Oakland Council Votes on Proposed ‘Zoning-Anywhere’ Rules for City Tuffsheds and RV/V Encampments

Posted on May 20, 2019



Proposed City RV/V encampment site, adjacent to Coliseum/BART.

Oakland’s City Council will vote Tuesday, May 20, on relaxing Planning and Zoning rules for Tuff Sheds and planned RV/Vehicle camps managed by the City of Oakland. The move continues the City’s push to codify its ad hoc responses for homelessness into city laws governing emergency shelter policies.

The City Administrator is asking City Council to pass the legislation to change certain aspects of Oakland’s planning and zoning code. At issue are specific zoning laws–and amendments that were made to them in 2014–that deal specifically with the city’s legal right to place emergency shelters whenever a shelter emergency declaration is in effect. The 2014 amendements added a dozen or so pre-designated areas where the city could place emergency shelters outside of residential zoning. Even during an emergency shelter declaration, the City Administrator can only place homeless shelters in residential areas, and in these handful of commercial and industrially zoned areas specifically outlined in the 2014 amendments.

Targeted RV/V Camps

Though the city passed legislation that gave the City Administrator the greenlight to fund and create RV/V encampments last year, these efforts have apparently stalled in the grey area of these zoning laws. Though the city could create the RV/V camps in any number of the pre-approved industrial zoning areas, the city wants to put these RV/V camps in extremely specific areas—adjacent to the Coliseum, near East Oakland’s Home Depot and other non-residentially zoned areas. Those areas aren’t included in the 2014 amendments.

The Coliseum and Home Depot sites are key to the City Administrator’s strategy to eradicate several East Oakland autonomous RV encampments. The Coliseum site plan will convert a large city-owned lot adjacent to the Coliseum’s storage area to a city-run RV/V encampment with some toilet and sewage facilities. In the aftermath, the city will outlaw RV/V overnight parking along the adjacent 85th Avenue and Edes corridors.

Another planned RV/V encampment will target the large mixed RV/V homeless encampment currently adjacent to the Home Depot located along High Street and 42nd Ave elbow. While the city had planned for the first RV/V encampment to roll out on in early April, it was apparently stymied by the zoning laws which would have necessitated Planning and Zoning review, and could have made the encampments unlawful.




Tool Shed Camps Anywhere

The new zoning ordinance if passed will also allow the city wide latitude in placing Tuff Sheds–which have to the moment been placed solely in residential zoned areas–in any area in the city. The ordinance would also free the city’s emergency shelter projects from the Planning Department’s Design Review—be they RV/V encampments, Tuff Shed or any new design or configuration the city invents.

Following the passage of the zoning amendments, the city would have wide latitude to create a mix of units and camp types, placed anywhere in the city. No approval or interaction with other city agencies will be necessary.


Latest Legal Manuever

The proposed legislation is the latest attempt by the City Administrator to give the city wide flexibility in institutionalizing low standards and costs for its emergency homelessness shelter efforts. The city’s first step was lobbying at the state level for permission to run emergency homeless shelters on land leased from Caltrans—usually under freeway overpasses—for one dollar a year.




The City Administrator then introduced legislation at the city level to shape city laws to fit its emergency shelter response. At a May 21 council meeting, the council unanimously voted to add the current Tuff Shed profile as the emergency shelter standard in the city’s building code for use whenever an “emergency shelter crisis”–like the current one declared in 2017–is in effect. The ordinance writes into law temporary sleeping facilities for the homelessness without heat, electricity or plumbing–like the city’s Community Cabins projects, which are modified tool sheds. The second reading of the ordinance– which will immediately make it law–will be held at the same council meeting. All ordinances that change building and planning codes must have two separate affirmative city council votes before they become law.


Emergency Faustian Bargains

Under State law, Oakland’s 2017 “shelter emergency crisis” declaration allows the city to temporarily forego some building regulations for the duration of the declaration. The city has used the declaration to erect Tuffshed units as emergency dwellings for homeless residents with varying levels of insulation, electricity and lavatory facilities ever since. It also used the declaration to propose city managed RV/V encampments with the purpose of outlawing existing RV/V camps in the targeted areas. But the city has run into unanticipated legal ambiguities in doing so. The city has also clashed with higher legal standards at its Caltrans-leased projects. The administrator has sought laws to remove any gray areas in existing emergency shelter rules that would lead to legal problems for the city.

Along the way, the series of faustian bargains has resulted in awkward positions and optics for the city. In arguing for the unheated Tuff Sheds as the de facto model for emergency housing, the city was forced to admit it had no extreme weather standard operating procedures when night temperatures dip into freezing.




The extra set of legal standards for the city’s shelters on state Caltrans property require disclaimers written into the lease stating that the sites may contain toxic hazards and are not suitable for habitation. The city is required to post signage throughout the forthcoming Mandela encampment that state the potential hazards.





Posted in: Uncategorized