This article was originally published on March 12, 2014 by the East Bay Express.
Building 10,000 new housing units in Oakland will lessen the need to bulldoze green spaces in the East Bay, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.
By Robert Gammon
During an interview in her office last week, Mayor Jean Quan touted the potential economic benefits of her new 10K plan, which calls for the construction of 10,000 housing units — mostly condos and apartments — in Oakland. The construction and the new residents would generate much-needed tax revenues for public services, revitalize many neighborhoods, and boost the growth of small businesses, she said. City staffers also noted that a substantial number of the new units will be affordable housing and thus will help residents who have lost their homes due to foreclosure or skyrocketing rents. But what shouldn’t be overlooked is that adding 10,000 new homes to the city also promises to help the environment and the fight against climate change.
For years, environmental groups have argued that one of the most effective ways to curb greenhouse gas emissions is to build more housing in cities so that commuters can live closer to their workplaces. Urban density, especially housing built along major transit lines, helps relieve the need for suburban sprawl and long car commutes. “There’s a considerable amount of pressure on our open spaces — to create more sprawl,” noted Joel Devalcourt of the environmental group Greenbelt Alliance. Smart growth, he added, “takes the pressure off the region’s open spaces” and its working farmland and rangeland.
Quan’s plan is patterned after former Mayor Jerry Brown’s 10K plan, which brought roughly 10,000 new residents to the city’s uptown, downtown, and Jack London districts. Quan’s proposal, however, is more expansive, and aims to develop housing throughout the city on major transit corridors. “Oakland has a lot of room for housing,” she said. “I expect that we’re going to have explosive growth.”
Greenbelt Alliance, along with numerous other local nonprofits, including the Sierra Club and Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, has been pushing in particular for housing and retail growth in the Broadway-Valdez neighborhood, just north of Uptown. The groups advocate for about 1,800 new housing units in the area for a range of incomes, with about 15 percent being affordable housing. Devalcourt said that much of the new housing and retail could be built on surface parking lots in the neighborhood. “There’s a potential in that area to house something really fantastic,” he said. [emphasis added]
Overall, the city has about 8,500 units of housing already in construction or in the development pipeline, said Rachel Flynn, the city’s director of planning. Of that total, about 3,100 units will come from the massive Brooklyn Basin project along the city’s waterfront. Phase one of that project, which will feature about 1,300 homes, including about 450 affordable units, is scheduled to break ground this week.
Quan said she believes the $1.5 billion project will spur even more housing development in the city. She said that after Chinese developer Zarsion Holdings agreed to finance Brooklyn Basin, other financiers have stepped forward, looking to back additional housing developments in Oakland.
City staffers are also keenly aware of Oakland’s need for more affordable housing. Margaretta Lin, director of strategic initiatives, noted that city property owners lost about 14,000 homes due to foreclosure during the housing crisis. As the Express has reported, large-scale investors purchased a substantial number of those homes and then turned them into rental properties, and are now charging rents that many longtime city residents cannot afford. “The escalation of rent prices has been extraordinary,” Lin said.
New affordable housing would provide displaced residents with housing options so that they won’t have to leave Oakland, Lin said. And more market-rate housing will increase the overall number of units available, and thus should ease the current intense demand for housing in the city. A larger supply of housing, in turn, should drive down costs. “We think we can grow — and prevent the displacement of longtime residents,” Lin said.
Currently, there are more than 600 affordable housing units under construction in Oakland, Flynn said. But building additional affordable units promises to be a financial challenge because of the fact that Governor Brown and the state legislature killed redevelopment in 2011 and state courts have outlawed requirements that developers include affordable housing in their projects. Quan said her administration will push for legislation that would create new property tax zones in the city — including the areas around the Coliseum and the former Oakland Army Base — in order to finance more affordable housing. Lin also noted that Oakland was one of the first cities to set aside 25 percent of former redevelopment funds that the city receives from the state for affordable housing. Quan said that amounts to about $4 to $5 million a year.
Affordable and market-rate housing construction also will boost tax revenues and help pay for more city services, including police, firefighters, parks, libraries, and violence prevention programs. Additional residents also should help small retailers and eateries — much as Brown’s original 10K plan spurred the current restaurant and bar boom in Uptown.
But the most important aspect of Quan’s 10K plan promises to be its impact on the environment. As the economy rebounds and more people are forced out of San Francisco because of soaring housing costs, there likely will be a renewed pressure to bulldoze green spaces in the East Bay for more tract housing. And development would not only increase carbon emissions, but also decrease the environment’s ability to absorb them. Smart growth in Oakland, by contrast, would reduce carbon emissions and help protect green spaces at the same time.
In fact, the mayor should probably be pushing a 20K plan.
Correction: Due to a typographical error, the original version of this story misstated the number of homes that Oakland property owners lost to foreclosure during the recession. It was about 14,000 — not 1,400.