Local planning directors discuss affordable housing issues
on September 23, 2016
At a round-table hosted by the urban planning think tank SPUR earlier this month, planning directors John Rahaim, from San Francisco, Harry Freitas, from San Jose, and Rachel Flynn, from Oakland discussed topics ranging from their favorite food trucks to the impact of climate change on their respective communities.
Most of the evening, however, was dedicated to the region’s most pressing issue: how to square unprecedented demand for growth with the need for affordable housing.
When asked about his city’s near and long-term priorities, Rahaim was unequivocal: “Affordable housing, affordable housing and affordable housing.”
Rahaim noted that 8,000 Latino families have been displaced from the Mission in recent years, and recognized the challenges cities face in fostering equity and diversity.
“I think issues of equity and cultural diversity are going to continue to be an issue for a long time,” he said.
In one of the evening’s most candid moments, Rahaim warned that unless the public and non-profits sectors seize a significant portion of city housing stocks, places like San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland would become “enclaves for the rich.”
Addressing a mostly white middle-aged crowd sitting in ergonomic chairs, Rahaim also recognized public officials “tend to rely on meetings like this too much.” That is, ticketed events attended by developers and policy wonks rather than the public.
Rahaim didn’t offer much in terms of concrete policy, but voiced frustration over the fact that only 2,000 of the city’s 40,000 approved units are under construction. He pointed the finger at developers and the governor’s office for the hold ups.
Freitas spoke to the increasing pressure cities face to approve projects hastily. “We have to lust for jobs,” he said, “and sometimes that gets in the way of good planning.”
Freitas offered the cautionary tale of Detroit, where on a recent visit, he was awestruck by the beauty and scope of the city’s art museum. “I said to myself, ‘How is it that this fantastic museum is here?’ And they said, ‘Well, it was built when Detroit was the richest city in the United States,” he recalled.
“Nobody ever thought the automobile industry would go away,'” he continued. “And I thought to myself: ‘Well, what are we going to do when the tech industry goes away?’”
For her part, Flynn, who stepped down from her post as planning director in mid-September, seemed optimistic about the way Oakland is handling development, pointing to the relative swift pace at which projects are being approved—four to six months on average, she estimated.
Uber’s 2017 arrival, however, will provide a set of unique challenges for the city’s planning department. “It’s not if things will get built, it’s how quickly and how high,” she said.
As for housing, Flynn pointed to the 20,000 units in the pipeline, the implementation of impact fees on new residential construction—a per-unit tax that funnels money to the city’s affordable-housing trust—and new ordinances like the one that relaxes parking requirements for rentable detached units, as positive developments in providing relief to Oakland’s overburdened rental market.
Since 2014, Oakland has issued a record amount of building permits for multi-family complexes. According to the city’s quarterly financial reports, it’s added about 9,000 residential units to the pipeline and dramatically increased the amount of projects under construction. It’s unclear what proportion of those units will be market-rate vs. affordable.
It’s also unclear whether or not impact fees will affect future development. A feasibility study released in April reported that multi-family residential buildings were only “marginally feasible” for developers. Impact fees could thin margins and discourage investment, the report suggested. The city began assessing the fees earlier this month.
Last October, Flynn faced criticism after reportedly telling a conference of mostly developers that Oakland wasn’t in the midst of a housing crisis. According to Flynn, the statement was taken out of context and meant only to compare Oakland to the other cities represented at the event—San Francisco, London, Los Angeles and New York.
“That doesn’t mean certain people aren’t in crisis, and families. But for many, we’re still providing a better opportunity,” she said. “We really do invest a lot in affordable housing.”
Still, despite the city’s efforts to invest in affordable housing, Oakland residents don’t feel relieved. According to a national survey by rental-listing aggregator apartmentlist.com, Oakland renters graded their city an “F” in terms of overall satisfaction, citing the usual suspects: affordability and crime.
“I like to say we’re a socialist city in a capitalist country. D.C.’s not helping us, Jerry’s [Brown] not helping us, so it’s a real challenge,” she said. “If we say affordable housing is a human right, just like health care is, then people need to pay for that.”
On September 13, Flynn left the City of Oakland to accept a job with residential real estate developer FivePoint and is expected to oversee the company’s $6 billion redevelopment project of the Concord Naval Base.
*correction: article was updated September 23 to reflect the correct month impact fees were implemented in Oakland
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