The top two candidates talk about housing, homelessness, and what they would like to change in the next four years.

This November, Oakland will elect a new mayor. There are nine people running to unseat current Mayor Libby Schaaf, and Schaaf herself is running to win a second term. Of these ten candidates, Schaaf and prominent Black Lives Matter activist, Cat Brooks, have taken the lead—the two have brought in the greatest number of campaign donations and have more endorsements than the rest of their challengers.

Polls show that low-income people are far less likely to vote than higher-income ones. But that doesn’t mean Oakland’s unsheltered residents aren’t paying attention to what’s happening in City Hall. “The mayor has said she’s set aside money for homelessness, but it never trickles down to the homeless people,” said Aaron, 40, who lives in The Village, a tent encampment in East Oakland. “I want to vote for someone who will fight for the homeless cause.” 

Many unhoused Oaklanders simply do not trust the mayor to act in their best interest—no matter who is elected.

“They all lie,” said a man in Downtown Oakland, who wished to remain anonymous. “In politics, they’re going to tell you a good lie all the time.”

Street Spirit caught up with Brooks and Schaaf to discuss the city’s most controversial topics around homelessness, from Tuff Sheds and encampment sweeps to how—and where—to build truly affordable housing for very poor and homeless people. The conversations have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Cat Brooks speaks at an Oakland Mayoral Candidates Forum at the First Presbyterian Church in Oakland.
Cat Brooks speaks at an Oakland Mayoral Candidates Forum at the First Presbyterian Church in Oakland. (Alastair Boone)

Cat Brooks does not consider herself a politician. 

“I know I’m running for elected office…but I’m an organizer and I’m an activist, and I come from the streets,” she said in our interview. Brooks grew up in Las Vegas, where she attended anti-nuclear protests with her mother from an early age. She moved to Oakland in 2006, where she quickly tapped into the city’s activist scene. By 2015, she was one of the most prominent organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Brooks has has staged protests across the Bay Area against gun violence and racial inequality, including halting a San Francisco-bound BART train filled with Black Friday shoppers, and blockading Oakland’s police headquarters. She also led a protest outside of Mayor Schaaf’s house in January after the mayor asked the public to help house their homeless neighbors, but did not do so herself. “Housing is a human right. Oakland has 2,700 unhoused people in the streets every single evening and our mayor is doing little to nothing to address it,” Brooks said in a Facebook live post during the protest.

Brooks says that homelessness is central to her mayoral campaign—like Schaaf, “Housing and Dignity for All” is one of the tenets of her platform. In the interview below, Brooks and I discuss what she means when she talks about affordable housing, encampment sweeps, and what she would do differently from the current administration.

Alastair Boone: Politicians all over the Bay Area are talking about building more affordable housing. Can you describe what you mean when you talk about affordable housing?

Cat Brooks: So the first thing I’d like to say is that I’m not a politician. I know I’m running for elected office but that’s an important distinction for me. I’m an organizer and I’m an activist and I come from the streets. And I’m running for office to bring the people to City Halland push the politics and politicians out.

I’ve been working really hard to not say “affordable housing”… you might start to see me use the word “truly” in front of it as a qualifier, because you have to make probably a minimum of about $60,000 a year in the Bay Area to be able to afford affordable housing. And while we do need housing at every income level, the priority has got to be for our folks with no income, low income, or workforce income. So when I’m talking about building affordable housing, I’m talking about housing for our unhoused people as we help support their transition to permanent housing and living wage jobs. And I’m talking about housing for artists, and seniors, and teachers, and social justice workers. That’s who I’m talking about and that’s my priority.

Boone: Walk me through your specific plan for how to create that truly affordable housing for very low income and homeless people.

Brooks: Number one, moving forward with development in the city of Oakland we can demand a citywide community benefits agreement like San Jose has done, which means you don’t put a shovel in the ground in Oakland without a community benefits agreement as part of that construction.

I also think it’s important that inclusionary zoning doesn’t just happen in certain parts of the city, and that we need to look at citywide, low cost, workforce housing. I don’t want gentrification to continue segregating people based on income and of course that ends up being based on race. 

The third thing is that we have public land. The city has a number of vacant parcels of public land that could be utilized to permanent supportive housing. We can use the majority of it to build permanent low cost housing. I’m also a big supporter of land trusts and expanding our land trust program, particularly for the vacant properties that have 24 units or under.

The city should be ashamed of itself.

Boone: How will your strategy on affordable housing and homelessness differ from Mayor Schaaf’s?

Brooks: We have an immediate crisis, with the 6,000 people sleeping on our streets every night. And I have been vocally critical of Mayor Schaaf about this, partly because I know that she like me has been inside of those camps, and seen the horrific conditions. We have to turn to city resources. The city has hundreds of vacant buildings that could be partitioned, so people could privacy and dignity but also have showers and bathrooms. Wrap-around services should be available without them having to be surrounded by barbed wire, in chemical-treated tool sheds.

A couple of these parcels could be used for tiny homes, not tool sheds—if people want them. See that’s the other problem, there’s this thing where we’re only going to help you if you’re going to take the help that we say you need. Forget that, you get housing no matter what you want to do, and you get to maintain your self-determination and agency no matter how you want to live your life.

We also have to stop people from being homeless in the first damn place. We need to be fighting like hell for rent control, and then once we get it we need to pass the most progressive rent control policy in the state. That means rent control for every single unit, new, old, or otherwise.

Get the people off the streets, make sure the dollars for the unhoused get to the unhoused, and that’s it. And those are my priorities as a candidate and will be as mayor.

Boone: If you were mayor, what would your strategy be about cleaning encampments, and using Tuff Shed-like models to get homeless people off the street?

Brooks: It should be an affront to every single Oaklanders conscious that now that the administration is putting people in chemically treated tool sheds that are going to have long-term impacts on their health. What is happening in those Tuff Sheds is criminal, it’s not helpful, and the city should be ashamed of itself.

[My platform is also about] redirecting police resources. Tomorrow we could stop clearing encampments and start using those resources for showers, for people to actually clean the porta potties, and ensure that there are actually resources flowing into the encampments to make them as humane as possible while we’re moving people inside.

Libby Schaaf speaks at an Oakland Mayoral Candidates Forum at the First Presbyterian Church in Oakland.
Libby Schaaf speaks at an Oakland Mayoral Candidates Forum at the First Presbyterian Church in Oakland. (Alastair Boone)

When Libby Schaaf first ran for mayor in 2014, her campaign was centered around safety, education, transparent government, and the economy. These issues remain central to her re-elect platform, but another has become paramount to her 2018 campaign: homelessness. “This is the most pressing issue for me as the mayor,” she said during our interview.

“Fighting displacement and housing our most vulnerable” is one of her stated priorities. And in recent months, homelessness has been a hot topic in City Hall. Schaaf praised the City Council in June after they added $8.6 million to the budget from state grants to address homelessness and illegal dumping. “I applaud the City Council’s mid-cycle budget adjustment to address two of Oakland’s most urgent priorities—homelessness and dumping,” Schaaf told the East Bay Times. She also enacted Oakland First Impact Fees—which require market rate developments to either build affordable units or pay into the city’s affordable housing fund—and sponsored a bill that allows Oakland to use public for building future homeless services, which passed in September.

Schaaf’s increased focus on this topic corresponds with the city’s growing number of homeless people: According to a point in time survey from 2017, homelessness in Oakland has increased by 25 percent since 2015. As these numbers have grown, Shaaf has earned criticism from homelessness advocates for sweeping tent encampments and replacing them with Tuff Shed camps—the city sanctioned areas where homeless people are invited to live in prefabricated storage sheds while they work with onsite social workers, and look for permanent housing. Critics have called the Tuff Sheds prison-like, because guests are not allowed to cook their own meals, and must sign in and out of the gated areas where the sheds are placed.

In the interview below, Schaaf and I discuss Tuff Sheds, evictions, regional cooperation, and her plans for creating more affordable housing.

Alastair Boone: Can you tell me about the specific plans you have for creating very affordable housing for poor and homeless people in Oakland? 

Libby Schaaf: I believe that the big win out there is to start imposing regulations and creating revenue streams at the state or at least the regional level. That’s something I am pushing for as a member of CASA (the Committee to House the Bay Area), which is a special committee which represents the nine-county Bay Area. You will find over the next several months that I am going to really be focusing my advocacy at the regional and state level, because Oakland can’t solve this alone. When you have cities like Cupertino approving a new corporate campus for 12,000 new workers and only approving 27 housing units, it is unfair to the rest of the region. 

That’s why I have been an outspoken supporter of some of the more controversial state legislation, proposed by Senator Weiner, and I’m going to be campaigning hard for Props 1 and 2. That’s also why I’m supporting the repeal of Costa-Hawkins. We can’t just build our way out of this problem. We have to strengthen renter protections, we have to convert more of our existing housing stock from unprotected market rate housing to protected affordable housing.

We also have never had a dedicated public fund to prevent people from losing their housing. We have been advocating for federal funding to prevent homelessness and help people when something happens in their lives and that has caused them to fall behind, and they just can’t catch up. All they need is that one-time help to get themselves stabilized so they can stay where they are. I believe that that is one of the most cost-effective investments we can make, and I have been working for a year to augment city funding for that type of protection with philanthropic funds. I have also been working to do an evaluation that we hope will help our case at the federal level, to create a permanent funding source to keep people stabilized in their homes.

Boone: Do you have any plans for how you’re going to get that affordable housing into high opportunity neighborhoods?

Schaaf: We have started this by making it a lot easier to create secondary units. I think the next opportunity is to create funding and assistance for people to add those units in exchange for a commitment to take Section 8, or other types of commitments to ensure that these secondary units are protected affordable housing. We also did an experiment with the Housing Authority, which has resulted in a doubling of the number of families that have been able to successfully find Section 8 units in Oakland.

“I am going to really be focusing my advocacy at the regional and state level, because Oakland can’t solve this alone.” 

The other big opportunity is rezoning. Even just a simple rezoning of single family home neighborhoods to allow duplexes and triplexes by right is something that is likely to create rental and affordable housing in neighborhoods of opportunity.

Boone: After the Ghost Ship fire, you issued an order to protect DIY and un-traditional living spaces, so that these spaces could seek the city’s help in getting up to code. Despite this, evictions from unpermitted residents have continued. How will you make sure that these evictions stop? 

Schaaf: I am extremely sensitive about this. We are talking about either augmenting that order, or doing some additional administrative steps that would put some extra checks on any displacement of tenants that was caused by some sort of city enforcement action. I am working as hard as I can to avoid that while continuing to be mindful of our obligations around safety.

Boone: In the past few months, there has been a lot of backlash against the city’s decision to sweep encampments and replace them with Tuff Sheds. Can you talk a little bit about why the city has been using this strategy? 

Schaaf: I can tell you that I have heard from far more unsheltered residents that want to know when they can get their Tuff Shed than I have from residents who are against it. I can also tell you that while we do mobile outreach, we go out to encampments and try and deliver health care and social services, we try and connect people to either transitional or permanent housing, the level of success that we have through mobile outreach is extremely limited.

In our first Tuff Shed shelter, the one at Sixth and Castro, 54 percent of the people who have been served there have moved on to transitional or permanent housing. A number have gotten jobs, all have been connected to a permanent health home, many have been able to get their driver’s license. We’re seeing good results.

The Tuff Shed cabin communities gives our unsheltered residents the dignity and a comfort of going to bed at night behind a locked door where only they hold the key. They can go to bed at night with their partners, their pets, and their possessions. They have services right there on site. It allows us to keep the bonds of community that get formed in many encampments together, because we use this geographic approach of moving a community of unsheltered folks together as a community into the cabin community site.

The cost per person is actually quite low, and we have tried to stretch the public dollar by aggressively requesting contributions from the private sector. And we’ve been quite successful in doing that, we’ve raised well over a million dollars in private money for the hard costs of the Tuff Shed cabin communities. 

We are balancing the needs of other vulnerable populations to use public spaces, like children using parks, the environmental impacts on Lake Merritt of having unsheltered residents around the lake, and also ADA complaints from sidewalks being inaccessible from our seniors and disabled residents in wheelchairs. So we are balancing all of these needs in a way that we believe is compassionate and dignified. And that is how we have tried to balance these competing needs in a way that we think is respectful, compassionate, and effective.

Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.