Density is key to affordable housing in Oakland, say SPUR speakers

Gloria Bruce, Executive Director at East Bay Housing Organizations speaks at the Hack Housing event Wednesday at SPUR in Oakland.

Gloria Bruce, executive director of East Bay Housing Organizations, speaks at the Hack Housing event at SPUR in Oakland on Wednesday, as Regina Davis (L) and Jay Standish (R) look on. (Photo by Sam-Omar Hall)

At the Hack Housing forum Wednesday evening, speakers argued for denser housing, impact fees on developers, and more development around BART stations in Oakland.

At the forum, three housing experts and one entrepreneur pitched solutions to Oakland’s housing woes to a live audience. The forum was hosted at SPUR’s Oakland office and co-sponsored by the Kapor Center for Social Impact as part of Tech Equity Week, a week that brings together tech companies and non-profits to work on diversity in the tech sector, STEAM education access, and gender parity, among other issues.

First to speak at the forum was Harrison Fraker, a professor of architecture and former dean of the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design. Fraker had a simple message: Fitting more people on a given piece of land makes housing more affordable.

Fraker outlined the cost, per unit, of building a house versus an apartment building. Building a one-story, 1,500 square-foot house in Oakland costs about $778,000, Fraker said. This includes costs for the land, construction, taxes and fees.

But stacking living spaces four stories high reduces land costs per person, he said. A unit in a four-story apartment building unit costs about $317,000 to build, including profit for the developer, which could be the city, he noted.

“We’re almost affordable,” Fraker said, explaining that someone with a moderate income might be able to afford a unit at this price.

Finally, he outlined costs for a building of one-bedroom apartments, each 500 square feet and suitable for two people. In this building, a unit costs just $184,000 to build. “That’s affordable,” Fraker said. Someone making $20 an hour could afford a unit like this, he said.

Fraker recommended that the city build to a density of about 65 units per acre—constructing four-story buildings, which he called “not that high.”

“The city could actually make money on this, so they could continue to roll over, find land, and develop housing that’s affordable at $184,000—sales price—for two people,” he concluded.

“With a nod to 40 acres and a mule, we’re looking at 65 units on an acre,” quipped Cedric Brown, chief of community engagement at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, before introducing Gloria Bruce, Executive Director at East Bay Housing Organizations, a coalition that promotes affordable housing.

Bruce advocated for something called “public benefit zoning.”

She explained that the City of Oakland can use its power over land-use regulation and zoning to extract concessions from developers who benefit from changes in city policy.

Bruce explained public benefit zoning this way: “Public investment, whether it is changing the use on land, changing the heights or density allowable on that land, or investing in transit and infrastructure, brings value that should go back to the public.”

This value-sharing can come in the form of fees, she said, like the impact fee that the city government is currently considering. At one point during her presentation, she flashed the Twitter handles of city councilmembers on the screen, urging attendees to tweet #HousingFeeNow.

As an example of “public-benefit zoning,” Bruce pointed to the lot near Lake Merritt on East 12th Street that has been the subject of much discussion and controversy. She said the land there only became usable after the city spent public dollars realigning the road. Since public money made the land usable, she said, those profiting from the land should share some of that profit with the public.

When the city tried to sell the parcel to a private developer for a market-rate apartment tower, the community balked, saying $5 million profit for the city wasn’t enough community benefit, Bruce said. After six to eight months, a nearly-done development deal was “hacked,” she said, by well-organized people power, referring to the East Twelfth Street Coalition, who mobilized to suggest alternative plans, including a mixed-use building with affordable housing.

“This was only possible because of the capacity of the East Twelfth Coalition,” she said, “because they had folks who had research capacity through their non-profit day jobs, they had architects who gave pro bono design expertise, they had lawyers who threatened to sue the city.”

In contrast, Bruce said that while serving on Oakland’s housing cabinet, she has found the city’s capacity wanting.

“I’ve been sitting on the housing cabinet, working on public land, and trying to advance public benefits zoning and finding out the city doesn’t even have the resources to complete a full inventory or appraisal system for its land,” she said, “without which public benefits zoning cannot work.”

The third speaker was Regina Davis, who has been developing affordable housing for decades. She pushed for using public-private partnerships to build large projects, especially around BART stations and other transit stops.

“When we talk about these sites, we really have to think about the communities around them and developments that are actually large enough and impactful enough and that are change-makers,” she said.

Davis urged the audience to support these large projects, and to come out to public meetings to voice support for dense, multi-use developments. “How do you get the density that Fraker was talking about at this early stage?” she asked. “That’s why we need people to come in and say, ‘No, we’re going to support density.’ You need to have density in order to make things a reality.”

Davis is currently working on multiple projects in downtown Oakland, including mixed-use developments on or near three BART stations.

David urged people, especially young people, to attend a public meeting this Saturday to discuss a large development at the West Oakland BART station. The meeting will be held at The Crucible, 1260 7th St. in Oakland, this Saturday at 1:30 p.m.

The final presenter was Jay Standish, co-founder of OpenDoor, a startup that is designing communal housing in Oakland and Berkeley. Standish offered co-living as a way to increase density and reduce housing costs by sharing common spaces. He said an OpenDoor property might be a 5,000-square-foot house with 10 to 15 people living in it.

“This isn’t just packing people together,” he said. “These are people who are choosing, ‘Hey I really want to live in a community. I really love the idea of not being isolated by myself in some box somewhere, rotting away, but actually having a real vibrant life with other people.’”

Standish spoke of not just sharing space, but also sharing expenses, and the convenience of living with many other people, because a person can usually borrow what they need instead of buying it. “Things are just kind of in the flow, and they’re always there,” he said.

He also called for new legal and financial structures to allow “community ownership of a single unit.”

Finally, Standish said that co-living can place diverse people together, creating learning opportunities.

“I learned how to make websites by just living in a house with three dudes who knew how to make websites,” Standish said. “I didn’t go to school for it, and I think that kind of informal social fabric is the way that we make this transformation in Oakland.”


Correction: Cedric Brown’s title is chief of community engagement. The full title of the organization that co-sponsored this event is the Kapor Center for Social Impact.

2 Comments

  1. JasonK

    Zoning also gives public benefits to many others, and we never consider making them pay for it. For example, one public benefit of zoning is that you dont live next to an incinerator, or a dump, or a slaughterhouse. Why then should a developer pay more to develop that parcel.

    Also, nobody’s (yet) asking NIMBY homeowners to fork over all the cash they reap from living in underzoned communities.

    The idea that there is no benefit to anyone else from development is tired and counterproductive. Barely anyone–activists included–lives in public housing. Almost all of us live in houses built by profit-seeking developers.

  2. Ross

    Co-living is definitely a means to achieve affordable housing! Way to go Jay.

    And I like the tone of this article, I agree that targeted density is a good thing. Especially around transit!

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