Note: All people living on the streets who appear in the following photos and video were asked permission before their face appeared on camera.
December 15, 2017
On a mid-November morning, under a drizzly, overcast sky, a woman named Velly stands outside her tent, petting her small black kitten and watching city workers toss left-behind trash into massive garbage trucks. Police cars surround the perimeter of what was, just hours ago, a homeless encampment. Officers stand around, observing the situation. Residents of the camp, visibly exhausted, methodically pack up all of their belongings and wheel, carry and push them across the road—trying to figure where they will be moving to next.
Police and city workers are evicting the residents of a long-term homeless encampment on East 12th Street and 17th Avenue in East Oakland for being, according to city officials, dangerously camped out on an uneven median between two busy streets. A sign posted on a telephone pole reads: “THE PUBLIC WORKS DEPARTMENT HAS DEEMED THIS SITE UNINHABITABLE.”
Velly says that her boyfriend recently died, leaving her in a state of financial instability and depression. The encampment is close-knit, she says, because people know each other from before they lost their housing, but she doesn’t know where she’ll be going next. “I was in the medical field. I’ve done biotechnology. I’ve worked for prisons, USDA, EBMUD, all types of places,” she said. “I’ve just been so depressed from my boyfriend’s death. He was only 40, and his heart stopped.”
“Wherever you move, they want you gone,” says Leonard, an older man and lifelong Oakland resident sitting in a wheelchair. He says he has been locked in a multiyear battle to regain his federal disability payments—Supplemental Security Income (SSI)—after being locked up for a burglary he committed when he was drunk. “I did the time, and I want to put that behind me,” he says, “but I feel like I have to continue to pay for it every day, and it’s never going to end.”
He’s been living on Oakland’s streets since 2011, but “I’ve never seen it like this ever,” he says, referring to the size and numbers of tent cities. “If you have income, you should be able to rent something. We can’t rent nothing.”
Kimberly Medrano and her partner had been paying $300 per month to live in a warehouse across the street, but were evicted after the Ghost Ship fire, which killed 36 people at a warehouse party one year ago, leading the city to crack down on unpermitted live-work spaces. Following their eviction, the couple lived in a U-haul, then a car. Then it was towed. They’ve been living on the streets ever since. Medrano says that she, too, has been in multiyear legal battle to gain SSI payments after a dog attacked her, destroying her ability to grab things with her right hand. “Some days, all you do is just survive and that’s it. Today is one of those survival days,” she says.
Down the street, Talya Husbands-Hankin, a concerned neighbor and community organizer, is working with a young mother and her baby, trying to get them into an emergency shelter. She is part of part of an all-volunteer collective called The Village/Feed The People, which has been advocating on behalf of Oakland’s homeless communities for the last two years.
“If we’re out here watching, the city is more likely to treat them better,” Husbands-Hankin says, adding later that the encampment evictions are “unbelievably painful. We are violating people’s human rights and their dignity.”
The eviction and closure of the E. 12th Street and 17th Avenue encampment on November 15, 2017.
Over the past several years, homelessness—and the lack of affordable housing—has become a flashpoint issue across the country, coinciding with an explosion of tent cities and shantytowns across Oakland’s flatlands. In 2016, the United States saw the largest increase in homelessness since 2010. Over 2,700 people are homeless in Oakland, a 26 percent increase in the last two years, and at least 1,900 people are sleeping on the streets, according to Alameda County’s annual homeless count. Advocates like Anita De Asis Miralle—better known as Needa Bee, co-founder of The Village/Feed the People—believe that number is much higher due to people sleeping in cars and other out-of-sight locations.
The homelessness crisis “is our refugee crisis,” declared Councilmember-at-Large Rebecca Kaplan at a council meeting in October. “Eighty percent of the people living homeless here are from here.” Indeed, 86 percent of those living on Oakland city streets said their last residence was in Alameda County, according to the county’s homeless count. Black people make up 25 percent of Oakland’s population, according to the American Community Survey, but according to the county’s homeless count, make up 68 percent of Oakland’s unhoused.
But there’s tension between city officials and homeless advocates about what can be done, and how quickly.
Two years ago, Oakland joined several other cities in declaring a “shelter crisis,” but had little to show when the declaration expired one year later. At that point, community members came together to rapidly build “The Village”—an unpermitted tiny home encampment in a neglected West Oakland park. But twelve days later, the city, citing safety concerns and code violations, bulldozed the site.
This October, after constant political pressure from members of The Village, the council passed a shelter crisis ordinance yet again, and city officials have initiated a new plan for a 40-person, wooden shed encampment to be run by the city’s longtime non-profit homeless outreach team, Operation Dignity. To much surprise, officials even offered a city-owned parcel to members of The Village to rebuild—though this time it comes a host of city requirements, including a $2 million insurance policy.
“We’re experimenting. We’re trying. We acknowledge that what we’ve done in the past has not clearly worked,” said Mayor Libby Schaaf at a recent town hall meeting on homelessness in West Oakland, adding, with a tone of frustration in her voice: “Government was designed to move slowly.”
Bee, however, was unequivocal, speaking to the mayor during the town hall. “Housing is a human right, and I have yet to see the city of Oakland treat housing as a human right,” said Bee. “If this is a real state of emergency—like an earthquake, like a fire, like a flood—would you be spending eight months debating about a budget? Would you be spending eight months telling everybody, ‘Yes, we just had an earthquake hit, but for you to help your neighbor, you need to get a $2 million insurance policy?’ No. Treat this like the emergency that it is.”
Two years ago, Bee founded the Feed the People collective. The all-volunteer group brings warm food, clothing and hygiene supplies to the unhoused every Wednesday. “We don’t see this as charity. We see this as service” to friends, family, and former classmates who live on the streets, said Bee, referring to the legacy of Oakland’s Black Panthers, who famously served free food to schoolchildren and others as part of their program of “survival pending revolution.” “This housing crisis could have any one of us in the streets tomorrow,” Bee said.
Bee has made a living as “The Lumpia Lady” for the last 27 years, selling Filipino spring rolls on the street outside nightclubs and catering meals for events, as her mother did before her. So she said it was a natural outgrowth for her to cook for large numbers of people. Every week, she cooks a meal in her kitchen using donated food, and “everyone shows up in whatever capacity they have” to help cook and deliver it. The number of people fluctuates by week, but Bee said they haven’t missed more than four Wednesdays in the last two years.
The all-volunteer Feed the People collective has been serving warm food, handing out provisions, and providing advocacy to dozens of homeless encampments for nearly two years. Last winter, they co-founded The Village, an unpermitted, wellness-themed tiny home camp that housed 16 unhoused people. It was bulldozed by the city 12 days later for code violations, and Feed the People now runs into former residents of The Village who still live on Oakland's streets. Dolores, a 69 year old woman living on a fixed income, has been living on Oakland streets for two years after the landlord raised the rent in her duplex. She was a resident of The Village until it was bulldozed.
In the winter, Feed the People also passes out warm clothes, tents, and tarps for people to fend off the cold and the rain. Last winter—as the city’s first shelter crisis ordinance was expiring, the homeless population was increasing, and Donald Trump was about to be inaugurated—members of Feed the People hatched an idea. They’d been working with members of more than 40 camps and building personal relationships with hundreds of homeless residents, Bee said, but one particularly cold night, they witnessed so many people sick and coughing with pneumonia that, she said, “We were just like, ‘Fuck it, we’re building houses.’”
Before dawn on the day after the inauguration, Feed the People—joined by members of Asians for Black Lives, another activist collective—gathered under the freeway in West Oakland and began to build tiny homes in Grove Shafter Park, which they and many long-term residents know as Marcus Garvey Park. Inspired by the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock—where indigenous communities came together to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016—organizers in Oakland built The Village, a community based on the shared values of mutual aid, safety, wellness and dignified self-determination.
Housed and homeless neighbors came together and were able to build five homes and begin a sixth, according to Bee. “Come thru,” she wrote on Facebook at the time. “We building houses all day, laying out redwood chip paths, picking up trash, eating good food, listening to soul and R&B and hip-hop.” Sixteen people lived in the newly formed village, and soon, 137 people had signed up for a tiny home of their own. “It was beautiful,” Bee recalled, saying that, “the deep, deep love and healing that was happening [at Standing Rock] in the midst of being in a war zone—that was happening at The Village.”
All 16 homeless residents who came to live there had been lifelong drug users, Bee said, “and every single one of them got sober and clean while they were there. That was probably the biggest accomplishment.” In addition, according to Bee, all services—“food, clothing, bedding, health and wellness, crisis intervention, bathrooms, hot showers, garden produce and garden medicine”—were offered to anyone who wanted them, regardless of if they stayed there or whether they were sober or not. The spot was quickly dubbed “The Promised Land,” and Bee said they received messages of support from hundreds of Oaklanders and city workers.
The Village, also known as “The Promised Land,” at Grove Shafter/Marcus Garvey Park.
(Photo courtesy of The Village.)
The eviction and closure of The Village on February 2, 2017.
(Courtesy of Natalie Tsui)
But the camp was in violation of 18 health, safety and fire codes city spokesperson Karen Boyd told KQED News. These included open flame cooking, using the park after hours, and obstructing the free use of public property.
“There was no preapproval process,” said Joe Devries, assistant to the city administrator and the city government’s point person on homelessness, in an interview with Oakland North. “There was tapping into the water supply. There were propane tanks. There were fire safety hazards that fire inspectors were very concerned about.”
On February 2—twelve days after The Village began—dozens of police and city workers evicted villagers from their tents and newly-constructed homes and bulldozed the area.
Meanwhile, just six blocks away, the city was wrestling with its own sanctioned encampment. While the city failed to open any new emergency shelters in 2016—as it had called for in its shelter crisis ordinance—that October, Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney (District 3) did initiate a pilot project called “Compassionate Communities” for on-site case management at the 35th Street and Peralta Street encampment. The goal was to “end unsheltered homelessness for the residents there in the next four to six months” by moving people into permanent or interim housing—and then permanently shutting down the encampment, according to a city report. If successful, city officials intended to replicate the model.
At the intersection directly beneath the 580 Freeway, where people were already living in tents, city workers cordoned off an area with concrete k-rails and asked 40 people to move inside the barriers. There, they would have access to an outreach worker and part-time case manager from Bay Area Community Services (BACS), a port-a-potty, and trash pick-up.
The Compassionate Communities pilot at 35th Street and Peralta Street.
(Photo courtesy Google Street View, April 2017)
Soon, city officials became overwhelmed by the extent of heroin use on the site New people quickly moved into the encampment, and the city didn’t provide them with services because they’d only been funded for 40 people. After serving the initial 40 people, “there were 80 people behind them,” said Daniel Cooperman, director of programs at BACS. “It became unruly,” said Devries. Bee attributed the city’s problems to naiveté. “They got involved,” she said, “without knowing the culture of the encampment.”
The city-sanctioned encampment caught on fire on May 1—no one was injured. The city closed it down a few days later.
Schaaf called the pilot “successful” in a statement last spring because BACS ultimately moved 24 people of the original 40 into housing—eight into permanent housing and 16 into interim housing. (The other 16 remained homeless or incarcerated.) But, she added in a recent interview with Oakland North, “a successful pilot is when you learn things that you want to do again and things that you don’t want to do again.”
“What we learned from Compassionate Communities,” said Devries, “is that people got housed a lot faster than we thought they would. What we also learned, though, is that you need security, you need site management, you need rules. Otherwise it can devolve quickly.”
Immediately following the eviction of The Village, villagers and their allies stormed city hall to air their grievances. After that meeting, they formed a new group, the Homeless Advocacy Working Group (HAWG). They have since met with city administrators every two weeks, succeeding in pushing for more city policies and funds to address homelessness.
In response to their advocacy, this spring Kaplan led the council in voting to set aside $14 million from Measure KK—a $600 million bond passed by Oakland voters in 2016 that included $100 million for affordable housing—for a second Henry Robinson-style rapid rehousing center.
The Henry Robinson Center—a converted hotel near city hall with a large sign out front that still says “Hotel Touraine”—is widely seen as model of success. BACS has run “The Henry” for the last four years. According to Cooperman, the center can house 137 people at a time. Unlike emergency shelters, which require everyone to sleep together in a large room and leave each morning, The Henry gives everyone a private room—alone or with one roommate—and it’s always full, he said. Out of the roughly 300 people they serve each year, over 80 percent—or 240 people—are transitioned into permanent housing, according to figures from the Oakland Human Services Department. On the Tuesday morning when Cooperman spoke to Oakland North, the office was nearly empty. “Everyone is gone because they’re looking for housing” for people, he said, mostly by negotiating discounted rates with mom and pop landlords.
The Henry Robinson rapid rehousing center is located at 16th Street and Clay Street. It still has a the sign on the building that says Hotel Touraine. (Photo courtesy Google Street View)
Fatima Washington (left), a formerly homeless woman gained housing in the in-law unit of Oakland resident Miriam Martin (right), after she exited the Henry Robinson Center. Their story was highlighted by Mayor Libby Schaaf in her State of the City address this fall, when Schaaf formally asked 100 Oakland homeowners to offer discounted rentals to those transitioning out of the Henry Robinson Center. Most who leave the Henry Robinson don’t find housing in Oakland.
But those who obtain permanent housing aren’t likely to get it in Oakland. According to Cooperman, around 10 percent move out of the county. BACS doesn’t keep statistics on where people move within the county, but anecdotally, he said, “It’s really concentrated between Berkeley and Hayward, and then San Lorenzo, Castro Valley, that sort of area.”
Many people in the encampments have long ties to the neighborhoods in which they are currently living on the streets, according to Bee, leading many to fear that even when they do get housing, they will be shipped out of their city.
In response to Oakland’s homelessness crisis, Schaaf—who got the council to relax regulations on in-law units last year, increasing the number of available non-traditional rental units—used her State of the City address this fall to ask 100 Oakland landlords to open up discounted rentals for people transitioning out of the Henry Robinson Center.
A second Henry-style center, which city officials hope to have up and running by late 2018 or early 2019, would allow Oakland to permanently house almost 500 people per year between the two. But it’s hard to find a building, said Cooperman. Many private developers are buying up Single Residency Occupancy (SRO) hotels, which are traditionally the housing of last resort for those on low, fixed incomes. According to a report last month in the East Bay Express, the city is failing to enforce the council’s temporary controls to prevent the purchase and conversion of SRO’s into market-rate boutique hotels.
This fall, Oakland’s council passed a new shelter crisis ordinance, and in early December, city staff opened a new encampment of their own. It’s been called a “Safe Haven,” an “outdoor navigation center,” and “Tuff Shed shelter” (in reference to the brand of shed used).
Behind a chain link fence on an empty lot of grassy land—beneath the 980 and 880 freeways between West Oakland and downtown—20 red wooden sheds are plopped down roughly in three rows, diagonally facing each other, the way one might drop houses onto the corner of a Monopoly board. Each shed has one small window and two cots. There are no mattresses or electricity. Each resident will get one battery-powered lamp to see in the dark.
The sheds, which officials say are insulated, are inspired by a tiny home project implemented by Yuba County which installed 20 Tuff Sheds on county-owned property in Marysville as emergency housing in 2016. According to a video from the California State Association of Counties, residents there have mattresses and more open space between sheds than Oakland’s version. The Yuba site permanently housed 23 percent—27 out of 119 people who entered—during its first year of operations, according to county reports.
Oakland’s new Tuff Shed shelters are located on a lot owned by private individual Frank Yang, who leases the land to Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) as a staging area for a pipline project. PG&E has subleased the corner of the lot to the city of Oakland for 12 months, with a possible three month extension, after which Yang plans to build housing, according to Joe Devries, assistant to the city administrator.
Oakland’s new Tuff Shed shelters will cost the city of Oakland about half a million dollars per year. The Tuff Sheds themselves were donated by Sutter Health and the Oakland Chamber of Commerce.
Each Tuff Shed has two cots—as well as a small storage bin and lantern for each resident, but no electricity. There are 20 sheds in total with the ability to house up to 40 people at a time.
The goal of Oakland’s outdoor site is to provide some of the same services as the Henry Robinson Center, but with lower barriers to entry. Ideally, city officials said, those living in tents on nearby blocks would move in together and retain their social networks and connection to that neighborhood. Residents will share a shed with a roommate, and the shed will protect them from the elements or intruders. They will be allowed to bring a pet and a limited number of belongings, and will have to sign a 90-day contract, with monthly renewal options for up to six months.
The site will have an all-day site manager and all-night security guard—run by Operation Dignity—in addition to a full-time BACS housing navigator, each in their own shed office. The navigator, the person meant to guide the camp’s residents through the process of finding permanent affordable housing, will have double the caseload that they do at the Henry Robinson Center—one person per 40 clients, rather than 20, according to Cooperman. In a staff report, Sarah Bedford, Oakland’s director of Human Services department, wrote that the city expects 26 people to be housed in the first year. As people leave, others will be admitted.
The goal, said Devries, is to move people in from the sprawling homeless encampment on the sidewalks of Brush, Castro, 5th, 6th and 7th Streets, and then shut down the unpermitted camp.
“I’m excited that we hopefully have a better option for the people who have been living on the sidewalk around this site,” Schaaf said, speaking by phone. “We know that once people are safely sheltered, they are much more successful in healing the different traumas and ailments that have contributed to their homelessness.” Schaaf said at a recent town hall that the Safe Haven is, in part, inspired by The Village.
Activists like Bee generally believe the more solutions the better, but Bee said the city’s site is misguided, didn’t have authentic community input, and is not a smart use of its half-million-dollar annual budget. “It’s kind of surreal to be in some of these meetings, because they present this model and are literally patting each other on the back” for coming up with the idea, said Bee. “We’re sitting there in the room like, ‘No, you didn’t, but nice try.’”
On December 4, city officials held a press conference to open the new Tuff Shed shelters.
On the day the project launched, residents of the surrounding encampment—known as “Tent City”—did not seem too pleased about the new encampment, either. They said members of Operation Dignity approached them one week before the camp opened with pizza to discuss the new opportunity. Some of them were initially open to it, but felt turned off when they learned more details, for example, that while they could have a dog, it would have to sleep outside in a dog run. “I don’t have a dog; I have an angel. She’s two years old and I love her with all my heart,” said Jim, a mechanic who has lived on 6th and Brush Streets for the last six years. “No way am I going to put my dog out in that freezing-ass cold weather at night. Are you crazy?”
Some expressed mixed emotions about Operation Dignity, the organization that, according to its website, has contracted with the city to do homeless outreach since 2001. They give out packaged food and hygiene kits to Oakland’s homeless every weekday, but they are also responsible for posting advance notice of camp clean-ups and evictions—at least 159 of which occurred in the last fiscal year, according to a city staff report. Cleanups often require homeless residents to temporarily move their entire encampment while Public Works employees throw away anything left behind. If residents are not present because of hospitalization, work or an arrest, they risk having their belongings trashed.
Advocates and homeless residents say this process is unduly disruptive to an already extremely traumatized population. (Last summer, a homeless man was hit by a bulldozer-like vehicle while sleeping during a clean-up.) The notices also have an unidentified phone number—which routes to Operation Dignity, not city officials—which homeless residents say creates an unclear appeals process.
City administrators said the clean-ups are necessary to maintain the safety and cleanliness of the sites, and that they do so with care. Sometimes, homeless residents are able to put their trash in a designated area for cleanup instead of moving their entire camp. Much of the trash, to everyone’s consternation, is the result of illegal dumping.
The day the Tuff Sheds opened, unhoused neighbors on adjacent blocks expressed their opposition to the sheds—saying it was top-down, overly regulated, didn’t guarantee permanent housing, and was the cause of the immineent dismantling of their tents and makeshift homes.
“All that’s missing is a meal, and we’re in prison,” said Chantal Zimmerman, who lives in Tent City with a few of her family members. “That’s how it looks to a lot of people who have been in jail.”
“We’re grown people here,” said Jordan, a man who lives in a tent on 5th Street, calling the regulations “ridiculous.” He also expressed frustration that the sheds don’t have mattresses or electricity, something many have on the streets, whether from a generator or illicitly tapping into the electrical grid.
Many people expressed a fear that the new encampment is mostly a PR stunt for the city to claim that it’s helping, while using it as an excuse to evict Tent City. Indeed, one week after the Safe Haven opening—and after a delay caused by a city worker strike—Public Works employees began closing down the encampment on the nearest block, requiring people to move several blocks away.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that people are skeptical initially,” said Bedford, Oakland’s Human Services director, speaking later by phone. “They’ve been living in that neighborhood for a time.”
“It will be incumbent upon us to have something that seems valuable, that makes them want to move in,” she continued. “It’s a process.”
Both members of The Village and city agree that a city-sanctioned encampment is only a stopgap measure: The real goal is housing for everyone who needs it.
Rents and home prices have skyrocketed in Oakland as those with wealth and high incomes have flooded the housing market. “For more than a decade, the Bay Area has added eight new jobs for every one new unit of housing it has built,” said Schaaf at a recent town hall meeting.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland has risen by more than $1,000 since 2011 to nearly $2,300 per month, according to RentJungle, a housing search engine. (Median home prices have also more than doubled since 2011 to just under $700,000, according to Zillow, an online real estate database.) A state law called Costa-Hawkins allows landlords unlimited rent increases when a new tenant moves in, encouraging evictions, and bars a third of Oakland rental units from rent control.
People on entry-level teachers’ salaries can’t afford to live in Oakland without being unduly burdened by their rent, according to a 2016 report from Policylink, a social justice think tank. For those who rely on General Assistance (about $300 per month) or disability payments (about $900 to $1000 per month, according to those who spoke with Oakland North), an affordability chasm has emerged.
Obtaining federal housing subsidies has also become increasingly difficult. Since 2013, Oakland’s rents have dramatically outpaced the prices that the federal government will pay to landlords accepting Section 8 housing vouchers—subsidies that allow low-income renters to pay only one third of their income on rent, with the government covering the rest. As a result, the Section 8 waitlist has increased, while the number of landlords accepting the vouchers has shrunk, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle According to a 2015 city resolution, only 18.9 percent of Section 8 vouchers authorized in Oakland were actually in use.
It is incredibly difficult to get public housing or Section 8 in Oakland. Thousands of people remain on waitlists.
(Source: Oakland Housing Authority Financial Report Fiscal Year 2016)
Section 8 will allow renters to pay only one third of their income on rent, while the federal government pays the other two thirds. But the federal government will only cover units that don’t go above “Fair Market Rent” according to a Housing and Urban Developement (HUD) formula, usually 40 percent the area’s average rental prices. In Oakland, actual rental prices have drastically outpaced HUD’s “Fair Market Rent” in recent years, resulting in fewer and fewer landlords willing to accept Section 8 tenants.
(Source: Rent Jungle; HUD)
“Households have waited years on the [Section 8] waitlist. They finally essentially win the lottery and get a voucher, only to find out that they can’t use it,” said Jeffery Levin, policy director for East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO), an affordable housing advocacy coalition. Combined with the declining number of SRO rooms available, this has left almost no housing for those with very low incomes.
Furthermore, the city council has been in hot water with the public and an Alameda County Grand Jury for not prioritizing affordable housing on city-owned land. Only 7 percent of new housing units approved for construction are currently slated to be affordable to low-income residents, according to a recent report from the mayor’s housing cabinet, even though the city is mandated by the state and its own general plan for 30 percent of new units to be affordable. In 2012, Governor (and former Oakland mayor) Jerry Brown dissolved redevelopment funds—the primary source for affordable housing construction in California—which made up 80 percent of Oakland’s affordable housing budget, according to Michelle Byrd, Oakland’s director of Housing and Community Development.
But city officials are hopeful that has just begun to turn around.
In September, state lawmakers passed a slew of new housing bills— hich included new funding as well as permission for local jurisdictions to require on-site affordable units at new developments. Last year, Oakland voters passed Measure KK and Alameda County voters passed Measure A1. Each set aside funds for new affordable housing in Oakland. “The budget we approved this year had 12 times the money for affordable housing in it than we had just two years ago,” said Schaaf at the West Oakland town hall meeting. Activists and some city officials also plan to lobby for a repeal of Costa Hawkins in the state legislature or at the ballot box in 2018.
But that new housing will take five to seven years to be built, according to Schaaf, and there are concerns over whether it will be enough—and which income group it will be affordable for.
Oakland's housing impact fees, which started last year, create new money for affordable housing, but it defines affordability as for those on “moderate” incomes or lower, creating fear that “low,” “very low”, and “extremely low-income” residents—a majority of Oaklanders—will continue to be squeezed out. Furthermore, the different income levels described above are defined (by the federal government) as a percentage of Area Median Income (AMI), which, for Oakland, is Alameda County Family Median Income ($97,145)—a number much higher than if median household income (which includes non-family househoulds) or Oakland-specific data were used. Oakland median household income is $57,778.
Use the chart above to estimate how your household is or would be classified in Oakland, and see how many similar households there are in the city. For specific income cutoffs, see "Oakland’s 2017 Income Limits” here.
(Source: City of Oakland Housing and Community Development 2017 Income Limits; 2012-2016 American Community Survey)
Oakland has recently begun requiring developers to pay impact fees into an affordable housing fund if they don’t include affordable units in their plans. But the ordinance establishing that fund defines “affordable” as being for moderate-income residents (up to $125,000 for a family of four), even though, according to the American Community Survey, the majority of Oakland households make under $58,000 per year.
Furthermore, according to Levin, affordable housing developers in Oakland have said they cannot charge less than $600 per unit—which is necessary for those with extremely low incomes—without operating at a loss and therefore requiring an extra subsidy, such as Section 8. That federal program’s budget has been slashed over the last several decades. This leaves little hope, beyond generous landlords, for those on extremely low incomes who want to live permanently in Oakland.
This fall, in a move that surprised many, around the same time city officials announced their Safe Haven plan, they also offered a publicly-owned parcel to The Village to rebuild “The Promised Land.” This time, the activists must submit to city requirements for liability insurance, fiscal sponsorship, and regular fire safety and building inspections.
Bee said it’s a far cry from where they were in February. But she and members of The Village remain frustrated by the slow pace of city bureaucracy, and irritated that the city’s offer—a parcel underneath an 880 on-ramp at E. 12th Street and 23rd Avenue—already had about 10 to 15 people living on it. From the beginning, said Bee, “We wanted unoccupied land.”
Oakland city staff, after the urging of The Village and city council, have come up with seven possible locations for homeless encampments run by city or community groups. One of them is in operation as the city’s Safe Haven site. Another has been offered to The Village, but many people are already living there and negotiations are ongoing. City council requested one in each council district, but there currently isn’t a site identified in Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington’s district (District 4). Councilmember Dan Kalb (District 1), who has expressed frustration that this list of parcels didn’t come until two years after the first shelter crisis was declared, has also called for the city to seize some of the “thousands” of abandoned private properties to use as emegency shelter for those who are homeless. The American Community Survey lists 10,717 vacant housing units in Oakland.
(Source: “Supplemental Report on Grant Agreement to Adminster a Safe Haven Outdoor Navigation Center,” Oct 19, 2017. Christine Daniel, Assistant City Administrator.)
Needa Bee and Mayor Libby Schaaf exchange words at a town hall on homeless at the Market Street Seventh Day Adventist Church on December 10th, 2017.
To further complicate matters, when the city evicted the site where Velly, Leonard and their camp-mates were staying, they had everyone move everyone move to the E. 12th Street and 23rd Avenue parcel. Bee said the same thing happened at a few other encampments, and now the site has ballooned to 75 people. (Members of The Village believe it’s an effort to sabotage their plans. Devries said they moved everyone to the 23rd Avenue site because it is flatter and already had a port-a-potty and hand washing station.)
Bee also disagrees with the city’s insistence that the Village buy liability insurance, citing California’s shelter crisis code, which states: “The political subdivision [that enacts the shelter crisis] shall be immune from liability for ordinary negligence in the provision of emergency housing.” But, she said, The Village has found a fiscal sponsor in the Omni Commons—a non-profit organization that houses art, science and activist collectives—and is currently seeking quotes from insurers.
City officials have also expressed concern that The Village’s community-run site won’t, as Devries put it, “have all those wrap-around services that navigate people to housing.” Bee takes offense at this. “I myself used to be the executive director of Mandela Arts Center,” she said, and “the majority of youth we worked with were homeless.” The Village has members from homeless advocacy organizations, medical professionals, educators and healers, she said. Furthermore, she added, many of The Village’s members are formerly homeless and therefore even more qualified because of their lived experience.
“What we had told the city from jump was, ‘Let the community take care of housing people temporarily,’” she said. “And your job, city of Oakland, is to get that permanent housing.”
For now, though, things are moving forward slowly as the two sides negotiate an agreement.
Members of The Village continue to watchdog encampment evictions, as well as go to the parcel on E. 12th Street every other week to talk to the residents about what they would like to see in a self-governed, tiny home encampment. They set up a canopy and tables with warm food, free clothes and reggae music blasting out of a big speaker. Volunteers speak in both English and Spanish to residents, working them to fill out survey forms and a large hand-drawn map of the site to envision what’s possible.
“We hope that it inspires other people to do the same thing,” said Bee, “just to take it upon themselves—to not wait for permission, to not wait for funding. Really, just take it upon yourselves to do something.”
Meanwhile, Velly, Leonard and hundreds of others continue to live on Oakland streets, trying to survive, day by day. And rent prices are not letting up any time soon.
Tatianna (left) and Lalonnie (right) live at the E. 12th and 23rd Avenue encampment, just blocks away from where they went to Garfield elementary school together.
E. 12th Street and 23rd Avenue—the plot of land the city offered The Village. The Village says it’s an unfair offer because people already live there, and those recently evicted from other camps have been moved there by the city.