Race for the central city

Environmental policy director Katie Valenzuela challenges incumbent Councilman Steve Hansen for downtown district

City Councilman Steve Hansen.

City Councilman Steve Hansen.

On Jan. 11, Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen kicked off his campaign for a third term as the central city’s representative—and was met by protesters unhappy with his efforts to protect tenants.

What a difference a rent control controversy makes.

When he was first elected eight years ago, Hansen became the council’s first openly gay member in history, an achievement that his supporters say have since been joined by others, involving equity, public safety and the arts. They also haven’t forgotten that Hansen stood up to former Mayor Kevin Johnson by publicly supporting workplace protections against sexual harassment inside City Hall before the #MeToo movement came into its own.

But Hansen has also been dogged by claims that he has sided more with developers and real estate interests in the last two years, as the city experienced some of the fastest rising rents in the nation. His challenger, environmental policy director Katie Valenzuela, is betting there’s enough grassroots frustration to topple the well-funded incumbent this March.

Challenger Katie Valenzuela.

The daughter of a Vietnam War veteran-turned therapist, the 34-year-old Valenzuela first moved to Sacramento in 2009 after graduating from UC Davis with a master’s degree in community development. Her interest in Sacramento’s history of red-lining and neighborhood disinvestment led her to work as an education policy advocate for the civil rights law firm Public Advocates, while helping form the Sacramento Urban Agriculture Coalition and the Sacramento Community Land Trust.

More recently, Valenzuela worked at the new Joint Legislative Committee on Climate Change Policies before getting hired as the policy and political director for the California Environmental Justice Alliance.

Valenzuela told SN&R that it was Hansen’s response to local renters that convinced her to enter the race. Between early 2017 and late 2018, the City Council was inundated with public testimonials by residents who said they were being priced out of their homes or evicted without cause. Hansen’s initial response was to introduce a measure that gave tenants the right to nonbinding mediation with their landlords. He and council members Eric Guerra and Rick Jennings introduced the measure as Mayor Darrell Steinberg was separately negotiating rent protections with housing advocates.

The advocates said Hansen and the others were undercutting the mayor’s efforts.

“That was really the final straw,” Valenzuela told SN&R. “I’d just moved back into Midtown and was renting for double of what I’d had when I’d lived there. … I feel like what [Hansen’s] been promoting doesn’t reflect the needs of the people I hear from, so I wanted to run before things got worse.”

Hansen later joined with the mayor to pass the Tenant Protection and Relief Act, which caps annual rent hikes at 10% and bans no-cause evictions in the city for the next five years. But he and Steinberg have not supported putting a stronger, permanent measure before voters, despite housing advocates collecting 47,000 signatures to qualify it for the ballot.

Valenzuela says voters should get to decide for themselves. Another part of her platform is improving community engagement, she says, particularly when it comes to upcoming votes that are controversial. She’s vowed not to accept financial contributions from developers and real estate interests. Records indicate she’s raised roughly $27,000 from about 300 individual small donors.

“I’m glad I’m doing it this way, because it shows you really can stick to your principles and run a competitive campaign,” Valenzuela said.

Hansen’s more traditional campaign is seeing strong financial results, with some of $106,906 in his campaign coffers. While many of his donations came from individuals, he was also given thousands by real estate and development PACs that have lobbied against rent control and new tenant protections.

Hansen says he’s shown a track record of leadership in District 4, one that includes spearheading the Downtown Bikeways Project, establishing additional bikeways and pedestrian connections on Broadway Avenue, helping secure $200 million for a new I Street Bridge and converting a blighted parcel into an art-centric park at 19th and Q streets.

Hansen has taken an interest in public health, too. He joined a council majority in banning the sale of flavored vapes, as well as tobacco products near city schools.

“There’s not a corner of this district I haven’t worked with the community to touch,” Hansen told SN&R.

On homelessness, Hansen was the first council member to meet the mayor’s challenge to select a location in his district for a shelter. Working with Mercy Housing and Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, Hansen worked to convert the Capitol Park Hotel into a temporary shelter that will be remodeled into permanent apartments to support formerly homeless residents struggling with addiction and mental health issues. Hansen also was a driving political force behind Lavender Courtyard, a Midtown housing project for lower-income LGBTQ seniors now on the verge of being fully funded.

Hansen said his work on Lavender Courtyard, along with helping the Sacramento LGBT Community Center secure grants to move into a larger space, has been rewarding because of the stories he hears—stories individuals are comfortable sharing because he’s been open about his own life.

“I hear from so many kids and people who say I’ve given them hope, just being here,” he said. “In terms of how hard this job can be, I’m trying to walk the talk. … I’m not going to give up.”