate.

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Many of the developments on the tour were around City Hall and the Uptown neighborhood. The plan is to bring more residents there so the city can lure big retailers to fill vacant storefronts. We saw other mixed market-rate and affordable housing projects scattered around the city, and a massive, controversial waterfront project near Jack London Square.

In a nutshell: Oakland is building itself up. The question still is: for whom?

Stephen Menendian is a professor at UC Berkeley's Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. He says the way things are going, some existing residents will get pushed out of Oakland. Menendian says, “It is the most likely outcome, given how our institutions are structured and our economy is growing.”

Menendian would like to see a more comprehensive regional approach -- like improved transportation and better cooperation between Bay Area cities. Affordable housing is a good tool, he says, but building units now, with the boom already here, “is unlikely to prevent or ameliorate the gentrification that is happening now.”

In other words, the affordable housing being built in Oakland is too little, too late.