Oakland’s plan to battle homelessness: Stop it before it starts

Why We Wrote This

As rising rents push low-income tenants out of Oakland, the city is responding with a program that’s fighting homelessness and gentrification before they take root. The program's approach may be a model for California and the country. 

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf (c.) discusses California's growing homelessness crisis during a news conference Feb. 21 in Sacramento, Calif. Ms. Schaaf and other California mayors are backing a bill calling for a $3 billion fund to provide housing, temporary shelters, supportive services, and outreach.

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Gentrification has swept across California’s Bay Area amid the region’s tech boom, displacing low-income tenants as the homeless population surges. In Oakland, where more than 2,700 people lack permanent shelter, officials have launched a $9 million, four-year pilot initiative to prevent homelessness before it occurs. Keep Oakland Housed combines a rapid response to renters’ financial and legal crises with long-range guidance to maintain their stability. “It’s smarter and more humane to keep people housed instead of waiting until they’re homeless to help them,” Mayor Libby Schaaf says. In its first six weeks, the program helped 150 households avert eviction, including Debra Ross and her grandson, who live in a subsidized apartment on the city’s east side. She owed $785 in back rent, and within two days of contacting Keep Oakland Housed, the program sent the payment to her landlord. “It felt like a miracle,” she says. The program also provides legal services to deter property managers looking to evict tenants as a ploy to boost the rent on units. Says Frank Martin, deputy director of the East Bay Community Law Center, “Having lawyers who will negotiate settlements with landlords or who show up in court with tenants levels the playing field.”

The tears began falling before Debra Ross finished reading the eviction notice. She had arrived home on a June afternoon to find the piece of paper taped to the door of her apartment in Oakland, Calif., where she lives with one of her 20 grandchildren.

Ms. Ross owed $785 in back rent on her subsidized unit on the city’s east side. She and her teenage grandson survive on the $770 she receives from the state as his legal guardian, and the notice placed them in jeopardy of homelessness. She pleaded for time from the property manager, who agreed to let her defer payment until the fall. But with Ross still short on money as the Oct. 31 deadline neared, a final eviction notice appeared on her door.

With only three days to spare, while reading a friend’s Facebook page, she learned about a program called Keep Oakland Housed that had launched earlier that month.

The $9 million, four-year pilot initiative, funded by the San Francisco Foundation and Kaiser Permanente, offers emergency financial assistance, supportive services, and legal representation to low-income tenants on the brink of eviction. Ross contacted the program, and two days later, a case manager sent a payment of $785 to her landlord.

“It felt like a miracle,” she says, her voice cracking. She had ended up homeless three years ago when the city shut down the building where she then lived over code violations. “Older folks like me are really vulnerable. When we lose our homes, it’s hard to find another one. It’s the kind of thing that can kill you – literally kill you.”

Gentrification has swept across the San Francisco Bay Area amid the region’s tech boom, displacing low-income tenants as rents rise and the homeless population surges. Oakland’s biennial homeless survey, last conducted in January 2017, showed the number of people who lacked permanent shelter had climbed to 2,761, an increase of almost 600 from two years earlier. The homeless population had risen at the same time the unemployment rate was falling.

Keep Oakland Housed represents the city’s preemptive strike against that growing problem and one potential strategy for the state – and the country – to alleviate its affordable housing shortage. Supporters describe the program as vital for protecting the most vulnerable residents as much as the city’s own identity against the forces of gentrification.

“What has made Oakland an amazing place to live is its diversity: economic, ethnic, cultural,” says Daniel Cooperman, director of programs for Bay Area Community Services, one of three nonprofits that administer the program. “The coffee shops, the yoga studios – those things are great. But there’s a cost that comes along with that, and now Oakland is almost becoming a suburb of San Francisco.”

The program attempts to stop homelessness before it starts and, as a secondary effect, to deter landlords from converting low-income units to market-rate housing. The multi-pronged approach combines a rapid response to the financial and legal crises of renters with long-range guidance to maintain their stability.

In its first six weeks, Keep Oakland Housed supplied financial support to 150 households to avert evictions and assisted 110 tenants in settling landlord disputes, according to the San Francisco Foundation. By shielding renters from unjust evictions, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf asserts, the city will counter the impact of redevelopment while retaining its unique character.

“Oakland has always fiercely prided itself on its diversity,” she says, “and this program is intended to help preserve that identity, that sense of community where people have their roots. We don’t want to rip them out of the place they call home.”

‘For anyone in need’

In the past year, Oakland has allocated more than $1 million in public and private funding to place dozens of prefabricated storage sheds at three sites across the city to provide temporary shelter for 240 people. The city plans to devote $4.5 million in state funding to open and operate three more shed sites for another 320 people over the next 18 months, one of several recent initiatives to address the homelessness crisis.

Almost half of Alameda County’s homeless population of 5,600 lives in Oakland and Mayor Schaaf regards the $9 million stake for Keep Oakland Housed as a chance to slow that rising tide.

“It’s smarter and more humane to keep people housed instead of waiting until they’re homeless to help them,” she says. “It’s not just about having a roof over your head. It’s about the support networks – neighbors, schools, doctors – that we all need around us.”

The city joined with Bay Area Community Services, Catholic Charities of the East Bay, and East Bay Community Law Center to create the program. Residents who earn 50 percent or less of the area’s median income can qualify for assistance – a threshold of $40,700 for one person or $58,100 for a family of four – and receive as much as $7,000 in aid. Case managers disburse the money straight to landlords or third-party vendors to cover a tenant’s lapsed payments on rent, utility bills, or other expenses.

The city’s housing advocates have long realized that intervening before landlords evict tenants offers the strongest remedy to the homelessness epidemic, explains Karen Erickson, director of housing and financial services for Catholic Charities in Oakland. They also understood that, without funding, the concept would remain a well-intentioned aspiration.

“The best way to combat homelessness is to prevent it in the first place,” Ms. Erickson says. “But there have been no prevention dollars. It has been a big deficiency.”

Unlike programs that target a specific demographic – veterans, single mothers, seniors – Keep Oakland Housed accepts anyone who meets its income criteria. The broad eligibility rules suggest a recognition of the effects of gentrification beyond tenants on a fixed income.

Erickson shares the example of a medical researcher whose employer laid her off earlier this year. The woman found work within a month, yet the loss of a couple of paychecks left her unable to cover a month’s rent. The program paid the difference, and she staved off eviction.

“Preventing homelessness isn’t just for certain classes of people,” Erickson says. “It’s for anyone in need. It’s an issue of human dignity.”

‘The place I know’

A handful of cities in California and elsewhere operate variations on Keep Oakland Housed, including San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. Beyond financial aid, the programs seek to help renters avoid a recurrence of the problems that imperiled their living situation.

Case managers in Oakland work with tenants to organize their household budgets and apply for assistance to lower their utility and phone bills. For residents in need of mental health or substance abuse counseling, job training, or education planning, the program provides in-house resources and referrals to other agencies.

“We don’t want to just be check writers,” Erickson says. “There’s usually a lot more going on, and without addressing those things, people can continue to struggle.”

Trena Burton had accrued a $6,800 utility debt over the past decade as she reassembled her life after a stint behind bars for fraud and forgery. Keep Oakland Housed covered the full amount and delivered a measure of peace for Ms. Burton, an in-home health aide who supports her adult daughter and teenage son.

“This is my community, my home, the place I know,” she says. “We need to keep everyone in mind, not just the wealthy.”

California’s affordable housing shortage of 1.5 million units accounts for a fifth of the 7.2 million units needed across the country. Meanwhile, the state’s voters rejected a ballot measure last month that would have enabled cities to enact stronger rent control policies, curbing soaring rents and acting as a check on landlords.

Two years ago, Schaaf unveiled a plan to preserve 17,000 affordable housing units and add another 17,000 in Oakland, which imposes rent control on buildings constructed before 1983. In the view of Frank Martin, deputy director of the East Bay Community Law Center, the legal services offered by Keep Oakland Housed will give pause to property managers looking to evict tenants as a ploy to boost rent.

“Generally speaking, 90 percent of landlords have lawyers and 90 percent of tenants do not,” he says. “That makes for an imbalance and leads to people losing their cases even when they have legitimate reasons for why they couldn’t pay their rent. Having lawyers who will negotiate settlements with landlords or who show up in court with tenants levels the playing field.”

For Ross, liberated from the $785 debt that brought her and her grandson to the edge of eviction, Keep Oakland Housed has freed her to dream of a new future in the town she loves.

She spends much of her time decorating blank baseball hats with sequins, beads, lace, and other materials. She sells the colorful creations to friends and acquaintances, and next year, she hopes to turn her hobby into a business. The change in her circumstance from a month ago inspires talk of divine intervention.

“To see that eviction notice on my door, it was devastating,” Ross says. “I was so frightened. I didn’t know what to do. I feel like God was looking out for us.”

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