Homeward bound

City to donate seven lots to Building Unity project

Building Unity brings different faith groups together to build low-income housing.

Building Unity brings different faith groups together to build low-income housing.

Courtesy Of Spiritual Life Center

A local group’s effort to turn vacant lots in Oak Park into houses got a big boost from the Sacramento City Council earlier this month. The councilmembers unanimously agreed to donate seven lots held by the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA) to the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, a national nonprofit corporation that builds homes for low-income families.

Once final, the property transfer will cap more than a year of effort by Building Unity. The coalition of church groups and nonprofit organizations hopes to improve Oak Park’s fortunes by building homes on the vast number of vacant lots in the struggling neighborhood and by helping low-income families to become homeowners.

“The home ownership rate in Oak Park is very low,” said Chris Pahule, SHRA’s senior redevelopment planner in the neighborhood. Indeed, owner occupancy rates in Oak Park hover around 25 percent. The average in the city of Sacramento is nearly 50 percent.

The goal of Building Unity is to improve the housing stock in the neighborhood and to increase home ownership for low-income families, helping to stabilize the neighborhood, improve the schools and attract more business investments to Oak Park.

Building Unity brings together churches and faith groups—including Muslims, Mormons, Sikhs and Episcopalians—who, as a response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, came together to “build unity by building in unity.” SN&R Chief Executive Officer Jeff vonKaenel also has been an active member of the Building Unity coalition.

Partnering with Habitat for Humanity and the organization Rebuilding Together, which brings volunteer labor and donated materials to rehabilitate homes that have fallen into disrepair, the Building Unity group has already helped rehab 20 Oak Park homes in the past year and hopes to complete another 60 in the year to come.

For more than a year, Building Unity has been eyeing several vacant lots owned by the city that SHRA has been unable to get developed over the years, either because the economics weren’t feasible or because the lots themselves, often small and oddly shaped, were unappealing to for-profit developers.

The donation allows the city to rid itself of the surplus lots and frees Habitat for Humanity from some of the fund-raising it would normally have to do to build the homes.

“For the city, it’s a form of enlightened self-interest,” said Archie Milligan, executive director of Habitat’s Sacramento chapter. Building homes on the blighted properties will increase property-tax revenues for the city and will hopefully help reinvigorate the neighborhood.

Milligan cautioned that the transfer wasn’t quite complete. At press time, his organization and SHRA were still negotiating details in the agreement that will determine how much profit, if any, the new homeowners may make if they decide to sell their homes in the future.

In keeping with the Building Unity theme, the houses will be built by groups that often don’t get a chance to work together. “When, for example, you can get a small church in Oak Park to work together with a large, affluent congregation in Fair Oaks, that really brings people together in unique ways,” said Milligan.