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Oakland's Bold Investment to Address Displacement

The city's new fund to help preserve affordable housing is the type of bold investment that is overdue.

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In 2017, when Norma Sanchez of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment received notice of a $1,400 rent increase for her Eastmont home, she worried there weren't many options available to stay. Yet, rather than settling for displacement, Norma organized tenants in three neighboring properties undergoing the same astronomical rent increases. As a result of her and her neighbors' organizing, they beat back rent increases, and a pilot effort to fund affordable housing preservation enabled the Oakland Community Land Trust to purchase and preserve three of the homes.

Housing is a life or death matter for many Oaklanders, and a quality of life issue for us all. Elected officials and decisionmakers have heard from residents that addressing the need for affordable housing and homelessness must be a top priority.  According to data from the Housing Element Progress Report presented to the city council earlier this month, in 2018, Oakland issued a record number of building permits for 9,706 units. But of those units only 8.8 percent, or 860 units, were designated for low-income affordability. By the raw numbers, our city may be a leader in the development of affordable housing for very low income households in Alameda County, but the community's rapidly growing need far outweighs our progress. 

Every single day, longtime neighbors like Norma receive vast rent increases and many more are displaced. Generations of families' economic and cultural contributions continue to drain out of our city. 

Building on the leadership of the alliance and the land trust, on Monday the city council passed a balanced, fiscally responsible budget with $12 million allocated to create a municipal fund supporting community land trusts and limited equity housing cooperatives. The fund's goal is to take land off of the speculative market by acquiring and preserving small sites — rental properties with 25 or fewer units. 

With passage of this important allocation, Oakland joins cities across the country in leading a movement to put property permanently back in the hands of the people through resourceful and intentional funding. San Francisco's Small Sites Program, funded through multiple sources, including voter-approved bonds, inclusionary housing fees, and the City's Housing Trust Fund, also helps community land trusts to acquire properties and make them permanently affordable.

Yet there still remains a significant challenge in the lack of public dollars for the construction of affordable housing, which requires a subsidy of several hundred thousand dollars per unit. Community land trusts provide an alternative, less-expensive method of preserving and ensuring housing remains affordable. In fact, the Oakland Community Land Trust's preservation costs in East Oakland are around $250,000 per unit, compared to the average approximate cost of $600,000 to build a new affordable unit.

The overwhelming majority of Oakland's existing housing stock — 88 percent in 2016 — consists of small-site properties, buildings with 25 units or fewer. It is the tenants of these sites who are particularly vulnerable, as multiple changes in building ownership have and continue to produce significant rent increases. 

Oakland's new Preservation of Affordable Housing Fund aims to serve small-site-property tenants who face the immediate threat of displacement by providing them access to financial and systemic support to stay in their homes. Until now, there has been no dedicated source of public funding to ensure the adequate preservation of affordability in these units, or to make Oakland's public funding for affordable housing accessible to assist community land trusts in purchasing small-site buildings. 

In the San Antonio neighborhood, the 23rd Avenue Community Building is a powerful example of how community land trusts can create permanent affordability and accessible ownership for low-income communities and communities of color. 

In early 2017, the owner of the complex notified the building's residential and nonprofit tenants that she intended to sell the property in the coming months. The tenants came together with the land trust to develop an acceptable financing plan and an offer to buy the building and its adjacent vacant lot. The property is now permanently preserved as affordable housing; the vacant lot has been turned into a community garden. The tenants — primarily low-income residents and mission-driven, minority-serving community-based organizations — work closely with the land trust to self-manage and maintain the building. 

Oakland's budget has been long overdue for bold, visionary investment. We cannot solve systemic issues by tinkering at the margins. We begin to solve them by allocating public dollars in direct proportion to the magnitude of the challenges we face and by prioritizing the needs of our most underserved residents. 

Nikki Fortunato Bas is the councilmember for District 2, Zachary Murray is program manager for the Oakland Community Land Trust, and Norma Sanchez is a member-leader of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

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