Challenging home work

A coalition of local church groups and others will endeavor to build houses on vacant lots in Oak Park

Archie Milligan, director of Habitat for Humanity in Sacramento, is working with Building Unity organizers to build new homes in Oak Park.

Archie Milligan, director of Habitat for Humanity in Sacramento, is working with Building Unity organizers to build new homes in Oak Park.

Photo By Larry Dalton

This is one moment that Archie Milligan has been looking forward to for months.

Half a year ago, a coalition of local church leaders got together with the idea that they could work jointly—across ethnic, economic and religious divides—to build a significant number of new homes for the residents of one of Sacramento’s most troubled neighborhoods, Oak Park. Some had worked with Milligan’s group, the nonprofit home-building organization Habitat for Humanity, before. But, unlike past campaigns in which congregations have erected one or two homes in a year, this one promised to be a sustained, interfaith effort to build more than a dozen homes a year for years to come.

The church leaders went to their congregations and asked if members would be willing to help in the endeavor. A week ago, the leaders met again to report the responses. Milligan watched as, one by one, hands went up around the room. The congregation at the Spiritual Life Center committed to building a Habitat home. The Episcopalian Trinity Cathedral reported it would like to team up with the congregation of a different faith to build another. More hands. Put the Mormons down for one. The Sikhs, too. Pretty soon, there was a long list of churches committed to donating the money and the labor needed to build Habitat for Humanity homes in Oak Park. On paper, organizers counted enough commitment to build about a dozen homes.

Not coincidentally, the group, which calls itself Building Unity, is poised to get a big boost soon from the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. The agency has tentatively agreed to hand over at least a dozen vacant lots on which it has been unable to erect homes. The transfer is the result of months of agitation by the de facto leaders of Building Unity, a coalition of church groups and other interested parties (including SN&R publisher Jeff vonKaenel) that are hoping to get the local government to give land and approval to build new houses to be owned by low-income residents in Oak Park. The core concept is simple: Only about a quarter of the homes in Oak Park are occupied by their owners. The average in the city of Sacramento is double that. Make more Oak Park residents home owners and, it is hoped, the community will stabilize itself, crime rates will go down, the schools will improve, and more businesses will want to invest.

It will be weeks before SHRA formally approves the property transfer. But Building Unity organizers are confident they’ll be building houses soon. Now, the hard part begins.

When Rob Kerth ambles down the streets of Oak Park today, he sees what’s left of a neighborhood that contemporary urban planners only dream of. Once a vibrant, working-class neighborhood bustling with streetcars, and with streets lined with trees and shops, the area remains a perfect example of what’s called, in the jargon of new urbanism, “transit-oriented development.”

Oak Park was hit hard by the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the 1950s, the streetcars went away. And then, the construction of Highway 99 walled Oak Park off from the more affluent neighborhoods to the west. Decades of decline followed.

“The neighborhood stopped regenerating itself,” Kerth explained. Entropy set in, and houses and shops gave way to “board-ups” and empty lots. If you look at a map of Oak Park today, you will see that there is an empty lot on almost every block of the neighborhood, nearly 350 in all. Each empty lot is more than an eyesore; it is a drain on the surrounding neighborhood, a dead space.

To the layperson, it may be hard at first to understand why so many lots have stood vacant for so long. But, to the trained eye, it quickly becomes obvious that nearly every one of these lots has some problem or feature that makes it unattractive to most private builders.

“It’s kind of rough because all the lots that are easy to get are tough to build on,” said Kerth, a former City Council member and engineer who has volunteered to help the Building Unity group negotiate government red tape and come up with ways to tackle Oak Park’s vacant-lot problem.

“This is kind of hard for a non-builder to understand.” Kerth said, facing a narrow, muddy patch of land with a single cedar growing in one corner and bordered by a heavily cracked sidewalk. He figures the lot has been abandoned for at least 50 years.

“But this is a 30-foot-wide lot,” he said, holding his arms wide. Add in the 5-foot setbacks on either side, required under today’s building standards, “and you’ve got a 20-foot-wide house.”

Right off the bat, most builders wouldn’t even consider trying to put a house on it. For one, nobody builds anything smaller than a three-bedroom anymore because there is no money in it and because such a house probably would not get approved. And where would you put the garage? Consider, then, that the sidewalks will have to be fixed and that the street gutters will have to be brought up to today’s standards. All in all, Kerth said, it is going to cost more to build the house than what the house would sell for. In Oak Park, that gap is typically somewhere between $25,000 and $30,000.

“Infill housing is the hardest thing to do. The last four mayors this city has had have all gotten elected saying that they will make infill work, and it has only gotten harder,” Kerth said.

Still, he predicts that one day soon, that lot and many others like it will contain a four-bedroom, two-bath, single-garage house.

And that is why the group has come up with a multi-pronged attack on Oak Park’s vacant-lot problem. The first step is to acquire the lots for free from the redevelopment agency. The next step is to line up the sponsorship and labor. Then, the group should tackle the maze of red tape and economic disincentives that make infill housing almost impossible.

Milligan, Habitat for Humanity’s director, said the Building Unity project is going to test the city of Sacramento’s new and not-yet-implemented infill policy. One of the things the group is trying to do is get city planners to agree to approve one or two plans for multiple lots. This “master-plan check,” which is the rule in major subdivisions in the growing suburbs, could save thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours for every house built. It’s just one of the reforms Building Unity organizers and others have been advocating in the city. (See “Filling in the Blanks,” SN&R News, Sept 5, 2002.)

“I think we’re helping to pioneer this for the benefit of everyone,” said Milligan.

Milligan thinks at least three new houses will be under way by this spring, with possibly a dozen built by the end of the summer.

One question remains. Is this what the people of Oak Park want?

“Let’s face it,” Kerth said. “We are the latest in a long line of folks from the outside who have come along with a plan to do something good in Oak Park.”

So far, community leaders in Oak Park have been cautiously receptive, according to Helen Hewitt, district director for Sacramento City Councilwoman Lauren Hammond.

Hammond has been busy with a project proposed by former NBA star Kevin Johnson called Renaissance—a mix of new housing and shops around the historic Woodruff Hotel building on Broadway Avenue. Hammond is trying to get $150,000 for Building Unity to refurbish about 20 houses in the immediate vicinity of the Renaissance project, and she supports the notion of infill housing in Oak Park, where so many empty lots remain. But Hewitt said some Oak Park residents early on were a bit wary of outsiders coming in with big ideas. “It was a concern at first. We definitely wanted Building Unity to take their time and to work with us. We didn’t want this project just to roll through,” Hewitt explained. Building Unity organizers concede more needs to be done to involve the Oak Park community at every step of the process.

Some people are also worried that the effort ultimately will spur gentrification.

It’s a subject that architect David Mogavero knows something about. He has been developing infill projects in Midtown Sacramento for years.

“One of the issues that always has to be addressed when you are trying to reinvigorate a community is the issue of gentrification,” Mogavero said.

Ironically, it was Mogavero who designed the popular Metro Square project in Midtown and other projects that helped stoke the housing market in the central city.

“There was a time when people were deathly afraid of living in the central city,” Mogavero said. But today, the demand and prices for Midtown housing have skyrocketed to the point that many long-time residents are being squeezed out of the Midtown market and folks with modest incomes are having to look elsewhere.

“The economic diversity of Midtown is going to go away. I guarantee it,” he said.

Care must be taken to avoid the same thing in Oak Park, Mogavero said. He said city leaders should look for ways to retain the area’s affordable-housing stock.

Others, like SN&R publisher vonKaenel, point out that, through Habitat for Humanity, Building Unity is building houses for low-income people who already live in the community. “If you want to gentrify a neighborhood, building Habitat for Humanity houses is not the way to do it,” vonKaenel said. “This is not the same as some yuppie couple restoring a Victorian within walking distance of their favorite Thai restaurant.”