Filling in the blanks

Interfaith effort seeks new ways to combat blight, build homes in Oak Park

Church-based effort seeks to develop homes on vacant lots in Oak Park.

Church-based effort seeks to develop homes on vacant lots in Oak Park.

Photo by Larry Dalton

It is not surprising that, in the wake of the tragedy of September 11, Sacramento area churches have sought to reach out to people of different faiths, and strengthen the relationship between faith groups and the larger community.

What is unusual is the cause that a local coalition of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh congregations are now rallying around in hopes of creating a stronger and more equitable community: infill development.

While that may be oversimplifying the matter, the Building Unity group—a diverse coalition of church groups, business people and nonprofit groups like Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together—is turning to city planners and other local officials in trying to find creative ways to turn vast numbers of vacant lots and abandoned buildings in the struggling Oak Park neighborhood into new, affordable houses for the city’s poorest residents.

The group is an outgrowth of meetings with church leaders that will come together for the September 11 Call for Unity event, which is featured in a special program in this issue. The event was coordinated by SN&R President Jeff vonKaenel, who is also actively working to facilitate Building Unity’s goals (Editor’s Note: Neither SN&R nor vonKaenel has a financial interest in the project, and this story was written and edited independently of him).

Most people are likely already familiar with groups like Habitat for Humanity that leverage donated materials and labor, along with the “sweat equity” of their clients, to turn poor families into new homeowners. Historically, that group has turned out a handful of houses in Sacramento every year. Building Unity proposes a much more ambitious effort, on the order of 25 or more houses a year for several years.

Dexter McNamara, director of the local Interfaith Service Bureau and one of the founding members of the Unity group, said the idea came out of the efforts of one local church, the Spiritual Life Center, to find a new home. While raising funds to build a new church, the congregation decided to set aside some of the money they raised to build a new house with Habitat for Humanity.

“Then we thought, ‘Why not expand that effort to the whole faith community?’ ” McNamara said. “And the faith groups said, ‘Yes!’ ”

While the proposal has drawn enthusiastic support from local churches, business people and some government officials, the group has also found that even with the best of intentions, the economics of urban blight and a host of local government policies can make building homes for low-income families a daunting task.

First, there is the difficulty of acquiring lots to build on, even in an area that is riddled with vacant lots. Oak Park, for example, is saddled with more than 300 vacant lots, one of the highest rates in the county, many of which have been simply abandoned by their previous owners.

These lots tend to become overgrown with weeds and magnets for illegal dumping or other criminal activity. And many of them have thousands of dollars, sometimes tens of thousands, of liens against them—fines that the city or county have assessed the owners for not properly maintaining the property. In many cases, the liens are greater than the value of the property, and often the city has no real hope of ever collecting.

Archie Milligan, director of the Sacramento chapter of Habitat for Humanity, said the “upside down” economics of vacant lots are a drain on the local economy and the vitality of its neighborhoods. But he believes that some creative thinking could turn these lots into new opportunities.

“We often have property owners come to us and say they have this property, they can’t do anything with it and they would gladly donate it to us,” he said.

But the liens, which must be paid upon transferring ownership of the property, can make donating a plot of land more trouble than it is worth.

“So the liens continue to grow every year,” Mulligan said, “along with the weeds and the trash.”

City and county officials, through the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Authority, have taken some steps to curb this problem. SHRA’s Vacant Lot pilot project, which just began in the neighborhoods of Oak Park and North Sacramento, offers up to $25,000 to developers who will build affordable housing on vacant lots. The incentive can make building worthwhile, but there is only enough to develop about 20 lots.

Milligan argues that if landowners want to donate their property, and the city would waive liens, groups like his could be building many more houses than they do now.

“But right now, there’s no mechanism, there’s no system to do that,” he said.

Some city officials might be reluctant to tinker with the way city imposes liens, fearing a loss of potential revenue and a tool to force property owners to maintain their lots. But Sacramento City Councilman Dave Jones thinks Milligan’s idea is worth looking at. Jones is exploring the possibility that the city could foreclose on and take properties, in Oak Park and other blighted areas that have racked up excessive liens. He pointed out that any potential revenue the local government lost on collecting fines would quickly be made up in new property taxes and would help revitalize the community.

“Whether it’s foreclosing or waiving or reducing liens, the important thing is that we’ve got to get these lots into production.” Jones explained. “They are a blight and a drain and these communities would be so much better off if we built houses on them.”

There are other factors that contribute to the vacant lot “bottleneck” in areas like Oak Park. Historically, the economies of scale involved in building large subdivisions on the urban fringe are much more lucrative than infill development. In older neighborhoods, empty lots are often odd sizes and shapes that can make it difficult to wedge in new houses. And in the urban core, the bureaucratic processes of building plan approval and design review have historically been rigged in favor of suburban development.

For example, if a builder wants to build three identical houses on different lots in a neighborhood like Oak Park, he or she needs to get three separate building plans approved. By contrast, the same builder constructing a subdivision in Elk Grove can build 30 identical houses on the same large lot with just one building plan, at a third of the cost and with a third of the red tape.

City officials are already at work on Sacramento’s infill policy, adopted in principle earlier this year, but not yet implemented. The policy is intended to make building in the urban core simpler and financially more feasible. Already, the city and county are discounting certain fees, such a new sewer connections, for projects in older neighborhoods. And city planners are working on streamlining the design review and plan check processes for infill projects, which would benefit nonprofit and for-profit builders alike.

Dexter McNamara is quick to praise efforts like SHRA’s Vacant Lot Project and the new infill policy, and noted that his group is there to offer a pat on the back, as well as a friendly push from the outside.

“The city is beginning to recognize that it needs to look at its processes, and all the hoops that builders of low-income housing have to jump through,” he explained. “At the same time, we have to advocate for a healthy community that takes into account the housing needs of all our residents.”