Can Hundreds of New Apartments Help Ease Oakland’s Housing Crisis?

The Oakland City Council last week moved forward with a plan for a new mixed-use development project in the city’s Uptown neighborhood.

The proposed property at 2330 Webster Street, will pump out 234 new housing units, mostly market rate but some affordable options too, along with retail space and parking. The units are walking distance to BART and the city’s famed Auto Row.

A chorus of critics has stoked fear that the units in the building, all one and two bedrooms, are a quick fix for Oakland, where the housing market has squeezed residents with rising rents. It will provide more housing to be sure, but what happens when new, younger residents want to expand and start families?

That’s not an issue in the near term says Trulia’s Housing Economist Ralph McLaughlin.

“The mid thirties now is the new mid twenties for getting married and having kids,” he said. “They’re doing it later in life. So new households that move into that area probably won’t be looking to move out very quickly to start families.”

McLaughlin highlights another trend popping up in his company’s research: people want to be closer to work and closer to transportation. In the middle of a major city, that’s achieved through denser housing.

“Otherwise, you promote sprawl and the less dense you build, well you’re going to have to build somewhere and keep going further out,” said Rachel Flynn, Oakland’s Director of Planning and Building. “The whole point of an urban setting is to maximize density where you have the transit and that’s what these plans are about.”

Critcs’ comments imply a need for more single-family home construction in Oakland, but Flynn told NBC Bay Area that the city does not build those types of homes in the Uptown neighborhood. There simply isn’t enough space.

Single-family homes require more viable land, a hard-to-find commodity in the area thanks to the region’s fault lines and hillsides. Plus, apartment complexes typically include a requirement of 15 percent affordable units.

There’s not a similar rule for new homes.

That’s why city leaders like Flynn view any new housing as a good thing, especially in increasingly popular neighborhoods like Uptown.

“We have plenty of demand and we’re trying to get more supply,” she said. “So this was one way to expedite the process and get developers building.”

The rising cost of housing has been a focus across the Bay Area, particularly in Oakland. The median home price in the city has almost doubled in the last five years, while rents have grown by 50 percent in that time.

But there are downsides to developments like the one approved for the Broadway-Valdez area in Uptown. For one, more people typically means more traffic. And that’s not all.

“There’s a possibility that prices could rise in the area if it gentrifies,” said Trulia’s McLaughlin. “And while that’s good for existing homeowners, if rents also rise, that’s actually not great for existing residents.”

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