By Janani Ramachandran
First, we must conduct a comprehensive audit of where our homelessness dollars are being spent. The recent City Auditor’s report revealed $69 million was spent on homelessness services for 8,600 people over the past three years – yet at least half the participants are believed to have returned to homelessness. We must conduct a deep dive into the third-party entities receiving homelessness contracts and to what extent they use evidence-based models of homelessness reduction.
Second, we must establish a regional board across all neighboring East Bay towns because homelessness certainly crosses borders, and the financial costs of assisting our unhoused while building affordable housing should not exclusively fall on Oakland. We must develop a plan to build on land owned by cities, CalTrans, BART, EBMUD, and other public agencies. A regional strategy must also include better partnership with the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, which is primarily responsible for providing meaningful mental health and addiction services. Oakland must ensure that our residents in need are able to access the County’s supportive services, regardless of language or technological barriers, and not waste funds duplicating efforts.
Third, we must ensure that we prioritize homelessness prevention, whether tenants or homeowners, from losing their homes. The city should re-allocate some of its homelessness dollars to provide emergency vouchers to at-risk individuals, prioritizing households with children and elders.
Finally, we must ensure that we are able to build sufficient housing, especially that which is affordable. Oakland is currently producing under 10% of our state Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) requirements for very low-income housing; in contrast, we have met our goals for market-rate housing.
There’s little doubt as to why – it’s expensive. Each unit of permanent housing may cost up to $500,000 to build. The elimination of redevelopment agencies under Governor Jerry Brown was a severe blow to Oakland’s ability to build affordable housing, and we must compensate for that by ensuring developers pay their fair share.
This involves drafting an inclusionary zoning ordinance (moving away from the current tiered “in-lieu fee” system) to ensure that developers either include a percentage of affordable units in new buildings, or pay an impact fee, up front and at the start of construction, that directly funds other affordable housing projects.
But the private sector should not shoulder this burden alone – we must be more proactive in applying for competitive state and federal funds. This will require our city to streamline internal processes to help nonprofit or private developers secure local funding (which is generally the first step in applying for state and federal grants) with predictable deadlines.
Underlying all of these priorities, our policymakers must shift their perspective and recognize that those who are housing-insecure or unhoused are not a monolith. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but my stated priorities will hopefully begin to move us forward in the right direction.
Janani Ramachandran is a public interest attorney and former Oakland Public Ethics Commissioner running for Oakland City Council District 4. For more informationJananiForOakland.com
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