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Oakland's mayor wants residents to house the homeless

Marisa Kendall, The Mercury News on

Published in Home and Consumer News

OAKLAND, Calif. -- For everyone who has ever passed one of this city's sprawling homeless encampments and wondered how to help, Mayor Libby Schaaf has an answer -- open your door to someone in need of shelter.

The Oakland mayor is asking residents to offer their spare rooms, Airbnb units and rental properties to the city's homeless, a radical proposition that has prompted both cautious optimism and scathing criticism from her constituents. Some landlords worry taking in down-on-their-luck tenants could backfire, and skeptical homeless advocates say this Band-Aid of a solution doesn't solve the larger problem. But others, watching Oakland's homelessness crisis grow to devastating proportions, say now is the time for outside-the-box thinking.

In her annual "State of the City" speech earlier this month, Schaaf challenged Oakland residents to "give up that Airbnb. Fix up that back unit," and offer the space to people in need.

"I hear so many times every day people ask me, 'how can I help the homeless?'" Schaaf said in an interview. "And so this is an inspirational example of how already more than 100 landlords are helping."

Now she wants 100 more.

Oakland homeowners who accept her challenge would partner with local nonprofit Bay Area Community Services to offer permanent, low-cost housing for people transitioning out of homelessness. The potential tenants -- residents of BACS's 137-bed Henry Robinson center -- would have jobs or be on government assistance and able to afford rent. Nevertheless, landlords likely would have to rent at a discount. The Henry Robinson center typically places residents in rooms that cost between $300 and $1,400 per month. The market rate for a studio apartment in Oakland is closer to $1,700, according to RentCafe.


The community services organization has quietly matched willing landlords with homeless tenants -- with success -- for years. The organization already works with about 250 landlords, but needs more, said director of programs Daniel Cooperman. Schaaf's goal is to add 100 rooms to the group's inventory in the next year.

"It's a last-resort idea," said Oakland homeowner Rebecca Chekouras, 66, "and I think it doesn't make sense for anyone involved."

Instead of asking residents to tackle the problem, the city should be stepping up its own efforts to find a more all-encompassing solution, Chekouras said. After living near a sprawling homeless encampment at the edge of Jack London Square, where neighbors have had their bicycles stolen, windows smashed and homes broken into, she said she'd be afraid to open her door to a homeless tenant.

BACS does not conduct background checks on its clients. Cooperman said the organization intervenes if a tenant stops paying rent, or if other problems arise. But the organization has never had to formally evict a tenant, he said, and he estimates less than 5 percent of tenant placements fail.


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