To add some clarity to current debates surrounding Oakland’s housing situation, and perhaps provide insight on how best to proceed with addressing what most understand to be a crisis, we are offering two critical pieces of information for consideration. These data have yet to receive attention on a level that reflects their importance: the Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) and the list of “Major Projects” that is maintained by the City of Oakland’s planning department.

Some Context

Earlier this summer, we wrote here about the comprehensive data profile we produced in support of “A Roadmap Toward Equity” – a report that was featured prominently during the City Council’s special hearing to discuss the state of housing in the city of Oakland held last month. The profile reveals that Oaklanders face a hostile housing climate in which the majority of residents, were they to relocate tomorrow, could not afford to live in their own neighborhoods. This is an especially troubling prospect given trends in housing tenure across Oakland – most census tracts in Oakland are majority renter and the citywide proportion of residents who rent (currently 60%) continues to increase. This helps illustrate a situation where more of our city’s residents are housing-cost burdened, the product of decreased home buying opportunities, increasing rental costs, and stagnant wages for most workers, including rising income inequality affecting people of color, especially.

Oakland’s current housing problems are further detailed in recent findings by city staff in their draft Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing. Released in September, the document is “intended to inform the City’s strategy for addressing fair housing issues and identify what actions the City will take to address them over the next five years.” This study included key stakeholder and resident interviews spelling out the lived experience of landlord discrimination, financial inaccessibility, transit isolation, and a fear for safety. The report’s findings underscore that residents are increasingly vulnerable to housing insecurity and economic instability, displacement, and even homelessness.

Current Debate

While most elected officials, city staff, journalists, academics, and residents can largely agree that the current state of housing demands concern, if not immediate action, few seem to agree on how best to address the issue of affordability. Many taking part in the debate rely on a crude adaptation of supply theory to argue that not enough market-rate housing is being built to accommodate a problem that is regional in scope, and yet others maintain that anything built should only accommodate lower and middle-income workers that are increasingly vulnerable to displacement. So, while many might agree that development of some fashion needs to happen, arguments center on how much and where development should occur, as well as who should benefit.

Two sources of information could help quell development debates and provide some illustration of Oakland’s current housing development pipeline. They have been largely absent from public exchanges concerning rising housing costs and consequent population shifts. These are the Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA), as developed by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), and the Major Projects List, maintained by the City of Oakland’s planning department.

Regional Housing Need Allocation

The Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) is a state-mandated process to identify the total number of housing units, by affordability level, that each jurisdiction must accommodate in its Housing Element. ABAG and the MTC develop a methodology to allocate that need across jurisdictions in the Bay Area, and housing goals by income level are set in eight-year cycles.

The following figures refer to Oakland’s housing production from 2007 through 2014 against RHNA targets and are based on ABAG’s and MTC’s assessment of the region’s progress for the most recently completed cycle; a breakdown of Oakland’s Area Median Income (AMI) is provided for context.

Oakland (2007-2014)RHNA GoalsPermits IssuedPercent of RHNA Met
Very Low (0-50% AMI)1,9001,25766%
Low (50-80% AMI)2,09838518%
Moderate (80-120% AMI)3,142221%
Above Moderate (120%+ AMI)7,4892,18829%


Oakland’s Area Median Income (AMI)

% AMI*Family Income
* As defined by HUD, the AMI is for a family of 4 in 2013


Comparing RHNA targets against overall housing starts (based on building permits issued) in Oakland in this period reveals a considerable shortfall; Oakland only met about a quarter of its projected overall housing need. But the gap between need and production of units affordable to residents between 50-120% AMI is especially pronounced – only 18% of the housing need for residents between 50-80% of AMI was met and only 22 of 3,142 targeted units (1%) were built to meet the needs of residents at 80-120% of AMI.

Some have pointed to this evaluation of housing starts as evidence that not enough housing has been built for the highest income earners – less than a third (29%) of the target was met for those above 120% AMI – whereas 66% of the goal set for housing affordable to the very low income was met. However, we must consider that the economic downturn in this period made it so fewer shovels met dirt where federal and/or state subsidies were not involved. To account for this, we must also look to how development measured against targets set for the previous, and still relatively recent, eight-year period: 1999-2006.


RHNA GoalsPermits IssuedPercent of RHNA MetRHNA GoalsPermits IssuedPercent of RHNA MetRHNA GoalsPermits IssuedPercent of RHNA MetShare of total built
Very Low (0-50% AMI)2,23854724%1,9001,25766%4,1381,82944%17%
Low (50-80% AMI)96962665%2,09838518%3,0671,01133%9%
Moderate (80-120% AMI)1,9591558%3,142221%5,1011773%2%
Above Moderate (120%+ AMI)2,5675,689222%7,4892,18829%10,0568,03080%73%


As Jeff Levin, Policy Director at East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO), points out, taken together, the most recent 16-year period of development is one in which 80% of the projected housing need for residents with “above moderate” incomes was met – a share greater than the combined proportion of need met for residents in all other income groups: just 44%, 33%, and 3% of the need for very low, low, and moderate income residents, respectively. Overall, nearly three quarters (73%) of all residential permits issued in that period went to residents making more than 120% AMI.

Major Projects in Oakland

To further refine the picture of development in Oakland, it’s useful to compare the recent past with our projected future. Below are figures culled from the City of Oakland’s Major Projects List, an index maintained by the planning department that details residential and commercial projects at various stages of development.

City of Oakland Major Projects List (through Aug. 2015)*MARKET-RATE UNITSAFFORDABLE UNITS
ResidentialApplication Submitted - Under Review3850
Approved and/or Under Construction852240
Mixed-Use ResidentialApplication Submitted/Discussions3,55159
Approved and/or Under Construction9,497859
*Does not include: 127 assisted living units, 115 senior apartments, and 70 Micro Living Quarters

As of August 2015, the combined total of market-rate residential projects that are approved and/or under construction (10,349) exceeds that of affordable units (1,099) by a factor of nearly 10. And while this represents a significant portion, these numbers do not reflect the full pipeline of market-rate residential development, where up to an additional 4,000 units are under consideration; only an additional 59 affordable units are in discussion or under review.

So, building our way to stabilized rents seems increasingly unlikely given that costs are already alarmingly high – Oakland has the highest rent growth in the nation – and considering a severe lack of production to meet the housing needs of low- and moderate-income residents alongside a pipeline that portends more of the same. In refining the housing picture, we must also consider that in a region constantly attracting new residents, businesses, and capital, new market-rate housing alone may never satisfy demand. Even more troubling are the all-too-real accounts of landlords across the city making room for higher-income tenants – anticipating an increase in rental income – despite the fact that most new units that have come online since 1999 were meant to serve those same high-earning renters.

Any effort to relieve Oakland of its housing cost woes would be incomplete without expanding tenant protections for all renters, whether by helping more residents maintain their existing housing situations, or by creating new opportunities to live in housing with long-term affordability restrictions. Because, clearly, relying solely on the development of market-rate housing is not a viable solution for Oakland, at least not if the goal is to maintain a housing stock that meets the needs of all residents.