Tuff Shed City: How Tool Sheds and a Few Parking Spaces Became Oakland’s Only Emergency Homelessness Response

Posted on December 20, 2019



The gigantic city lot that eventually became Oakland’s “safe parking” site, housing 30 vehicles.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s Administration spent most of 2018 and 2019 etching into stone her signature emergency homelessness solution—what Schaaf calls “community cabins” and “safe parking” sites for live-in vehicles. The Community Cabins/Safe Parking model is made possible by City Council’s declaration of a shelter crisis emergency in 2017, which allows emergency homelessness responses by the City which would normally not be lawful. Community Cabins/Safe Parking have become the City’s ubiquitous “emergency homelessness” response. But before tool sheds and a few parking spaces became the de facto repository of City efforts and state monies, several other options were on the table. Over the past three years, both the City and Council have dug an ever-hardening rut for Community Cabins/Safe Parking that has marginalized smarter, more effective solutions. Sheds and Parking, which have as their primary goal the eviction of current encampments, have become the unstoppable funnel for the City’s emergency homeless efforts and monies. And here’s how it happened


Oakland’s Emergency Homelessness Response

In October 2018, the City received its first award of new state homelessness emergency funds—so-called HEAP funds. The City dedicated almost all of the 8.6 million funding to Community Cabins and Safe Parking—both designed to eliminate camping in high complaint areas already identified by the City. In 2019, the City received another 3.1 million state HEAP fund alottment from Alameda County–which had applied for the funds seperately to distribute to its cities–as a result of being the city most impacted by homelessness in the county.

Oakland dedicated nearly 9 million–or almost the entire total of 11.7 million HEAP funds–to creating and running 4-5 Community Cabin sites and 3 Safe Parking sites. The Sheds and Safe Parking–funded for the most part by the HEAP funds–continue to be the City’s primary emergency response to homelessness, though they can serve fewer than  300 individuals every six months. The City has invested very few city funds into these projects and seems extremely averse to doing so.


Measured by the City Administration’s own metric, Safe Parking and Community Cabins have had poor outcomes. As of this writing, only around 30 to 50 vehicles are served by Safe Parking sites—the West Oakland and Home Depot sites have yet to come on line but are scheduled to do so early in 2020.

City reports also show that the Sheds are more expensive to develop and run than other solutions. The “new Henry”, i.e., the Holland, an SRO that the City bought and refurbished in 2018 is over 25% cheaper to run than Tuff Sheds per individual. According to the City’s own data, the Holland, which also has higher success rates in moving individuals on to housing, serves 13 more individuals for 1.2 million dollars less per budget cycle [though the City may be either exaggerating the number of Tuff Shed beds or extrapolating future construction].


Rapid rehousing is a selling point of the Tuff Sheds, but the city’s tracking system remains oblique. City claims about rehousing have been extremely inaccurate in the past. City data made available as the result of my records requests show that as the City touted Tuff Shed rehousing success, Lake Merritt and Miller sites were losing many residents back to the streets without housing outcomes. The Miller site was the worst, with over 70% of residents returning to the streets.


Before Inevitablity

When the City Administrator proposed passing a new 2-year shelter crisis ordinance in late 2017 there’s little doubt it was already with the Tuff Shed model in mind for Castro street and likely Northgate. But the city’s Tuff Shed franchise was nascent and by no means a done deal.

Council Member Rebecca Kaplan introduced a resolution in April 2018, shortly after the Castro St Tuff Sheds and just before Northgate Tuff Sheds came online, instructing the City Administration to investigate and report back on several other possibilities. The resolution instructed the City to investigate the use of its own lands and facilities to temporarily house individuals, and to investigate the possibility of contracting with other local agencies like Alameda County and the Oakland School District, to lease their property—both have several buildings and vacant land that are currently empty, and could have been rented for nominal fees and modified either as emergency temporary shelters, transitional dwellings, or temporary affordable housing.

As a testament to how quickly and easily the City could have moved ahead with utilizing City buildings to provide 24/hr dedicated shelter and services, the City did exactly this when it transferred 1 million dollars from another fund [800k of which, ironically were reallocated from a transitional housing center] to new family shelter in a former recreation building in September 2019—the catch of course is that the building was in Emeryville and rented from that municpality. Emeryville introduced and voted on the proposal within weeks, showing that the power to use buildings [and city funds] to house the homeless is easily accessed so long as the building is in another city.

In early 2018, it wasn’t at all clear that the City could run with the Tuff Shed platform, and there were no other emergency measures on deck. Kaplan’s resolution instructing the City Administrator to pursue other options passed unanimously, and with it an obligation for the City to come back with a report of its activity on the recommendations. But little came of that.

The City moved ahead with the Northgate site, instead, specifically designed to eradicate a long-standing encampment. By the time the HEAP funds arrived in October, the city was set to use a Community Cabin site to ban camping at Lake Merritt. City Council granted the City Administration the permission to not only use the funds for a camp at Lake Merritt, but for any Community Cabins and Safe Parking projects it saw fit to carry out with the HEAP funding. The Council gave the City the power to institutionalize Community Cabins and Safe Parking as Oakland’s primary emergency homelessness response, and access to the state funds to do so. But it could have denied the fund request and instructed the City to do any number of other things. Below are a few of the subsequent steps the City and Council both took to lock Oakland into Community Cabins and Safe Parking.


Council Authorization to Use All Funds as the City Administrator Sees Fit

Calls to amplify the City’s response have continued from the new Council, and so has the Council’s unanimous granting to the City the power to ignore them. In October, 2019, CMs Nikki Fortunato-Bas and Kaplan reiterated the call to use public available land, and to a lesser extent, vacant public buildings for emergency homeless solutions. The City claimed in September [in the context of the proposed sale of the Fire Alarm Building] that it is currently preparing a list of City-owned buildings and land that could be used for emergency housing, but no such list was provided before the Council went to recess in December. Regardless, the Council unanimously authorized the City to use the next 3.1 million allotment of HEAP funds from the County on November, 5, 2019, again, almost exclusively for Community Cabins [and more overnight shelter beds].

At the same November 2019 Council meeting, the City Administrator asked the Council for authorization to accept up to 1 million in funds from any outside donor, including government sources. The City also asked for the power to spend up to 5 million of such funds without returning to Council for authorization for the duration of this budget cycle. Council granted authorization. It is the City Administration now independently crafting all policy around both the use of the HEAP funds and a significant amount of any new monies that come to Oakland, with the power given to it unanimously by City Council.

These requests were granted as Mayor Schaaf created a new Mayor’s “Director of Homelessness Policy” position–a Schaaf invention that contains within it an entire sub-department, and that will be funded with monies from the non-profit Oakland Fund for Public Innovation.  is now funded by the New Venture Fund. The position’s salary and benefits will be paid by NVF at a tune of nearly half a million dollars for the two years of the projected existence of the position.




But the position will also be able to access funds from other government agencies and non profits.Without returning to Council, the City will have the power to use up to 5 million from OFPI and other donors to create a Homelessness agenda free from Council restraint–and the Homelessness Policy Director will likely be the department/employee that wields the funds. It’s not clear whether OFPI will continue to have a role in the process. It was the initial projected funder for the position, and is a Schaaf-friendly organization that was an early supporter of Tuff Sheds. In applying for the NVF grant, the City apparently left OFPI in the language of its project narrative.




As the City Council has had public forums about new and better ways to interact with Oakland’s homeless–and had a special Life Enrichment meeting specifically dedicated to homelessness last month–it has inscrutably and unanimously given away all of its leverage to affect the City Administration’s response.

The effects of that giveaway remain to be seen, but recent actions by the City at Mosswood park hint at the new flexibility the City has as a result of the Council’s actions. Recently, the City erected a fence around an existing encampment at Mosswood Park in what appears to be a new tactic of taking over and running existing homeless encampments [through one of its Tuff Shed contractors, Operation Dignity]. Lara Tannenbaum calls the Mosswood project a “pilot” program according to emails released as part of a public records request.




The City’s Mosswood “pilot” envision rehousing the residents with private funding  from Kaiser. After taking over the encampent, the City apparently started a countdown on the encampment–at end of which apparently, it will be forcibly dismantled. The funding from Kaiser to “rehouse” residents while the City enacts muscular take-overs of existing encampments  certainly suggests the scope of the “public-private partnerships” described in the grant language with NVP.  Its unlikely the new Director position was involved with the Mosswood project, as it precedes the first NVF pament by several weeks. But its possible that the City was able to accept and use the money from Kaiser without notifying Council due to the legislation passed that allows it to accept and use high-dollar funds without the need for authorization. The program is illustrative of the new normal in homelessness policy after Council abdicated its role. There will be little to be done about this trajectory outside of the public rhetoric of the type already seen.


Changes in State Law That Allow Oakland to Lease Overpass “Airpspace” for $1

Few things are as illustrative of Oakland’s commitment to a punitive, spartan model of homelessness intervention than its successful 2018 lobbying at the State legislature to o rent the land underneath freeway overpasses for Tuff Sheds. Placing Community Cabins in on state land under freeways has given the City the leeway to be able to end the Cabins when they no longer serve the City’s interest, and to direct attention away from the City’s power to offer other alternatives.

The leases come with a price tag larger than a dollar, however. In boilerplate State leases, the City must excavate and replace current soil in these areas at its own cost, because they are recognized by current California standards to be contaminated with lead and other toxic substances. While the City must also post signage warning residents that the area contains harmful substances even after remediation, Schaaf’s administration apparently deliberately violated this portion of the lease to create a more visually appealing media-only soft-opening for the Mandela Parkway Tuff Shed site. Schaaf’s administration was later directed by Caltrans to post the signage as a direct result of my inquiries. Currently about 120 Tuff Shed beds are located in Caltrans “airspace” at Mandela Parkway and Northgate.


Zoning Changes that Made RV “safe parking” Sites Possible

This year, the City Administration also sought and gained approval from Council for changes to Oakland’s zoning and building codes, without which the City’s current “safe parking” RV camp would not have been possible. For example, the City’s zoning ordinances barred the Administration from putting RV encampments in industrial and commercial zoned parts of the City, even during a declared shelter crisis emergency*. But these areas are exactly where the City had plans to place “safe parking” to eradicate long-standing vehicle encampments. Targets included an industrial corridor surrounding the Oakland Coliseum to evict a long-standing RV encampment in East Oakland, and vehicles around the East Oakland Home Depot and possibly another large vehicle encampment along Martin Luther King Jr Shoreline Park. The City would also use safe parking to evict RVs camped along several corridors around Mandela Parkway.

The City had introduced the idea of placing permitted and City-controlled RV camping in these areas as early as October 2018, but ran into the zoning legal barriers. After Council approved the changes in May, the City was able to create the 71st Street Safe Parking site by June and began preparing other sites. As I reported at the time, the City of Oakland confirms that the 71st St Safe Parking site resulted in the eviction of at least 70 vehicles from an adjacent industrial corridor, with banned parking going forward in a nearly one-mile square area, joining adjacent areas like Railroad Ave. kept free of camping by the ALCO Sheriff.

Another eviction of RV’s occurred some months later on Oakport Ave, not far from the Coliseum, causing dozens of vehicles to be evicted from a long-standing encampment.

All told some of the historically largest displacement of vehicles and RVs in Oakland occurred after the commencement of the City’s RV Safe Parking sites–well over a hundred vehicles between these two communities in East Oakland.

This displacement of RVs and vehicles occurs after the “Point in Time” count of Oakland’s homeless found that the number of people living in RV’s and vehicles in Oakland has more than doubled since the 2017 count. People living in RVs and vehicles have come to represent roughly 35% of the total number of unsheltered homeless people in Oakland. That’s more than any other homeless group in the city.


Oakland’s Safe Parking sites are so far a normative failure. The only functioning site at 71st took months to reach maximum occupancy—while continuing hiccups have delayed the completion of others. This means that only 30 to 40 vehicles have been housed in Safe Parking sites since they were first proposed as HEAP funded programs over a year ago.


Spartan Tuff Shed Conditions Legalized as the City of Oakland’s Emergency Shelter Response

Also in May, 2019, the City Administration succeeded in getting Council to insribe the Tuff Shed design as the de jure building code for emergency dwellings in the City’s building codes. While State of California law recommended higher standards for what it terms “Emergency Sleeping Cabins”—including electricity and heating—the City took advantage of the way the law is written to ask Council to lower the standards for Oakland for at least the next three years. Council approved the building code changes unanimously, even after the Assistant City Administrator ultimately admitted that the City had no environmental protocols for Community Cabins residents for cold or environmental degradation, such as smoke from wildfires.


It took months for the City to incorporate these rules into its Tuff Shed management.

Going forward, the City of Oakland need never offer Tuff Sheds or any “emergency cabin” with heat or electricity beyond a simple light bulb and USB ports, by law, whenever it uses them under a shelter emergency ordinance. According to a current resident of the Mandela Tuff Sheds who recently gave testimony at a Life Enrichment Committee meetings, the cold of the units drove one resident to use additional heating element which resulted in a fire at the site that destroyed their unit.



*The zoning changes could conceivably allow the City to also place Tuff Sheds or shelters anywhere in the City, not just in residential zoned areas.


Update: The Oakport eviction mentioned above was apparently initiated by EBMUD, but its not clear what role Oakland police had in evicting residents or by what legal right EBMUD was able to evict residents from the shoulder. An update can be read on my Patreon.


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