Poor tenants return home

“This is going to be my apartment!” shouted 10-year-old Brandan Downs, a resident of the new Norwood Estates, as he ran through the hall to his bedroom—spacious, clean and gleaming white with new carpet and paint.

It was only a few months ago that his apartment was all but condemned. His complex had several housing code violations: children slept next to exposed wiring, toilets threatened to fall through rotting floors, as many as seven children would sleep in a single one-bedroom unit.

Brandan and the other Norwood Estates tenants are lucky—lucky to be invited back to their homes after being forced out for the renovations.

The trend in Sacramento has been for owners to take low-income housing, renovate it and rent it out at market rate, forcing the previous tenants out. Yet in this atypical situation, the Sacramento Mutual Housing Association (SMHA), with the support of the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA), stepped in to make the Norwood Avenue apartment complex safe and livable, and to invite the tenants to return and pay the same rent as before: a manageable 30 percent of their income.

The Sacramento City Council has made it official city policy that a certain percentage of low-income housing be preserved, but developers are fighting it tooth and nail.

Anne Pearson of Legal Services of Northern California filed a lawsuit against low-income housing owners who have violated their agreements to make their complexes available to qualified public entities like SMHA, and against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is responsible for the enforcement of these agreements.

Many of these owners received federal subsidies that locked in affordable rents for 20 to 30 years, but most of those agreements are now expiring. With the booming housing market, these owners have been choosing to get out of the affordable housing business and rent their units at market rate. It makes sense as a business move, but it displaces poor tenants.

SMHA executive director Rachel Iskow said: “People have this stereotype that areas that have a preponderance of rental housing don’t need more subsidized affordable housing, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Areas like Del Paso have gone through decades of capital disinvestment. We need new investors in safe housing that low-income residents can afford.”

The poor may be always with us, but apparently, so will greed. Luckily for kids like Brandan, there are also agencies out there striving to protect the former from the latter.