The Courage to Change: Oakland’s Pilot Programs to End Poverty

Category: Listening Sessions, Personal Stories, Poverty News & Policy Updates, The Safety Net

April 07th, 2022

Libby Schaaf is the Mayor of Oakland, California since 2015.

Poverty is not personal failure, it’s policy failure. But the big levers of policy are at the state and especially the federal level. As Mayor of Oakland, a city with significant poverty, I ask myself constantly, what can we do locally to change policies and eradicate poverty? To answer that question, we are experimenting with different approaches to find out what’s most impactful and most scalable.

We’ve laid the groundwork for policy innovation by leveraging private philanthropy to launch pilot projects tackling big problems with big ideas. Successful pilot projects provide proof of concepts, as well as drive narrative change. Even when pilots result in failures, we learn. Increasingly, cities are stepping forward to run philanthropy-funded pilots with rigorous evaluations to drive innovation and accelerate needed state and federal policy change. Successful pilots must produce permanent policy change and ensure the spirit of entrepreneurial government is sustained past the timeframes of the elected officials who launched them.

In Oakland, we’ve pioneered many innovations during my seven years as Mayor, including the cradle-to-college-to-career supports of The Oakland Promise, making housing more affordable for educators, and closing the digital divide. Oakland voters also approved a measure to increase access to high quality preschool and college and career supports, which will be funded for 30 years. We’re raising our expectations and tackling more problems, and several programs being piloted in Oakland show the potential of pilots to create transformative change.

Housing and Homelessness

Housing inequities, caused by the discriminatory practices of the past – like redlining and racial covenants – and exclusionary zoning today, lie at the heart of California’s epidemic of poverty and homelessness. In Oakland, we believe in producing more homes for all incomes, especially with guaranteed affordability for our lowest-income residents, as well as protecting residents from displacement. Despite our progress in producing housing, protecting tenants, and rehousing the homeless, for every homeless person we have rehoused, three more have become homeless.

See our related article: Displacement and Homelessness Response to Pajaro Floods Is Sorely Lacking.

We will never end homelessness if we don’t stop it from happening in the first place. We piloted the Bay Area’s first-ever homelessness prevention program with community partners and funders called Keep Oakland Housed. It includes one-time financial assistance, supportive services, and legal representation. This comprehensive approach to housing problem-solving goes beyond fighting evictions. It has helped couch-surfers without a lease. It helped one family that not only needed back rent and utility bills paid, but also needed a new washing machine so that the family’s developmentally disabled wage-earner could keep his uniform clean and maintain his income. During its first three-years, Keep Oakland Housed helped 5,671 families stay housed for a fraction of the financial and emotional cost of rehousing folks once they’ve become homeless. Now Keep Oakland Housed is administering our federal Emergency Rental Assistance funds using its successful model.

While Keep Oakland Housed has been very successful, we found that the one-time cash assistance does not do enough to address the ongoing impacts of systemic racism on perpetuating poverty. Take the case of Laura Sloan, a retired, disabled Oaklander whose daughter had to move out after Laura caught Covid. Without a roommate to split the rent, Laura was in danger of losing her home. We launched the Oakland Shallow Subsidy Pilot, a program to help households like Laura’s afford their housing for the long-term. In a randomized control study, we are documenting the impacts of modest rent subsidies of up to $700 – enough to move the resident out of the “Severely Rent Burdened” status but is still a fraction of the average $1,700 subsidy of a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher. This cost-effective strategy was just adopted in our County’s homelessness plan, and we hope that universal use of these modest housing subsidies at the state or federal levels could someday end housing insecurity.

Universal Basic Mobility

Funded by a regional grant, 500 prepaid debit cards were distributed to low-income residents of East Oakland that can be used for public transit, bike share, or scooter share. We call this Universal Basic Mobility – allowing our residents to travel in clean and green ways without barriers based on their income. Unlike free transit, this program adds to – not detracts from – public transportation budgets, while allowing recipients to choose the mode that works best for their needs, whether it’s a bus, a ferry, or a bicycle. We are surveying the recipients of the mobility pilot, and compensating them for their time, in order to learn how transportation funds have impacted their lives. What we take from this pilot may point the way forward for improving access to service and jobs for people living in poverty, by understanding their choices and the impacts of better transportation options on ending poverty.

Guaranteed Income

As part of my pledge in being a founding member of Michael Tubbs’ Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, I secured philanthropic funding to design and implement a guaranteed income program for families with children living in poverty in Oakland. Called Oakland Resilient Families, our 18-month pilot offers $500 monthly payments to 600 families with no strings attached. The Center for the Study of a Guaranteed Income is conducting a rigorous experimental study to determine how effective and impactful the income is on enhancing opportunities for economic self-sufficiency. The program was open to all who qualified, but by being intentional about our outreach, 95% of the participants in the pilot are people of color – the people who are most impacted by the policies that produce poverty in our nation. Participant Alicia Roe reports the added income has already reduced her stress, improved her credit rating by allowing her to pay off some long-standing debts, and gave her the opportunity to open a college savings account for the beloved grandson she is raising.

These programs – addressing housing, transportation, and basic needs – may serve as a roadmap to ending poverty in California and across the nation. Thousands of households are being helped in Oakland, but millions of Californians need a path out of poverty. As we take concrete action locally, we are measuring results. We are actively studying the impacts of these pilots, as well as capturing compelling individual stories. When these programs come to an end, we will have the information policymakers at all levels need to use limited public funds to make the biggest impact on poverty. That’s how our policy choices change, and how we can use policy to end poverty in California.