Cold Comfort for the Homeless: The City Council will Vote on Codifying its Spartan, Unheated Tuffshed Design into Permanent Emergency Shelter Law Tuesday

Posted on May 5, 2019



The City will permanently adopt amendments like these–with mandated heating crossed out–into the emergency building standards governing homeless Tuffshed camps.

The Oakland City Council is considering an ordinance that would codify into law the health, safety and building standards the city currently uses informally for homeless encampment Tuffsheds. The move would add the standards into the city’s building code for use whenever an “emergency shelter crisis”–like the current one declared in 2017–is in effect. The ordinance, if passed, will give Oakland legal cover for building and maintaining current and future temporary sleeping facilities without heat or electricity as its de jure and de facto solution to homelessness. Oakland apparently has no official cold weather protocol for its service providers at the Tuffshed encampments.

The changes are being proposed by Oakland’s Planning and Building Department and the City Administrator’s Office and will be considered by the full council on May 7, 2019. Under State law, Oakland’s “shelter emergency crisis” declaration of 2017 allows the city to forego some health and safety standards and building regulations in an ad hoc, temporary way. The city has used the crisis declaration to erect modified bare-bones Tuffshed storage units as emergency temporary dwellings for homeless residents with varying degrees of insulation, electrical power and lavatory/toilet facilities ever since.

Though the declaration gave the city of Oakland wide latitude to suspend building, health and safety rules and laws to promptly respond to the Bay Area’s homelessness crisis, the city has hesitated to use the full range of options. A provision which allows Oakland to use city-owned buildings to create transitional and emergency shelters, for example, has gone untouched.

Oakland opted to use the declaration’s powers only to modify and use the Tuffshed storage sheds, which have often been placed on land leased from the State, rather than city-owned property. The city administration has also hesitated to use city funds for any of its Tuffshed projects. Mayor Schaaf has often boasted that the sheds are funded by charitable donations (and, later, state grants like HEAP).

Conflicting Goals

From the beginning of its crisis repsonse, the city’s actions have been riven by two conflicting goals. Eliminating the visible signs of homelessness in key neighborhoods has been the copious primary goal–in a distant second is addressing the crisis itself. The Tuffshed programs have been effective at the primary goal–“resolving” targetted unpermitted encampments.

Typically, the city chooses a property adjacent to an unpermitted encampment, erects the Tuffshed encampment and gives a limited number of residents a choice–entering the TuffShed program or being evicted from the unpermitted encampment when the city shuts it down following the Tuffshed opening.

Even the city’s census information shows that there are often more people in the targetted encampment than can be accomodated in the Tuffsheds and are being displaced in the aftermath. The unpermitted Northgate encampment which was the second Tuffshed target, for example, housed up to 100 residents by the city’s own estimates–but there was room for only 40 residents in the Tuffsheds. The city does not offer emergency housing as part of a city-wide strategy–those who are displaced when the Tuffsheds are erected sleep on the street, move to other encampments, or create new ones. Given the odd inefficacy of the Tuffhsed program when judged by its own merits, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Tuffsheds are a political tactic, not a best-practice solution.

Punitively Spartan

The Tuffsheds themselves seem punitively spartan. The city could have purchased and outfitted dwellings similar to the current Tuffsheds with electrical outlets and heating–and Tuffshed advertises that its units can be modified to include such amenities–the city’s TuffSheds have USB-only electrical outlets and no heating. In fact, Tuffshed markets a line of structures for temporary living, such as guest rooms and in-law units, but city communications reveal the city found them too expensive.

According to the city’s own figures, the spare, unheated TuffSheds the city purchased for its first Tuffshed camp on a Caltrans lot at Castro and 6th Street, cost the city only $3500 per unit– the final bill for the 20 Tuff sheds was around 80k.




The City likely would have continued this ad hoc low-cost, low-standard approach to the shed structures for its next encampments at Lake Merritt and in Fruitvale [with limited improvements, like insulation], but another change in state law got in the way. New emergency state building codes took effect in April 2018 to provide guidance for structures constructed and used during local”emergency shelter” declarations. The new standards were added to the California Building Code as “Appendix N”, which designates structures like Tuffsheds “Emergency Sleeping Cabins” and outlines significantly higher standards than what the City of Oakland has been providing in its program. Among the state’s standards are: full electrical outlets; a form of electrical heating per unit and more extensive lavatory service.


Rejecting Higher Standards

Because the standards are ‘voluntary,’ Oakland has been allowed to deviate from them by submitting rationales on a case by case basis after April 2018–which it did for the Lake Merritt and Fruitvale Tuffsheds, both of which were erected on city-owned land. Oakland typically argues in its rationale that it has a mild climate and doesn’t need to heat the Tuffsheds, and that the exigencies of the Tuffshed strategy–quickly building the sites to ‘resolve’ unsanctioned encampments–necessitate extremely inexpensive and easy to erect units lacking electricity and a dedicated lavatory facility.


The City Administrator’s sense of urgency now comes from the imminent 40-unit and 80-resident Tuffshed project off Mandela Parkway on Caltrans-owned land, where the State’s laws have primacy. On State land, the city can only use lower standards if City Council adopts by ordinance Appendix N with the lower standards added as amendments to it. If the city council doesn’t pass this resolution to adopt the amended Appendix, the city administrator must use the full unamended N standards for the Mandela camp, requiring heating and electricity.


Bad Rationales for Bad Emergency Dwellings

The City Administrator’s Office argues in its report for the legislation that the higher state standards will make the Mandela Tuffshed project untenable–and the Tuffshed program unsustainable. At a recent Oakland Community and Economic Development Committee meeting [4/23/2019], Assistant City Administrator Joe Devries responded to questions from Council members about the necessity for the amended appendix with similar arguments. But several of these claims about feasibility don’t appear to be accurate.

Devries stated that the city would be unable to implement the Mandela project on its due date in June if the council did not approve the amended Appendix. But following the state guidelines would add what are relatively low-cost addtions of not more than a few hundred dollars per unit. Even in the extreme case of the changes doubling the cost of each unit, this would be a one-time cost addition of 80-90k for every 20 units.

To put this in the context of how the city regards such figures, OPD typically spends 70 to 80k in overtime policing of individual protests. One pro-DACA protest in 2018, for example, cost the city 76k for one day of overtime policing. As another example, the City typically pays the mandated independent policing monitor 80k per month–and recently had to pay 96k to cover costs after an officer-involved shooting. The city, thus, is accustomed to responding to unanticipated costs in this price-range, and the City Administrator is allowed by law to make purchases of up to 250k without council approval. 


Though in its report, the city estimates that each 20-unit Tuffshed camp costs 750k per year to run, the majority of that cost is in service provision and maintenance of the encampments. The one-time cost of buying the current units, modifying them with such additions as insulation, placing them and constructing the infrastructure is 200k for a typical Tuffshed encampment of 20 units housing 40 people, according to the city’s estimates. Electrical and heating improvements for each unit would represent a small additional percentage of that amount. 


More telling, perhaps, Devries also argued that the state’s electrical and heating standards were erroneously inflated because they were based on what he referred to as a costly pilot project in Berkeley, which he claimed spent millions of dollars to house the same number of people. However, when I asked the State Housing and Community Development Department what the origins of the “emergency sleeping cabin” standards were, they referred me to California HCD’s own explanatory report on the basis for the changes. The report refers back to amendments adopted in the State’s emergency shelter law in 2017 that defined the “emergency sleeping cabins” in the first place. The legislative analysis for these changes never references Berkeley, but instead the Opportunity Village project in Portland, Oregon, which lacks electricity and heating units. It stands to reason that the HCD incorporated standards like electricity and heating in the state’s emergency regulations because the Portland project which inspired the units had an infrastructure that was deemed below standards for California.


Making up Cold Weather Standards on the Fly 

In response to a request from Council, Devries also agreed to provide a supplemental report to the legislative packet, outlining health and safety protocols used by the service providers of the Tuffshed villages. But in the new supplemental report that appears in the legislative packet with the service providers’ protocols and contract agreeements, there is no documentation regarding temperature and weather policies in the units. The report–also prepared by Devries–states only that “on colder nights, staff are required to provide additional blankets upon request.”

But even this claim is not supported in the accompanying policy documentation for the camps, which do not mention weather protocols. If Devries’ report on the direct question of weather and temperature protocols is an accurate guide, the city does not require a health and safety protocol addressing weather from service providers–no matter the temperature–and the service providers don’t have one of their own. They are apparently just making it up as they go along.


Cold is Cold, Even in “Mild” Climates

These are not insigificant issues, as the City Administrator’s Office has sought to argue. Studies show that human beings can die of exposure in temperatures as high as 50 degrees. Los Angeles County, for example, activates its 24-hour shelter-admission policy when temperatures reach 40 degrees. Though the City argues that Oakland has too mild a climate to worry about heating, temperatures in Winter 2018-19 were 40 degrees and below for 5 consecutive nights in November [11/10-11/15]. There were more consecutive sub-40 nights in January.  In fact, there were a total of 14 nights 40 degrees and colder between November and January–the coldest night was 33 degrees, one degree above freezing, on January 2nd.

Clearly, though allowed by law, the city’s rationale for denying heat to the Tuffsheds has no basis, and its lack of a plan for the Tuffshed housing when temperatures approach freezing is unpardonable. Codifying this indifference to the lives of the homeless into law is not a surprising move by the city–which has chosen optics over efficacy, and worked to give the Tuffshed’s a punitive character when possible. It’s so far been par for the course for the city’s approach to emergency housing, but advocates and city council should demand that basic comfort, dignity and safety for Oakland’s unhoused residents become the legal norm instead.


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