Why a housing authority in Oakland is moving away from developing public housing
‘This used to be Oakland’s dominant retail area with the African American community in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. There were jazz clubs and restaurants all the way down. It was hopping,’ says Philip Neville, deputy executive director and chief development officer at the Oakland Housing Authority in California.
We’re at Mandela Gateway, a 168-rental unit development in West Oakland, which OHA hopes will help restore some of this area’s verve.
This $52 million (£32.5 million) development, completed in 2004, replaced a 46-home public housing block. It began with a $10 million (£6.2 million) ‘Hope 6’ grant from the federal government, and then OHA added $4 million (£2.5 million) of its own funds to leverage the rest of the money, including $29 million (£18.1 million) from private investors.
As we take a look at the retailers that have recently moved into the units at the bottom of the building, which Mr Neville admits have been tough to let, a couple of officers from the housing authority’s own police department out on a Sunday morning patrol, come over to say hello.
Mr Neville has brought Inside Housing here because Mandela Gateway represents everything the housing authority is trying to achieve.
Federal funding for the development and maintenance of public housing - the traditional domain of the United States’ 3,300 housing authorities - has been dwindling for years, so OHA has found ways to access private investment.
It’s also moving away from owning and managing traditional public housing directly and towards developing homes that have section 8 funding attached to them, meaning the families living in them receive rental assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
‘The reputation of the housing authority changed because of Mandela and other developments, so rather than being regarded as the landlord of poor people’s housing, it’s now seen as one of the most successful partners in residential development,’ sums up Jon Gresley, former executive director of OHA, who retired at the end of 2010, but arranged today’s tour of housing developments.
Private partners rely on OHA to purchase the land for development, and provide predevelopment loans, he explains. OHA typically rents the site to its private partners on a long-term lease - this way the housing authority retains control over the affordability of the development.
This is important as demand for affordable housing in Oakland is high. The housing authority opened its waiting list for its 1,300 public housing units and 13,000 section 8 vouchers earlier this year and received more than 20,000 applications in one week.
OHA’s decision to stop building public housing is largely driven by the need for a stronger financial model, says Mr Neville. Developers can borrow against the guaranteed income from the project-based section 8 vouchers committed by OHA to raise capital for schemes. Of the 13,000 vouchers it administers, 2,600 are attached to specific developments.
Removing units’ public housing designation and replacing it with enrolment in HUD’s section 8 programme, an official process described as ‘disposition’ and tightly controlled by the government department, has led to more funding for the housing authority’s smaller schemes spread out around the city.
‘A little over six years ago the City of Oakland was suing the housing authority because the small scattered sites had been underfunded for 30 years and were not in a healthy condition physically, and had some problem tenants in there,’ explains Patricia Ison, deputy executive director of Oakland Housing Authority.
Now OHA has leased about 1,600 former public housing units to a non-profit organisation that is affiliated with OHA, which means more money can be invested in these schemes, and property management can be more localised, explains Mr Neville.
OHA is replacing traditional ways of managing affordable housing by working with the private sector.
Nevertheless, its aims are the same - to improve areas like Oak Point in hope that one day they will be ‘hopping’ once again.
Oakland is one of 14 housing authorities across the US with its own police department. Originally formed in 1974 as a security team, it was upgraded in 1981. The department has an annual budget of more than $6 million (£3.7 million) and employs 65 staff, including 39 police officers.
The OHA police have the same powers as all other officers in California. The department has a ‘mutual aid’ agreement with other departments in the state so that, if there is an emergency outside OHA’s properties, its officers are required to attend if they have the resources.
During Inside Housing’s trip to the city, we visit the 561-home Lion Creek Crossing development, which cost more than $200 million (£124.9 million) and was completed in 2010.
‘It was built on the site of the Coliseum Gardens housing project, 178 units of some of the most god-awful public housing built in the early 1960s’, explains Jon Gresley, former executive director of OHA.
There are pockets of this neighbourhood where there is ‘still significant territorialism that’s resulted in the loss of a couple of lives this year,’ says Patricia Ison, deputy executive director of Oakland Housing Authority.
This is something OHA and its police department constantly deal with. ‘When we do new development, that’s a big piece of it - when we developed Lion Creek, the gangs in those two communities [Lion Creek Crossing and nearby public housing development Lockwood Gardens] were one of our biggest property management challenges, and they remain so,’ adds Ms Ison.
In numbers: Oakland Housing Authority
1,300 - number of public housing units owned and managed by Oakland Housing Authority
13,000 - number of section 8 vouchers administered by OHA
20,000 - applications received in one week for OHA ‘s waiting list
39 - number of officers employed in OHA’s own police department
$6m - annual budget of OHA’s police department
$52m - cost of 168-home Mandela Gateway development
$124.9m - cost of 561-home Lion Creek Crossing development