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Oakland proposes homeless housing

By Marisa Kendall

Oaklanders could soon see tiny homes, yurts, RV parks and more pop up everywhere from Lake Merritt to East Oakland after the City Council this week proposed a range of new ideas using vacant lots to house the city’s homeless residents.

The step comes after a scathing city audit laid bare the flaws in Oakland’s homeless encampment management strategy, which has largely consisted of moving people from one street to another as massive camps continue to raise health concerns, spur floods of complaints from neighbors and create a dangerous fire risk. Now, council members are shifting their focus to opening alternatives to encampments on vacant and underused properties.

“The strategy of dealing with homelessness in Oakland has been failing,” said Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan. “We need a better set of strategies. And one of the things that has been missing is appropriate alternative locations for people to be.”

Councilwoman Nikki Fortunato Bas wants to use prefabricated cabins to shelter dozens of people on a Lake Merritt site with a complicated and controversial history. Councilman Dan Kalb wants to put yurt-like huts near the MacArthur BART station and build low-income housing over a parking lot in the Piedmont Avenue area.

In East Oakland, Councilman Noel Gallo is considering setting up modular housing on an East 12th Street lot — the site where a city-sanctioned encampment already failed once before. And in West Oakland, Councilwoman Carroll Fife wants to build tiny homes on Wood Street — though that parcel already is slated for future development, which could complicate the process.

Fife’s isn’t the only lot that comes with challenges — others are owned by BART or private landlords who haven’t yet given their permission for the city to use the sites. Council members hope to have more details, including estimated costs and timelines for their proposed projects, in June.

So far, the city has secured $3.9 million



to fund these ideas. That might be enough for three or four projects, said Human Services Director Sara Bedford. But to implement all of them - and keep them running - the city will need more money.

Even so, advocates who work with homeless communities cheered Tuesday's progress.

"We have the land. We need to use it, and we need to use it now," said Talya Husbands-Hankin, an activist with Love and Justice in the Streets. "Advocates and unhoused people have been asking for this for years." Bas has a plan that would allow at least 60 people to live on East 12th Street, next to Lake Merritt, in cabins made by Washington-based Pallet Shelters. Developer UrbanCore for years has been planning to build a high-rise apartment complex there, but the project has been bogged down in delays and controversy, and the lot remains vacant apart from an already existing homeless encampment.

"It's not acceptable that this site has sat vacant for so long, and I want to see action," Bas said. "I want to stand something up as soon as possible." Bas wants to shelter people on the site until the UrbanCore project breaks ground - or extend the shelter program if the housing complex falls through. City staff on Tuesday said UrbanCore has missed a number of deadlines that could potentially derail its project.

"We are still working on moving the project for- ward," UrbanCore Development President Michael Johnson wrote in an email. "Obviously the impact of COVID has affected the rents in the Oakland market, and we are dealing with that with our financial sources." Kalb is meeting with BART officials about using the transit agency's vacant lot at 40th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. He envisions a village of small, yurt-like structures called Conestoga huts.

"I feel good about it," Kalb said, "and I think there's a real opportunity there." BART spokesman Jim Allison wouldn't comment on that, but said the agency has a history of working with Oakland on homelessness solutions.

"It is fair to say we are always open to new ideas," he wrote in an email.

Kalb also wants to build permanent, low-income housing above a city-owned parking lot on Howe and 41st streets, off Piedmont Avenue.

Councilman Loren Taylor, who represents Maxwell Park and other neighborhoods at the foot of the Oakland Hills, said he's working on a deal to turn a vacant, privately owned lot in his district into an RV parking site. He wouldn't provide more details for sits

fear of hurting the negotiations.

Councilwoman Sheng Thao has proposed several hotels on the MacArthur corridor for homeless housing, and Councilwoman Treva Reid is looking into a modular housing site for families.

In East Oakland, Gallo said he's willing to try again after a project on a vacant, city-owned lot on East 12th Street and 23rd Avenue failed several years ago. In 2017, a grassroots group called the Village set up an encampment there with the blessing of the city. But months later, the city kicked them out, citing a need to make way for a construction project. It left a bad taste both in the mouths of activists, who felt betrayed by the city, and Gallo, who said the site grew out of control and became mired in filth.

This time, instead of a sanctioned encampment, Gallo wants a modular housing site with clear management and rules in place.

"We have to make sure we have the proper restrooms, the proper showers, whatever we need to make sure we are respecting those that are housed there," he said. "But at the same time, those that are housed there have to respect the neighborhood they're in."

A homeless encampment on a plot of land along East 12th Street and First Avenue in Oakland on Wednesday.


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