House parity

Will Sacramento County turn its back on affordable housing?

Affordable housing saved Darren Chastain’s life.

The U.S. Army veteran was spiraling through “a lifelong, progressive addiction to meth” that disintegrated his 20-year marriage and nearly cost him his children before finding Bishop Frances Quinn Cottages, a 60-unit transitional housing complex in Midtown.

Chastain, forthright with a trim, graying beard, says Quinn helped him maintain sobriety, as well as find and keep a job. He took his last hit three years ago.

“I can tell you that, now, I’m a father to my kids, a father I never thought I could be. And if I hadn’t had that place, I might not have made it,” he told Sacramento County supervisors last Tuesday.

Affordable housing saved Chastain’s life. And now, he and many just like him fear it’s going away.

Chastain was one of more than 20 folks to address the board of supervisors during a housing workshop last week. On the surface, it should have been just another boring government hearing.

The meeting focused on the county’s housing “element,” a dense policy document that explains how Sacramento plans to accommodate projected growth. If the state certifies your “element,” it provides a nice buffer to general plan-related legal challenges and gives an edge when applying for state and federal housing-related funds. It’s all pretty wonky stuff, and typically only something land-use policy nerds care about.

But the county is considering stripping its Inclusionary Housing Ordinance from its element. And, at the same time, it also wants to simplify its ordinance, in part, by halving affordable-housing targets for the low and very-low income.

“We understand that it needs to be simplified,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Housing Alliance. But lowering affordable-housing targets from 15 percent to 8 percent, he said, would represent a departure for the county, which is one of only a handful of local jurisdictions that acknowledges its extremely low-income residents.

This type of housing is in high demand. Chris Jensen at Resources for Independent Living, which helps the disabled and poor find housing in Sacramento and Yolo counties, said 280 of his clients are actively searching for housing, while another 60 have given up.

Last week’s discussion comes on the heels of supervisors’ approving Cordova Hills, a massive housing and retail development on nearly 2,700 acres in the northwestern part of the county. Only 2 percent of that area is slated for affordable housing; critics called the January 29 decision a violation of the county’s forward-thinking smart-growth principles.

Erlenbusch and others are now asking if the county turning is its back on affordable housing, too.

“You’re doing a good job of connecting the dots, because we connect them the same way,” Erlenbusch told SN&R after the housing hearing. “I don’t think it’s overt, but I do think there are indicators.”

Dale Jones has been on a housing list since July 2012, but can’t break through in a county where demand outstrips supply. The city’s last-ditch supportive housing structure for the foreseeable future—Mercy Housing’s multistory 7th & H Street Housing Community—requires a monthly income higher than what Jones gets from Social Security to qualify for one of its studios or one-bedroom apartments. In the meantime, he makes his bed on someone’s living-room floor.

Supervisors asked staff to come back later this month with broad language that leaves a place for affordable housing in the county’s housing element. The future of the county’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance will be a subject for another day.

Regional projections show a need for 13,844 new housing units by 2021, according to Cindy Storelli, a senior planner with Sacramento County. The county’s low and very-low income would need 38.6 percent of that allotment, she added, “which is a little bit higher than what we’ve had to accommodate in prior housing elements.”

There is a small surplus of vacant land zoned for these groups, 37 acres total.

None of this discussion, meanwhile, commits the county to actually building any of this housing, noted Supervisor Phil Serna. The state only requires the county to have the land and zoning in place to accommodate its needs.

Which means Jones and others may be waiting a while.