Oakland leaders need to legalize extra types of housing, together with RVs and tiny properties

Hundreds of people are illegally living in RVs in Oakland. A new proposal could allow them to rent land from private property owners. Photo: Pete Rosos Photo credit: Pete Rosos

The number of people living in RVs and trailers in Oakland has skyrocketed in recent years as more residents cannot afford a city apartment but desperately try not to sleep on the streets.

But there are few places where RV residents can legally or safely park their homes in Oakland. They are often the subject of complaints from neighbors and can be fined by city council inspectors.

Now three city officials are proposing a series of changes to the city’s housing code that would allow people to live in RVs parked on private property and relax the rules for mobile, manufactured, and modular homes. With traditional construction costs soaring, proponents say the proposal allows alternative housing types that are faster, cheaper to build and more accessible to those in need.

“We see innovations both in the construction of houses and in the choice of housing,” said Mayor Libby Schaaf on Tuesday at a virtual press conference. “Our old codes and zoning laws no longer meet our need to accelerate housing production and reduce its costs.”

The ordinance introduced by Schaaf and city councilors Dan Kalb and Sheng Thao will be presented to the planning commission for the first time on Tuesday. In order to come into force, the approval of the city council is required.

Currently, all private residential buildings are required to be built on permanent foundations, making it illegal for a RV resident in most locations in Oakland except in rare cases such as some vacant lots that lack a house or other structure.

According to the new regulation, one or more mobile homes or tiny houses could be temporarily or permanently stationed on private property. Each RV would qualify as a residential unit in the city’s zone code and, in many cases, would qualify as “ADUs” or additional residential units that are permitted across the city.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf is working with two city council members, Dan Kalb and Sheng Thao, to expand housing styles across the city. Photo credit: Zoom

In a video compiled by the city, Adam Garrett-Clark, who founded and lives in a cooperative-owned tiny house village called Neighborship in West Oakland, said the proposed changes could legalize the living conditions of his community.

Tiny homes and RVs offer a “convenient way to have a roof over your head, be isolated from the outside world, and get eight hours of consistent sleep,” he said. “The only problem is these laws that prevent it.”

Garrett-Clark’s mother, Sauda Garrett, moved to Neighborship after returning to Oakland after years of absence and encountering exorbitant house prices.

“A law that allows us to stay here … it would make me feel safe,” she said on the video. “Because without that I don’t know where I would end up.”

Regardless of the ordinance addressed to the Planning Commission, the city council will be considering a proposal Tuesday to give Garrett-Clark’s organization Tiny Logic $ 350,000 to operate a new city-sanctioned homeless camp in an undetermined location. The council will also vote to pursue other emergency housing programs, including modular housing in a location on E. 12th Street and a new “safe parking lot” for RVs in West Oakland.

Unapproved RVs and communities like Neighborship often attract complaints from residents who raise concerns about sewage problems in locations that either lack bathrooms or that rely on portable toilets. Another common concern is that cooking and heating appliances could start a fire. Oakland has hundreds of bonfires every year, many of which are associated with RVs.

City officials said Tuesday the vehicle houses would be subject to fire safety regulations, putrefaction and rubbish collection laws, and inspections. According to the proposal, an RV would have access to utilities such as water and electricity from another building on the site, but if there were multiple RVs they would have to be hooked up to the city’s water and sewer systems, an expensive undertaking.

“Fire safety is paramount,” said Kalb, who represents North Oakland, including the fire-prone hills.

The ordinance would also allow prefabricated houses – which are cheaper to build than traditional housing – across the city and treat them like normal single-family houses in the city’s zoning law. “Efficiency units”, smaller studio apartments or SRO-style rooms without a kitchen, would also be allowed more broadly.

Finally, the proposal increases the height restrictions for modular apartment complexes. Modular units built in a factory can be stacked on top of each other to create apartment buildings. Because the ceiling of one unit is stacked against the floor of another, creating thick chunks of building material between each unit, fewer floors can fit within the city’s traditional height standards. The result is fewer units.

At the press conference on Tuesday, Schaaf spoke highly of Factory_OS, a modular construction company from Vallejo that claims to build homes 40-50% faster than traditional homes, at 60-80% of the cost. The idea, according to the proponents of the new regulation, is that cheaply built apartments can be rented more cheaply, as building owners and landlords have to bear fewer costs.

Schaaf emphasized, however, that the new rules would only apply to private, unsubsidized housing. A homeowner could still ask anything they wanted from a tenant living in a tiny house on their property, as could the owner of a modular housing estate. The new ordinance does not inherently create affordable housing that Oakland has made an effort to build. While the city has exceeded the local and regional goals for market-driven housing construction in recent years, it falls far behind the goals and requirements for affordable housing construction.

But city officials and employees who support the ordinance believe the expanded housing options and reduced construction costs will translate into lower rents.

Darin Ranelletti, the mayor’s housing policy adviser, noted that the new vehicle apartments, such as mobile homes, would also be eligible for state affordability incentives. If property owners allow RVs to park on their property and limit rents to low income levels, they may be allowed to accommodate more RVs than the city’s zoning regulations allow, Ranelletti explained in an email to The Oaklandside.

“It is time to make housing more efficient and flexible in order to address the affordability crisis in the Bay Area,” Schaaf said at the press conference, hoping other cities in the region will adopt similar changes.

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