City Changes Building Codes to Allow Tuff Sheds without Heat or Plumbing

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Oakland Tuffsheds for the homeless. Photo courtesy of Economic Policy Journal.

The Oakland City Council has taken a first step in codifying building standards currently used for Tuffshed encampments, approving housing facilities for the homeless that could be built without heat, electricity or plumbing.

The vote at the May 7 City Council meeting would add the standards to the city’s building code for use whenever an “emergency shelter crisis” – like the current one declared in 2017 – is in effect.

At the meeting, city staff also indicated Oakland has no cold weather protocol for service providers at Tuffshed encampments.

The code changes were proposed by Oakland’s Planning and Building Department and City Administrator’s Office. The council voted unanimously for the new rules, with Lynnette Gibson-McElhaney absent. As a code amendment, the ordinance must return for a second vote at the May 21 meeting before it can be enacted.

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.

But new state building codes took effect in April 2018 to provide guidance for Tuffshed-like structures constructed and used during local ”emergency shelter” declarations. The new state building code standards, known as “Appendix N,” designate structures like Tuffsheds “Emergency Sleeping Cabins” and suggests significantly higher standards than what the City of Oakland has provided.

Among the state’s standards are full electrical outlets, electrical heating in each unit and more extensive lavatory service.

The state allows cities to deviate from these standards by presenting rationales on a case by case basis, which Oakland did for the Lake Merritt and Fruitvale Tuffsheds, both of which were erected on city-owned land after April 2018.

The city argues that Tuffsheds require no heat because of Oakland’s “mild climate,” and the city’s strategy of “resolving” unsanctioned encampments with Tuffsheds necessitates inexpensive, easy-to-erect units.

The City Administrator has pushed for these code changes as the city moves ahead with a 40-unit Tuffshed project off Mandela Parkway on Caltrans-owned land, where state laws have primacy. On state land, the city can only use lower standards if the council adopts an amended version of the code.

Without adopting the amended code, the city administrator would be obligated to use the full standards for the Mandela camp, requiring heating and electricity. At the April 23 Community and Economic Development Committee meeting, Assistant City Administrator Joe Devries said the city would be unable to implement Mandela without the amended code—presumably because of the cost of heating and electricity.

At the committee meeting, Devries agreed to provide a supplemental report for the council vote that would list cold weather protocols used by service providers of Tuffshed villages. The supplemental report, purporting to respond to these questions, contained no such protocols.

The only reference to weather in the document stated, “On colder nights, staff are required to provide additional blankets upon request.”

Devries tacitly admitted there were no cold-weather rules for the Tuffsheds. The City Administrator’s office did not respond to the Post’s questions about its cold weather policies.

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