Q&A: Oakland’s First Policy Director for Housing Security on California’s Housing Crisis

Next City talks with Darin Ranelletti, the City of Oakland’s first Policy Director for Housing Security, about his first year on the job and what the city is doing to coordinate a regional response to the housing crisis.

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Last April, Darin Ranelletti was appointed as the City of Oakland’s first policy director for housing security, a new position reporting directly to Mayor Libby Schaaf. Ranelletti had previously worked in the Planning and Building Department for the City of Oakland for fifteen years, including as its interim director. In that position, he coordinated out a range of activities related to permitting and planning, and also helped coordinate the city’s response to the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that took 36 lives in 2016. Schaaf created the role of policy director for housing security to help develop solutions to the housing crisis that has gripped not only Oakland and the Bay Area but the whole state of California. Here, Ranelletti talks with Next City about his first year in the new role, and what the city is doing to coordinate a regional response to the housing crisis. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What does the position of Policy Director for Housing Security entail, and how are you defining “housing security?”

We have a housing department here in the city and a housing director that runs that department. I work very closely with that director and with that department, but I work in the office of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. So being in the mayor’s office allows me to support the mayor and her efforts to better coordinate housing-related efforts within the city and outside the city. The term “housing security” means promoting equitable access to safe, healthy, affordable, and stable housing for Oaklanders.

Prior to coming over here I worked in the planning and building department for about 15 years in a variety of roles and most recently as interim director, running the department. That was about 150 people focused on operations. It was service delivery to Oaklanders around permitting for construction, development and planning policy, building inspections, everything related to the planning and construction in the city.

The job I’m in now is very different. It’s just me in the office. I don’t have a team or a unit. It’s more about, how I can support the mayor to be effective? And the mayor can be effective by policy direction, by communication, coordination, collaboration, bringing folks together, advocating for a certain position or policy both within the city amongst departments and then also outside the city at the regional, state, or federal levels.

I’m not using this word in a pejorative sense, but it sounds like your position at planning and building was a little bit more bureaucratic, and now you’re in more of a policy role or a political role. What is it like to try to take on that larger perspective and what do you feel like your responsibilities are in this role versus the previous one?

You’re right. You could say that I was a bureaucrat in the previous role, and I think my job as a bureaucrat was to do what I could so that the Department could deliver effective customer service, both to Oaklanders and constituents and also to decision-makers — the mayor and the city council. That was about making sure that there was sound research and analysis, and that information was presented in a clear and understandable way. In some respects my job now is very similar, in that a lot of the decision-making that Mayor Schaaf needs to do about what policies or programs to promote or explore is based on research and analysis and what’s working and not working in other places, so that she can be a strong advocate.

But because I am in a political office, it does mean that I get to be a stronger advocate for particular policy solutions than I used to be. In a way it’s refreshing because I can support the mayor in her efforts to advocate for certain policies. I’m really committed to this work and we need to take strong action and we have, fortunately, a mayor who shares that commitment and is willing to take some bold steps to address these issues.

What are the biggest challenges now to putting in place solutions to the housing shortage?

The housing affordability crisis in Oakland is really a subset of the regional housing affordability crisis. When you look at the San Francisco Bay Area, between 2010 and 2016, the region added 11 jobs for every housing unit that was built. So with tremendous job growth and weak regional housing production, you’ve got this dramatic spike in real estate costs that is really putting a huge housing pressure on places like Oakland and causing Oaklanders to be displaced outside the city or outside the region or onto the streets. Oakland, since it’s part of this region, needs to do everything it can itself, and I believe it had been making tremendous progress in doing that, but it also needs to work collaboratively with its neighbors.

Some of the work that we’ve been doing recently has been around regional collaboration and trying to address this from a regional perspective. That’s probably the biggest challenge — the fact that our housing market spans the region, and we have over 100 cities in the Bay Area — but it’s also the biggest opportunity, because now more than ever there’s an interest in regional solutions.

Is there anything you’ve been able to put in place over the last year or so that’s been successful in starting to address some of those challenges?

In 2016, Mayor Schaaf convened a housing task force of housing policy experts and community-based organizations to come up with strategies to address the housing affordability crisis in Oakland and a report was released called Oakland At Home, also known as the 17K/17K Plan. And that plan calls for the production of 17,000 new housing units at all income levels and the protection of 17,000 low-income housing units between 2016 and 2024. Those strategies involve a number of things, including streamlining the development-review process for new housing, increasing funding for affordable housing, and strengthening our renter protections.

Since that time we’ve started implementing over 90 percent of the recommendations, and we’re starting to see the results. In those three years since that plan came out, the city is on track to exceed that 17K/17K goal. We are actually at more than double the amount of housing units that we should be producing at this point along the 8-year plan, and if you look at the three years since the plan came out in terms of market-rate housing production, we’ve actually permitted more than 10 times the number of units from the previous three years.

If you look at affordable housing — and by affordable housing I mean subsidized housing that the market is not producing for lower-income households — that production over the three years since the report came out has increased 34 percent compared to the previous three years. We’re still short on our affordable-housing production goals, and that’s a challenge, because affordable-housing production requires subsidy, typically from government. In Oakland we’ve been fortunate, because Oakland voters stepped up in 2016 to pass an affordable-housing bond, and we have also passed affordable-housing impact fees so that we’re charging fees on new market-rate development to pay for affordable housing. With those additional funding sources we’ve been able to increase affordable-housing production, but again, it’s still not enough.

Unfortunately, I think in the housing world there’s a debate right now about whether we should focus only on housing supply or only on tenant protections, and in Oakland we think that you can do both. So we have some of the strongest tenant protections in the country and it has not limited our housing production, and now that we have all this production, we’re seeing rents in Oakland, which up until now were skyrocketing, beginning to stabilize. And because of these additional tenant protections, some additional stability is coming in to our tenants. The eviction notices that are filed with the city have declined 33 percent since the year before we released the report, 2015. So we think you can do both, and that strategy of doing both appears to be working.

One of the other things that’s happening is that there’s this NIMBY/YIMBY dynamic playing out all across the region, especially the Bay Area but also everywhere else in California, and across the U.S., really. How have you navigated those dueling ideologies, or how have you tried to position yourselves within that larger debate that’s taking place?

Last year, you may have heard about an initiative called CASA, which was a regional initiative of Bay Area leaders to address the housing crisis from a regional perspective, and Mayor Schaaf was on the steering committee of CASA. CASA lays out a 3P framework — to produce, preserve, and protect. And Mayor Schaaf is a big supporter of that multi-pronged approach, and what the CASA process showed is that in order to really make progress at a regional level, folks from various sides of the debate will need to come together, collaborate, and compromise. So the CASA process resulted in a compact that included major compromises from various stakeholders, and that’s why many folks have major concerns about the compact in the region, because it is asking folks in the region to do things differently and it might make folks a little uncomfortable. But if this was easy, we would have solved this a long time ago. Mayor Schaaf is a big believer in the need to get past “It’s this strategy or this strategy.” We need a lot of different strategies and we need to try something because the status quo isn’t working.

And we’re seeing new political space open around certain things. There’s conversations around rent control for example that have been happening, not only in California, and so I wonder how you think cities should be taking advantage of the somewhat more open political field to address some of the housing challenges they’re facing.

Because the housing crisis is more broadly felt now, I think people are starting to realize no one is immune. Even folks that may own property and see their property values skyrocketing and previously felt, “Hey, this is not my problem,” are starting to see, for example, that their kid’s teacher has to leave school because he or she can no longer afford to live there, or their home healthcare nurse couldn’t attend their scheduled appointment because their car broke down and they’re commuting two hours each way from outside the region. Because of that broader public realization this is an exciting time, because there’s finally — because things have gotten so bad — a public interest in doing something. It feels like now is the time when things are going to happen. It’s really exciting to be a part of that and to be working for a mayor who shares that interest in doing something immediate and bold.

But I have to say that this takes action at all levels — city, state, and the federal government. What we really need is the federal government to recommit to a strong housing policy and program that will enable places like Oakland to succeed in this. It requires a real national commitment and I think we’re starting to see a shift at the national level around priorities in housing. I’m optimistic that that’s going to happen, and that’s what it’s going to take.

It’s important to remember that the federal government’s involvement in housing has shrunk dramatically from what it used to be. After World War II, we had an affordable housing crisis with returning veterans, and the federal government set out to provide housing for Americans, and unfortunately, those programs were racially discriminatory. But it was a set of programs that had the effect of creating what ended up being the white, suburban middle class. We can do something that is more equitable — with more racially equitable outcomes. There is a precedent for it, and I’m hopeful that we can do that.

At the local level, anything we should be looking out for from Oakland in the next couple years in terms of policies or investments?

One of the things we’re working on this year is trying to figure out how we can promote new, cost-effective forms of construction. One of the reasons that housing is so expensive is because it costs so much to build housing. And that’s for a variety of reasons — limited labor supply and the cost of materials and tariffs and so forth. But in Oakland we are now seeing a growing interest in folks delivering housing in new ways, such as prefabricated, modular housing that is built offsite at factories. We now have over 1,000 housing units either in the pipeline or under construction that are using mass-produced prefab modular construction techniques. So we’re going to be looking, as technology advances, at ways that the city can promote that. That’s something that we’re excited to be doing, and hopefully the lessons learned can be beneficial to others.

Why should other cities consider creating the types of policy positions that you’re in now?

How cities tackle the housing crisis from an organizational perspective can vary — there’s no one right model. I think all cities need to put a lot of attention into addressing housing security. How they do it depends upon what works for them. We have different forms of government, and the work that I’m doing and we’re doing here in Oakland can happen in different cities in different ways. I think that there is an interest in supporting some of the smaller cities that may not have the capacity to do the kind of work that the bigger cities are doing through regional initiatives.

There is a state bill right now in Sacramento to create a Bay Area regional housing entity that can supply affordable-housing funding to jurisdictions as well as provide technical assistance and support to those jurisdictions. In some of the bigger cities like Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco, we have the capacity through work in those mayors’ offices like my position, and [through] the various housing departments. But in some of the smaller cities that may not have that, they can then receive assistance from this regional entity. So I don’t think there’s a one size fits all. I think there’s different ways to do it. But I think that the fact that this is even a conversation now about how cities can really tackle this crisis is much needed, and I’m really optimistic.

This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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Tags: affordable housingoakland

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