BY MARISA KENDALL
As city leaders here take their first steps toward regulating Airbnb, they have made one concern abundantly clear: they don’t want what San Francisco has.
Not gentrification that forces long-term residents out of the city’s diverse neighborhoods, not a community divided by tension between techies and everyone else, and not an affordable housing crisis exacerbated by Airbnb and other short-term rentals.
“It’s not about preventing techies, per se,” Oakland Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan said. “It’s about protecting communities from displacement, from wrongful evictions, from foreclosures.”
As techies flood the gritty East Bay city, fleeing the costs of San Francisco, and Uber opens a new headquarters in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood, city leaders say they want to tackle housing issues before they become an insurmountable problem. In a public workshop Thursday, city planners reiterated their promise to crack down on Airbnb — a popular scapegoat in cities facing shortages of affordable housing — because of a belief that landlords pull long-term rental housing off the market in hopes of making more money on short-term Airbnbs. But with city rents already skyrocketing and diversity plummeting, it’s unclear whether those efforts will be enough.
“There didn’t use to be three-block long homeless encampments near downtown Oakland,” said María Poblet, executive director of local nonprofit Causa Justa/Just Cause. “If you talk to people who are living in tents, who are living on the streets, who are living on a friend’s couch, a lot of them were housed very recently. …The crisis is pushing people into the streets, literally.”
The number of Oakland Airbnb listings increased by 50 percent between June 2015 and May 2016, according to a report by Community Economics Inc. and East Bay Housing Organizations. During that time, rents continued to climb and the price for a one-bedroom unit increased 13 percent, Zillow found. Real estate website Zumper ranked Oakland as the fourth most expensive city in the country to rent a one-bedroom home last year.
And Oakland’s residents of color are fleeing. Between 1990 and 2011, the percentage of African-Americans living in the city dropped from 43 to 26, according to a report by Causa Justa, compiled with data from the Alameda County Public Health Department.
On Thursday the city’s planning department took comments from residents about potential rules to prevent landlords from converting their units to Airbnb rentals. The City Council is expected to consider the new regulations, which could include a limit on the number of nights short-term landlords can rent their homes, before the end of the year.
An Airbnb spokeswoman in an emailed statement promised the company is “committed to working with the city to protect the quality of life in Oakland’s neighborhoods.”
For now, Oakland’s short-term rental statistics aren’t raising many eyebrows. New data presented at Thursday’s meeting showed out of 2,252 active listings on Airbnb and other platforms in Oakland, only 333 are “commercial,” meaning they potentially could be used for long-term housing instead. The rest of the listings are rented for just a handful of nights a year, likely when the homeowner is out of town.
The city’s rental vacancy rate is 2 percent, below the national rate of 6 percent. By acting now, Oakland hopes it can preempt Airbnb’s impact before the city’s affordable housing crisis worsens.
“(We’re) seeing what’s happened in San Francisco, as well as the problems they’ve been having with short-term rentals,” said Laura Kaminski, an Oakland urban planner who is leading the city’s efforts to regulate Airbnb, “and trying to be somewhat proactive with trying to prevent that from potentially happening here.”
The Airbnb controversies in both Oakland and San Francisco are taking place against a backdrop of broader tension between the growing tech industry and traditional communities. In San Francisco, activists have organized several protests over the years blocking the buses that shuttle tech workers between the city and the South Bay; the ubiquitous tech buses have become a symbol of the area’s income inequality. And a handful of San Francisco supervisors last year tried and failed to place a measure on the November ballot that would have imposed an extra tax on tech companies.
In an attempt to prevent that from happening in Oakland, the city is working on getting more longtime residents into tech jobs, holding coding boot camps, startup competitions and other training programs so locals are pulled up, not displaced, by the tech boom.
“If we look at Oakland’s biggest asset, it’s our diversity,” said Marisa Raya, who works as a liaison between tech companies and the city. “So we focus a lot on diversity in tech.”
The tech companies themselves also are getting involved. In October, Google opened Code Next, a free computer science lab for young people in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. The Oakland-based Kapor Center is working with the school district on computer science education and helped create the Tech Talent Pathways Partnership, which offers tech training to veterans, older residents, formerly incarcerated people and others hoping to break into the industry. And TechEquity Collaborative is working with Oakland startups including Captricity and Clef to make their workforces more diverse.
Uber, which intends to open its new 6-story headquarters on Broadway in 2018, in September assigned community outreach lead Jordan Medina the specific task of building partnerships between Uber and Oakland’s businesses, nonprofits and community leaders.
For the council’s Kaplan, the key is that new residents recognize where they are and avoid trying to change Oakland into something it’s not.
“Obviously cities grow and change, and people move in and people move out,” she said, “but it is absolutely important that people respect and honor a community that they’re coming to.”