Christopher Norman, Chief of Staff at Oakland’s Department of Housing and Community Development, moderating a panel on community-driven housing preservation strategies.
By Daria Guzzo
In 2016, the City of Oakland became one of the first cities in the nation to create an agency aimed at eliminating local causes of racial disparities and improving racial equity across the city. Not long after, they were chosen as one of five U.S. cities to collaborate with the City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Governance and the Rockefeller Foundation to develop tools to assess and monitor equity within a municipality.
Those efforts eventually led to the release of Oakland’s Equity Indicators, the city’s first equity review, which is now being used to help guide and inform the city’s policies. The 2018 report – a collaboration between the Resilient Oakland Office and the Department of Race and Equity – presents a baseline quantitative framework to better understand the impact of race on outcomes like housing, education, and health care, measure inequities, and track changes in disparities for different groups over time.
“We can’t know where we’re going unless we know where we are right now. We needed to know where we were in a measurable way so that as we do our work in the future, we can get closer to those goals,” said Christopher Norman, Chief of Staff at Oakland’s Department of Housing and Community Development, in an interview with the Housing Solutions Lab. The city is expected to publish an update as soon as December 2023.
One of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the country, Oakland has a historic legacy of racial discrimination and segregation perpetuated by the city, with residents long-championing change by demanding accountability. In recent years, the city has moved towards crafting policies with a focus on how and the extent to which they will address existing racial disparities in housing. It’s among a growing number of local governments recognizing the need to measure racial disparities and track progress towards equity, and ensure that programs are data-driven.
72 Indicators of Equity
In its initial report, the city used a Result-Based Accountability framework, which focuses on the differentiation between population level indicators and organizational performance measures.
“Ultimately, what we wanted to measure was: Is anyone actually better off because of our work?” said Norman.
The 2018 report produced a total of 72 indicators as quantifiable metrics capturing equity across six themes, including the economy, education, housing, and public health. Those themes were then divided into topics to provide a more detailed level analysis. Scores were on a scale of 1 to 100, with 1 representing the highest possible inequity and 100 representing the highest possible equity. Overall, Oakland scored a 33.5.
For housing, twelve indicators were produced across four topics: affordability, displacement, essential services, and housing quality. Displacement, which includes indicators for homelessness and eviction notices, scored the lowest with a mark of 29 out of 100. For example, the report showed that African Americans in Oakland disproportionately experience homelessness and are at higher risk of receiving an eviction notice than members of other racial and ethnic groups.
Under this scoring system, a high equity score does not necessarily indicate high levels of overall quality of outcomes. For example, if everyone is doing poorly in a particular area, but doing equally poorly, that area could receive a high equity score.
A Holistic Approach to Reaching Equity Goals
No single agency can completely and fully change population-level indicators, such as homelessness and eviction notice rates, on its own because indicators can be influenced by a number of different factors.
But by setting citywide standards and goals based on such indicators, Norman says, the Department of Race and Equity placed the impetus on all departments to internally set their own race and equity priorities and goals. Additionally, starting in 2024, staff performance reviews will include a racial and equity component as part of their evaluation. If individuals are meeting their goals, that in turn means the department is progressing toward its goals and, consequently, the city at large.
“Ultimately, what we wanted to measure was: Is anyone actually better off because of our work?”
Norman facilitating a discussion at Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao’s “Town Talks – Talking Transition Oakland.”
“If the Department of Race and Equity is setting these citywide standards and goals, we have to make sure that the things that we highlight and lift up and track internally align, so that there’s a throughline between accountability and transparency and these different scales,” said Norman.
As a result, the equity indicators report has created opportunities for the Department to use a data-driven, equity-centered approach in deciding how to prioritize funding in certain areas, such as homelessness, as part of the city’s latest 2023-2027 Strategic Action Plan. Representatives from the City of Oakland also participated in a Small and Midsize Cities Convening hosted by the Housing Solutions Lab in March 2023 to think through their homelessness prevention efforts in connection to their equity goals.
“These equity indicators have given us a doorway so that we can really focus our resources,” said Norman.