Walkabout: West Oakland tries to avoid saturation of student housing

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On Robinson Street in West Oakland, the neighbors are seeing more traffic and more rentals, which means more college students in what was once a stronghold of owner-occupiers in single-family homes.

College students aren't inherently bad neighbors, but for decades throughout Oakland, the remains of late-night parties, couches on porches and garbage amassing from multiunit rentals have created conflict, especially where permanent residents already feel their investment slipping due to absentee landlords.

Robinson Street rises from Fifth Avenue with Carlow College to its east. In recent years, more people have used it as a cut-through because of development up the hill. The homes are largely from the early 20th century, with third-story dormers and front porches. A few homes are blighted, with weedy yards, but many look inviting enough from the sidewalk.

At least two homes are getting face-lifts thanks to modest grants from the Oakland Planning and Development Corp.

A $2,200 grant was the incentive Lynn and Marc Portnoff needed to invest about $6,000 of their own money to replace their roof, fix their gutters, repair the wood around the dormer and make improvements in the back.

"We've been wanting to do this for years," Ms. Portnoff said. Their family has lived on Robinson since 1981. "We can pay our part more easily with this help."

Jeff Dugan moved to Robinson Street eight years ago to be part of the community and congregation of the Friendship Community Presbyterian Church, where he was a youth pastor. He is now living in Baltimore but renting his house to his sister.

With a $1,500 grant, which he had to match by double because it is a rental, he was motivated to have the home painted and to replace wood around the windows.

He said he has noticed an influx of renters, too.

"It changes an area a lot when there are more and more people who are not invested in the long term," he said.

Wanda Wilson, executive director of the OPDC, said the facade grants are just one way the nonprofit is helping resident-owners; it is also advocating for them before the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment.

At a recent zoning hearing, Ms. Portnoff and several of her neighbors testified against a property owner's application to turn the house across the street from her into a two-unit apartment building.

Elly Fisher, assistant director of the OPDC, also testified against the application, saying the Oakland 2025 master plan calls for stabilizing streets such as Robinson.

"This is one neighborhood we're really trying to protect," she said.

"We have students all around us," resident Elizabeth McGee said. "It has caused parking problems for people who live there year-round. We don't need multiunits. We have three apartment buildings, and I believe that's enough."

"Six houses have been turned into student rentals," Ms. Portnoff said. "One more really does make a difference."

The zoning board's decision is pending.

As for the facade grants, this is the third year the OPDC has made them available. Its Neighborhood Partnership Program is a state-approved tax credit conduit. Corporations make donations to the OPDC and get tax credits in return. This year's pool of $20,000 provided nine grants as small as $350 and for as much as $5,000. A design review process ensures that the money is not used to alter architectural integrity.

"We are looking at other homeowner stabilization projects," Ms. Wilson said. "And we are advocating to increase rentals in the commercial core of Oakland to take pressure off residential areas."

In going to bat for residents, the OPDC has also gone to court, Ms. Wilson said.

"We fought a case where the zoning board approved an application for a use variance for a two-unit dwelling on Coltart [Avenue], which is single-unit residential, and we won."

More information about the OPDC's programs is available at www.opdc.org.


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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