Oakland’s housing crisis: ‘I’m the last one here. I don’t know if I can stay or go’


Paula Beal is a housing advocate who has lived in Oakland for 45 years. She has seen her entire family forced out of the city by rising rents. Now, as the council imposes a moratorium on evictions, she too is desperately seeking a new home

Paula Beal, a 45-year resident of Oakland, California, has watched the citys housing crisis unfold before her eyes. As housing values and rents rise throughout the Bay Area, she has seen her community gradually get pushed out of Oakland including her own family.

I have seven children, 27 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, she says. They have all, over the past few years, been displaced from Oakland. All of them. And now she may be next.

Last month, Beals landlord informed her and the other residents of the 10-unit building just outside of downtown that their monthly rents would be raised from $850 (591) to $1,080, a 27% increase. For Beal, a 63-year-old community housing advocate on a fixed income who has been in and out of hospital for months dealing with various medical issues, the new rent was impossible to afford. She moved out, and has been bouncing from one temporary residence to another while she tries to find a new place to live.

Its a situation facing up to 1,500 people a month in Oakland, where rents for one- and two-bedroom units have increased 14% and 18.3% respectively over the last year alone, according to the most recent Zumper National Rent Report. Roughly 60% of the citys residents are renters with a median annual income of about $36,000 (25,000). Oakland is now the fourth most expensive rental market in the country. Across the bay, San Francisco is the first.

Oaklands city council has introduced a 90-day moratorium on evictions and rent increases. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Earlier this month in a packed city hall meeting that ran past midnight, the Oakland city council made the first step in addressing the citys housing crisis, unanimously approving a 90-day moratorium on evictions without cause and on rent increases above 1.7% per annum. The intent is to use the three-month period to find a more permanent solution to the problem.

A separate motion that night also sought to have the city council declare an official state of emergency over Oaklands housing situation a formal step taken by the neighbouring city of Alameda last November but that declaration was not approved.

The moratorium came too late for Paula Beal: Even though Im picking up applications and filling them out, I need some place now. She is recovering from a recent bout with breast cancer, uses a cane and has Type-2 diabetes. I dont even have a place to keep my insulin refrigerated. Its little things that add up to big things that people dont even see when youre being displaced.

After years of helping people in similar situations through her work as a coordinator of housing and emergency services for a local advocacy group, Beal is herself in need of assistance.

The moratorium will at least temporarily help others like her who are seeing their rents increase by upwards of 40%, or are being illegally evicted by their landlords. Oakland City Council president Lynette Gibson McElhaney says the moratorium will give the city a chance to clear up and revise its tenant protection laws, and to make sure tenants can get the information to know whether their rent increases or evictions are legal in the first place.

Oakland residents are worried about whats happening across the bay in San Francisco, the USs most expensive rental market. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Too many tenants are being taken advantage of, says McElhaney, who helped usher in the moratorium, which was originally drafted by a group of community-based organisations. She predicts that tenant protections under the law will be strengthened.

But city government is limited, McElhaney concedes, in what role it can play to counter the macroeconomic forces that are threatening to change the fabric of our community. She is worried about whats happening across the bay in San Francisco, where an influx of foreign investment and high-paid workers from Silicon Valley tech companies are driving up prices and driving out many longtime residents.

McElhaney says she doesnt want to look up 10 years from now and see that Oakland has become a remnant of herself in the way that people now talk about San Francisco.

Housing advocates see the citys action as a significant step towards preventing the kind of wealth takeover thats happened in San Francisco. The moratorium is hugely important and hugely impactful as an immediate, necessary stop-gap to staunch the bleeding that is being caused by the housing crisis, and by the accelerating gentrification Oakland is seeing right now, says Dawn Phillips, program co-director of Causa Justa :: Just Cause, an housing advocacy group that works with the Bay Areas low-income populations.

Paula Beal picks up mail from the Oakland apartment she has been forced to leave. Photograph: Ramin Talaie

But Phillips says a stop-gap measure is not enough. The moratorium is a short-term response, but what we need are long-term, permanent solutions. The council and the mayor would like us to believe that 90 days is what they needed to come up with solutions. We reject that idea wholly and thoroughly.

Phillipss organisation has joined with other local advocates and activists to form the Committee to Protect Oakland Renters, and has drafted a tenant protection policy that seeks to make permanent changes to the citys rent stabilisation and eviction protection laws. The committee is hoping to qualify it for the upcoming general election in November, and is currently gathering the roughly 35,000 signatures required to do so.

There needs to be stronger and clearer regulations of what are the allowable conditions under which a landlord can increase a tenants rent, Phillips says. We have seen too many cases of arbitrarily skyrocketing rents. We have in some cases met with and worked with individuals whose rents increased anywhere from 40% and higher. Were not waiting for the council to legislate this.

Beal, who is active with CJJC and helped write the proposed reforms, is hopeful that this effort will spur the political action to help others in her position; people whove raised families in Oakland for decades and want to be able to call the city home.

For many, the only way they can stay in Oakland is to sleep in their cars or on the streets. These are people who have never been homeless in their lives, ever, Beal says. They dont know what to do; they dont know who to go to.

But she recognises that the housing crisis is complex, and widespread: Ive been talking to city council members, to county supervisors … This housing crisis didnt just start and it doesnt stop when you move to another county. All nine bay area counties are in trouble.

Election day is many months away, however. For now, Beal is calling up friends to see if she can stay with them for a few days, until she can figure out some way to stay in Oakland the city where shes lived for almost half a century, and from which her entire family has been forced out.

Its kind of crazy now that Im the last one here and I dont know if I can stay or go, she says. I really would love to stay, but at this time I dont know if I can or not.

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