Who lives in downtown Oakland’s shiny new apartment towers? – The Oaklandside

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If you couldn’t already tell from all of the cranes and construction sites, Oakland has experienced a building boom in recent years. 

The Oaklandside is partnering with Oakland North and Oakland Lowdown to examine what’s working well and what isn’t for people in our urban center. Read more. (Illustration by Bea Hayward)

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In 2018, the city issued permits for 4,617 new housing units—compared to 274 in 2012. Permits allow developers to begin construction, and the number approved by the city is considered a good indication of how much housing is being built. While 2018 was the peak, the city returned to a robust 2,091 permits in 2022 after a pandemic dip. 

The majority of these new residences were built downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods like the Jack London District and Uptown, in part because these areas are zoned to allow developers to construct the largest buildings in the city. Most of the new apartments are rented at market rates, while a portion has been built as affordable housing for lower-income residents.

The new residences—often stacked in tall, glassy towers or boxy block-long mid-rises—have become main characters in the debate around development, density, and who can live in Oakland. For some, they’re the villains—steel and cement odes to gentrification, cookie-cutter fortresses unaffordable to many longtime Oakland residents living on the edge. For others, they’re the heroes—the supply-side salve to the housing crisis, each crane helping to absolve a historical sin of underbuilding.

We repeatedly hear the same question from readers of The Oaklandside: “Are people even living in those luxury high-rises?” Rumors that these buildings are half-empty swirl, aided by the fact that most of them advertise flashy move-in deals, offering a two- or three-month discount on rent for new tenants. 

“Those buildings have almost 50% vacancy,” one person claimed in response to our post on Reddit looking for people to talk to for this story. 

Over the past several weeks, we’ve dug into city records, talked to property managers, and spoken with residents to try to find out how many people are actually residing in downtown’s big new buildings, and to hear what it’s like living there. 

How many of these apartments are empty?

A tall, shiny apartment building sticks into the sky.
The Atlas, with its 40 stories of apartments, is Oakland’s second-tallest building. Credit: Amir Aziz

Past Oakland mayors have made big bets on downtown Oakland housing. In 1999, Jerry Brown debuted his “10K plan,” a goal of bringing 10,000 new residents into the city’s core, in hopes that new shops, nightlife, and offices would open to serve the new dwellers. The project had mixed results. Around 6,000 housing units were built, but lots of condos went unsold and projects were paused when the housing market crashed in 2008.

With a nod to her former boss, Libby Schaaf in 2016 announced her “17K/17K plan,” with recommendations on building 17,000 new housing units in Oakland by 2024—including 4,760 affordable units—and passing policies to prevent the displacement of 17,000 households. 

Schaaf’s construction goals were roughly achieved. But while the city keeps tabs on the construction of residential buildings, it doesn’t track whether people actually move into them after they’re built. Staff from the city’s Housing & Community Development Department, Economic & Workforce Development Department, and Planning & Building Department told us they don’t have occupancy data at the individual building level for market-rate properties.

Oakland did recently launch a rent registry, tracking rental data in more detail than ever before for most apartments in the city. But the registry does not include occupancy data—or any information— for housing built after 2013. It only includes properties subject to Oakland’s rent ordinances, which don’t apply to new construction.

So it’s not easy to get a definitive, or even close to comprehensive, answer. But the information we could piece together suggests that many of downtown’s new buildings are fairly full.

We called leasing offices for numerous buildings to request occupancy rates, mostly leaving voicemails that were never returned or reaching people who said they’d look into it but never followed up. But a couple of agents who answered our calls readily pulled up the information and shared it with us. 

About 74% of the 330 units at Jack London’s Channel House are filled, down from 80-something in September, when a large group moved out, the building representative said. The 171-unit Broadstone Axis in Uptown is 84% occupied, according to the agent. 

A construction crane high in the air in downtown Oakland.
While construction slowed during the pandemic, cranes are still a common sight downtown. Credit: Amir Aziz

We also identified an obscure city form that requires landlords who fill it out to list every vacant unit in their building. The form is required when property owners are attempting to prove their building is too new to be subject to Oakland’s rent control law. 

We requested every such application filed with Oakland’s Rent Adjustment Board in recent years, and eventually received the documents from 2023. Those records show that, as of January 2023, Uptown’s Alexan Webster had a 96% occupancy rate, with just 10 vacant units out of 234. The 173-unit Modera Lake Merritt was 97% occupied in June. 

Despite months of back and forth, the city has yet to provide us with the rest of the documents that would show vacancy rates for other big buildings. 

However, just standing outside of downtown’s towers and mid-rises, watching people come and go and peering up at the facade, gives the sense that at least some of these buildings are relatively full. At Eleven Fifty Clay, a high-end building that opened in 2020 on the edge of Old Town, signs of life—cat trees, plants, and computer monitors–are visible in nearly all of the windows. 

Berkeley resident Jeff Baker began analyzing occupancy data for East Bay apartment buildings after seeing people claim that some were near-empty. He’s culled apartment listing data from property websites and the real estate listing service Engrain SightMap, publishing graphs on his website. His countywide chart from February shows many new downtown Oakland buildings close to 100% full. 

These graphs are based on the number of apartments actively listed for rent, which may not perfectly reflect the number of vacant units in the property. A landlord may choose not to list all of their open units at once, or they might preemptively list an occupied apartment that they know is emptying soon.

But Baker thinks the data is a strong indicator that most of these buildings are quite full, in part because he’s seen several steadily fill up in the months after they opened. At downtown Oakland’s The Lydian, for example, there were 144 open apartments listed in August 2021, but that number dropped steadily over the course of a year, eventually leveling off at around nine listings at any given time.

“I have watched a lot of these buildings try to lease up, from the moment they were first built, to the present,” Baker said in an interview. There are two typical trends he’s noticed, with the more common being the Lydian’s process—“being aggressive about leasing up in a year.”

“The other archetype is the Atlas,” he said, referring to the unmissable 40-story tower on 14th Street. The second-tallest building in Oakland, with 633 apartments, the Atlas opened in 2020.

“That one’s never really leased up, and it’s currently advertising 100 vacancies,” Baker said. 

Pools, price cuts, and package theft

A young woman leans against a young man, at night in a city.
Adeeb Djawad and Halley Thiel on the roof of their downtown building, where they were drawn to the security features and amenities. Credit: Amir Aziz

The thousands of people who’ve moved into Oakland’s brand new housing stock are, of course, more than just numbers contributing to occupancy rates. 

They’re students, bartenders, lawyers, insurance agents, programmers, and parents. 

“I kind of thought all of these buildings would just be filled with yuppies,” said Stacy Chen, a graduate student who moved into a new apartment on Webster in August. “It’s surprisingly diverse. I see children and elderly people—though a fair amount of tech workers too.” 

In conversations, tenants who live in several of downtown’s new buildings said their neighbors are racially diverse. This was also our impression while watching renters file in and out of several properties. But there’s no data we’re aware of that would describe the exact demographic breakdown of these renters along lines of race, age, or gender.

With rents generally at some of the highest rates in the city, there is less socioeconomic diversity among tenants than in older buildings, and the majority of people living in the new buildings appear to be young—mainly in their twenties and thirties. 

Nearly everyone who spoke with The Oaklandside—both those we approached as they entered their buildings and those who responded to our posts on social media—had moved to Oakland within the last few years, if not months. Some moved to the city specifically because these new apartments were cheaper than similar options in San Francisco, or more modern than most of the housing in Berkeley.

Chen, like others who spoke with The Oaklandside, appreciates the amenities of large, new buildings: there’s a gym, an elevator, and a secure package room. Several Atlas tenants said the proximity to BART—and by extension their jobs in San Francisco and the South Bay—was a boon. 

Halley Thiel, a lawyer who lives in a new building on Webster, said she sought out a place with a lobby, for the additional layer of security, and parking.

“It doesn’t have a lot of character,” she acknowledged. “It’s up to you to put your style into the apartment, as opposed to an old Victorian. Of course, the price is high—that would be a downside.”

Glassy towers Natasha Watkins
Natasha Watkins lives in a new high-rise on Webster Street and takes her dog for walks in nearby Snow Park. Credit: Amir Aziz

The price was actually a draw for Chen and her partner. They got a good enough deal to live in a one-bedroom on grad student stipends. The landlord could hike the rent next year, but “we’re trying not to think about it,” Chen said. 

Many residents brought up the move-in deals commonly offered by new buildings: “Live 12 weeks rent-free,” “move-in bonus,” “up to two months free.” For some, the break enabled them to afford their apartment. Others suspected the discount was meant to lure them in, knowing they’d be too complacent to move when rent was raised later on.  

Adeeb Djawad, Thiel’s partner who’s also a lawyer, called the deals “the biggest source of bullshit that goes on with these buildings.” He believes the landlords know they couldn’t actually rent the apartments for the supposed full cost, so they pretend they’re offering a “discount” when the reduced price is the true market rate. 

Others said the discounts incentivize tenants to hop from place to place, each year seeking a new bonus.

Natasha Watkins, a tenant at 1717 Webster, said her building is pretty full but has frequent turnover.

“I never recognize anyone,” she said. “I imagine because there are so many sign-up deals, it would be easier to move elsewhere.” But she acknowledged that her landlord has lowered rents upon renewal for some of her neighbors.

Typically developers of market-rate housing have to pay fees to the city to offset the impact of the high-end project by funding public goods. But they can instead build below-market-rate units within the development itself, and Jen Tribbet has lived in such an apartment at Alexan Webster since 2020.

“I remember thinking I wouldn’t usually have a shot at this type of building,” said Tribbet, who previously lived in single-room occupancy properties in Oakland. At first, Alexan Webster lived up to its “luxury” designation, offering frequent catered events, they said. But with a change in management, “they’ve increased the rent and provided less of the amenities,” Tribbet said. Meanwhile, the package room gets broken into and tenants’ trash costs are rising. And at $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom, it barely feels “affordable.”

“I would like to say that I like living downtown,” Tribbet said. “But the cost of living is keeping me in my apartment. I’m already paying half my salary in rent.” 

What’s it really like living downtown?

And urban intersection at night.
While thousands of new apartments have opened downtown and in nearby neighborhoods, residents said the streets can still feel desolate at times. Credit: Amir Aziz

Some tenants of new buildings interact often with each other and with the neighborhood beyond their lobby or parking garage. Others, not so much. 

“A lot of people seem to stay in their apartments and do Uber Eats,” said Joshua McKee, who fled to a loft on Clay Street after weathering fires and storms in the Santa Cruz mountains. He likes to go out, though.

“I’ve been very surprised by just how beautiful it is here,” said McKee, who loves biking around town and can’t understand why more people don’t take rides on the ferry. “I couldn’t believe how many old businesses there are, like Ratto’s. I’ve been hearing a lot about violence and craziness, but haven’t been exposed more than in any other city I’ve lived in,” he said.

Chen, the Webster tenant, appreciates access to Lake Merritt, where she goes on runs, and to Chinatown, where she buys her groceries and eats out. But having moved to Oakland from Boston, she’s missing the better walkability and public transit. 

David H., an Atlas tenant who previously lived at 1717 Webster, said he doesn’t spend much time downtown. He moved to the area from Berkeley because he wanted to live in a new property with a pool or gym.

“People don’t really know each other,” he said of the Atlas. “I never see my neighbors—I just get into the elevator.” 

But another tenant there said people are friendly with each other, talking on a building-managed app and offering to pick up groceries for each other.

Some of the buildings with the strongest bonds among tenants seem to be places where residents have the most grievances to air.

The Whatsapp group is going strong at ZO, a tower on 17th Street that helped kick off the building boom.

When management changed a year or two ago, things went “downhill,” said a tenant who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. The pool has been closed for six months, despite tour guides advertising it to prospective renters, he said, the staff turns over frequently, and the heating and cooling system is ineffective. 

He’s not sold on downtown living either.

“It doesn’t feel like a super safe long-term place,” he said. “We’ve had multiple shootings on our block and witnessed so many cars being bipped. If we had kids we probably wouldn’t want to be here.” 

“Overall we’re not really sure about staying in Oakland,” agreed Natasha Watkins, who moved to the Bay Area last year with her husband and dog, mainly checking out new buildings like 1717 Webster, where they landed. The dog “park” inside of the building is one of several perks, but “we thought it would be a bit more lively than it is” in the neighborhood, Watkins said. “Things keep closing down.”

David Holtz, a business school professor, moved to Oakland from the East Coast, buying a house in Uptown, where he expected to find familiar walkability and liveliness. 

“Just given the raw number of housing units, restaurants, and bars, you’d expect to see people walking around,” he said. He found the opposite to be true, guessing some combination of crime, perceptions of crime, odd shop hours, and new buildings with parking garages—allowing tenants to leave without stepping foot on the sidewalk—is to blame.

Holtz’s house is surrounded by new buildings and construction sites, which he’s welcomed despite the noise. But “they don’t necessarily feel like the best neighbors—they feel very removed and corporate,” he said of the buildings themselves. When his house got broken into, he tried to access security footage from the nearby Vespr, an 18-story, 419-unit building that opened last year. But he couldn’t get into the lobby or find anyone to talk to. 

Monitoring which apartments have lights on, Holtz has seen that property start to fill up, but said it’s “well short of being occupied.”

“I’m very supportive of the building of these buildings, the densification,” Holtz said. “The big puzzle is figuring out how to make these into buildings that people live in, and actually contribute to city life locally.”

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