“Maybe you shouldn’t be building this project…” Is the City of Oakland Really Doing All They Can To Create Affordable Housing?


admin_general - Posted on 15 June 2021

“You owe $72,000 for these water and sewer permits,” said the East Bay Municipal Water District (EBMUD) clerk.

“We don’t have that kind of money,” replied organizers from POOR Magazine’s Homefulness project.

“Well maybe you shouldn’t be building this project then…” the EBMUD clerk replied and then, without waiting for a response, walked away. 

For nearly 10 years, organizers at POOR Magazine, a poor/houseless/Black, Brown and Indigenous people-led grassroots organization deep in the heart of East Oakland, have been building Homefulness, a permanent housing solution with 8 no-cost housing units for formerly houseless individuals and families. 

Oakland has publicly committed to taking our housing crisis seriously, and you can read all about plans to tackle it on the city’s web site. They list providing deeply affordable housing as one of their priorities. It doesn’t get more affordable than free, but Homefulness has taken 10+ years to build due mostly to an endless barrage of permit and inspection fees, impossible timelines, and fines for taking too long to pay. 

“[In 2019] before the holidays, [the City of Oakland] shut down the Homefulness building process all together saying we "took too long" to build, and assessed an "impact fee" which is supposedly to support low-income housing projects, as well as told us we had to start all over again.”

 - Tiny aka Lisa Grey-Garcia, formerly houseless parent, author, and POOR Magazine Co-Founder.

POOR Magazine runs entirely on donations, occasional grants, and the support of POOR’s Solidarity Family, people with privilege who donate time and money and have usually taken classes at POOR. Over the 20+ years POOR Magazine has been in existence they have developed prolific arts, education and child care programs such as  Deecolonize Academy, F.A.M.I.L.Y (Family Access to Multi-Cultural Intergenerational Learning with our Youth) and POOR Press, where they self-publish literature that directly impacted participants produce. They also consistently provide free food, hygiene products and other essentials to the wider community. Despite their free provision of shelter, safety and services to Oaklanders in most need, appeals to the city are met again and again with rejection. It was only after intense community pressure that Homefulness was given a 30 day extension to raise funds and continue building in 2019.

"The City  has been charging us several thousands of dollars we don't have from the beginning just to build Homefulness, and it’s made it so hard for us to even build this project as poor and homeless people. " 

-Muteado Silencio, houseless, indigenous Co-Founder of Homefulness and POOR Magazine.

Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) has been representing POOR Magazine in their ongoing struggle with the City of Oakland to build no-cost housing for our unhoused community members. Most recently, they drafted a letter requesting relaxation of a requirement for 3 unneeded parking spaces that would require $25,000 to pay for sidewalk cuts and grading. The letter cited that Homefulness is rent free, helping to meet Oakland’s desperate need for affordable housing, and is located on a major transit corridor. Residents are extremely low and no-income and most do not have cars. SELC noted that the new parking spaces would eliminate 2 badly needed public parking spaces and eliminate space earmarked for a community garden.

The legal team attached a report by the American Planning Association, People Over Parking. The City’s parking requirements contradict not only their public commitment to prioritize affordable housing, but a growing awareness of the undue burden that parking requirements place on construction of affordable housing. Cities nationwide have adopted the elimination of parking requirements, notably here at home in San Francisco where all parking requirements were eliminated in 2018, and in Berkeley, where the City Council voted to eliminate all parking requirements for new residential construction.

The response from the City was a suggestion that we either change the zoning law or begin the process for a “variance,” with an application cost alone of over $3,000. Both are hugely time consuming and highly politicized processes that unhoused community members can not afford to wait for. There is no guarantee of variance approval and no guarantee that other similar unexpected costs would arise, as the City’s private stance toward this essential housing construction consistently contradicts their public pledge to support affordable housing crucial to address the inhumanity of our housing crisis. 

“The City of Oakland recently announced the beginning of a new program designed to assist low income families with a monthly grant of $500 a month for 18 months. Providing families with supplemental income for a short time will help but is not a long term solution.  The City should partner with the work that Homefulness is doing by creating homes for families, a real long term solution to the crisis that is facing thousands of people in our city.   I am beseeching the City of Oakland planning department, City Officials and the Mayor to assist Homefulness in overcoming the hurdles that are now a hindrance to the completion of the building and ultimately housing the very people that they are trying to serve with their new program." 

 -Corrina Gould, Co-Founder and Co-Director of The Sogorea Te Land Trust, member of POOR Magazine’s Elephant Council and Indian People Organizing for Change

POOR Magazine’s organizers have long recognized the need for change in City housing policy and recently co-authored legislation with City Council Member-at-large, Rebecca Kaplan that would forgive some of the prohibitive permit fees for buildings with 95% affordable housing. The legislation has received vocal support from City Council Presiden Nikki Fortunato Bas, and City Council Members Carroll Fife, Sheng Thao and Loren Taylor, whose district includes the site of Homefulness in East Oakland. Inexplicably, the simple legislation still sits waiting for review by City Attorney Barbara Parker. In January, Kimberly Jones, Kaplan’s Chief of Staff said she was, “surprised this has taken this long. I thought by now we would have some work. They are normally quick and efficient.”

"Us poor and homeless people in the US are in states of emergency- between the demolitions of thousands of units of public housing, the extreme rise in gentrification and evictions of low-income and working class elders and families, and the concurrent rise in the criminalization of unhoused encampments and our bodies, which is why it is so urgent for people to listen to our own actual solutions to poverty and homelessness.”

-Tiny aka Lisa Gray-Garcia, formerly houseless single parent, author and Co-Founder of POOR Magazine

Oakland prides itself on being a leader in social issues. The actions taken toward Homefulness belie that legacy. Our current zoning laws and fee schedule respond only to big developers, but leave no room for independent builders and homeowners. It is time to make room for real Oaklanders and fast track legislation, such as that co-authored by POOR Magazine, to City Council, not delay it and ignore the gaping hole in our zoning laws it responds to. We need housing for our community members who are forced to survive the trauma of the streets. This is an opportunity for the Planning Department to demonstrate leadership, listen to the needs of it’s community members who are providing safety, shelter and care to our unhoused neighbors, and fulfill the City’s pledge to build deeply affordable housing.

"Affordable housing is not affordable, section eight vouchers are useless and when poor people build our own homes we get hit by thousands of dollars in permits over and over to come to the realization that the system want to keep us chasing our tails while city government continues to red tape our hands behind our back thus turning us back to the streets as they continue to play footsies with million dollar developers who are given a green light to build multi million dollar luxury condos with no low income buy in.” 

- Leroy Moore, formerly houseless, disabled Co-Founder of Krip-Hop Nation, and POOR Magazine

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