The Housing Element is updated every five years, and a hearing (PDF) is set for Tuesday, April 14 in Hearing Room 3, from 6-8 pm. From January 1, 2007 to August 1, 2008, the City saw 483 new units for low- and very low-income households (“affordable” units), but only 65 new units for moderate income households. From January 1999 through June 2006 the City issued 1,173 permits for “affordable” units but only 155 permits for middle income households. By any reasonable measure, Oakland’s housing policy has been an abject failure for the middle class.
In the coming 5-year cycle, the Association of Bay Area Governments mandates that Oakland produce nearly 4,000 homes (PDF) for low/very low income households and 3,143 homes for moderate income households. Considering that the City was about on pace in its production of “affordable” homes, one might expect the City to address the area where they were failing miserably. However, nothing in the Fact Sheet addresses any plan to stimulate the production of housing for middle income households. The Fact Sheet gives maps with opportunity sites for additional “affordable’ units. Not surprisingly these are concentrated in areas already supersaturated with low income housing. I found not a word on the housing crisis of the middle class.
The legacy of this war on the middle class is shown in Oakland’s demographics. Looking at our neighbors—Berkeley, Alameda, San Leandro and Hayward, they have average household incomes from $57,189 (Berkeley) to $63,173 (San Leandro). Oakland’s is $46,475. Berkeley’s relatively low ranking may be linked to a smaller household size, with perhaps fewer two-income households. The others have comparable household sizes. Oakland’s average household is a low-income household by government standards! At a minimum, planning policy should correct past wrongs. Oakland clearly has absorbed more than its share of low income households to the detriment of its middle class.
While noting that Oakland is transitioning from a manufacturing-oriented economy to a technology/information oriented economy, the Housing Element is moving to perpetuate the pain of this transition. The current policy will attract more low-skilled people competing for an ever-diminishing number of manufacturing jobs.
If we want to attract people for the Oakland of the future, we should build to attract young people with associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, people with the information skills for the new economy. These homes will be sized for singles and childless couples. They will be rentals, since people with student loans won’t have the down payment for a condo. They should be in funky or cool neighborhoods. They should help make the neighborhoods cool.
If you build it, they will come. If you build more housing for low-skilled, low income people you will attract more low-skilled, low income people. If you build no middle class housing, the middle class will continue to erode. City politics will be ever more fractious. There will be fewer people with money to pay for City services and ever more demands on these services.
The Housing Element takes no account of the amount of “affordable” housing provided by Section 8 vouchers. These further distort the housing market toward low income households, in many flatland neighborhoods to a massive degree.
If the policies of the past have clearly failed, the City would do well to turn away from them. Right now that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.
Tom Thurston is an East Oakland resident and Chair of the Central City East Redevelopment Area PAC.