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.
"We're not going anywhere," Cooperman said. "If they need anything, we're there to support the landlords and the tenant."
What Cooperman and Schaaf are suggesting isn't unheard-of. Berkeley Hills-based home-sharing nonprofit Safe Time connects people on the verge of homelessness with East Bay homeowners who have spare bedrooms. And Airbnb helps landlords house refugees and victims of natural disasters. But those programs ask for temporary commitments of a few months or less. Oakland landlords who accept Schaaf's 100 rooms challenge would be saddled with a new tenant indefinitely.
There are plenty of Oaklanders with extra space, but many say they rely on rental income from those spare rooms to help pay their own living expenses. Oakland has 2,252 active short-term rental units advertised on sites like Airbnb, the city reported in a January public workshop. There are 2,761 homeless living in the city, according to the most recent count, though experts agree that number is likely low.
Laura Foote Clark, executive director of housing advocacy group YIMBY Action, appreciates the spirit of Schaaf's idea, but said it's not a sustainable solution.
"We can't just yell at landlords to stop being interested in money," she said.
But Sophia DeWitt, program director of East Bay Housing Organizations, isn't ready to write it off.
"Every idea needs to be on the table," she said.
Since Schaaf's speech, more than two dozen people have reached out to the community services group to find out more about opening their homes, but so far, none have committed, Cooperman said.
Some in the community argue Schaaf should set an example by opening her own home.
"Why would anyone else do it if she wasn't willing to do it?" asked 48-year-old Judy Elkan, owner of the Mary Weather clothing store and art gallery in Oakland, and a member of the local Homeless Advocacy Working Group.
But Schaaf won't be signing up her own home anytime soon. She says she doesn't own rental property or a secondary unit, and has no space for tenants in the house she shares with her husband and two children.
"Someday, if our living circumstances change, it's something I would consider," Schaaf said.
Oakland has one potential landlord in William Shuford, who uses Airbnb to rent out an extra bedroom in his Lake Merritt house. The 40-year-old relies on the money he makes through Airbnb -- as much as $1,000 a month -- to help pay his rent, but he's willing to sacrifice that income to help the city's homeless. Even so, he's not without concerns.
"There's a fear associated with the desperation that comes along with homelessness," Shuford said. "If you think neighbors are worried about young college kids throwing a party and leaving beer cans all over the lawn -- if the neighbors knew that you were housing homeless families in their close proximity, I think that NIMBY will come out in a lot of people."
(Staff writer David DeBolt contributed to this article.)
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