Sacramento County supervisors give up the fight against economic segregation

Board members plan to cut affordable-housing requirements

Economic inequality is widening. Class segregation in American communities is growing. And Sacramento County is abandoning one of the most powerful tools it has to promote social and economic integration.

Until now, the county has had a pretty forward-thinking set of policies on affordable housing. In 2004, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors voted to make us the first local government in the country to adopt rules requiring developers to provide housing for “extremely low income” residents—those families making 30 percent of the median income or less. The county required 15 percent of new housing overall to be affordable to low-, very low- or extremely low-income families.

Just as importantly as the numbers, the ordinance promoted “inclusionary housing.” Developers wouldn’t just pay affordable-housing fees, they would also need to develop affordable units as part of their market-rate projects, set aside land, or pay higher fees to have someone else develop the affordable units.

The idea was to try to create a better mix of incomes in the community, so that lower-income families could afford to live near jobs and better schools and the same kinds of public amenities enjoyed by wealthier people.

The goal behind the inclusionary housing is not just to create more affordable housing, it is also to fight segregation and the neighborhood effects of concentrated poverty.

That’s important, given America’s growing economic segregation. A 2012 study from the Pew Research Center shows for three decades American metro areas have become more and more divided by income. A 2013 follow up by The Pew Charitable Trusts showed that this segregation makes it harder to climb out of poverty.

Sacramento was lauded for its aggressive affordable-housing program and promoting mixed-income communities. The Sacramento Bee editorial page even called the policy “revolutionary.” In a good way.

Developers hated it and spent the next 10 years sabotaging it. In 2005, they sued to block its implementation. They lost the lawsuit in 2006, and probably would have lost the appeal, too.

But the board of supervisors was changing, the representatives who voted for the plan were gradually replaced by more developer-friendly supes. In 2007, the board approved a deal to let developers off the hook for providing housing for extremely low-income families. In 2010, Phil Serna was elected to the board. He had previously worked as a consultant for the Building Industry Association, fighting against the county’s inclusionary rules.

Now Serna and his colleagues are directing county staff to come back with new rules that don’t put any requirements on developers to include affordable housing in their market-rate projects. Instead, they can just pay fees and not worry about inclusion. The overall portion of new development required to be affordable is being slashed from 15 percent down to 10 percent, maybe less. The board is expected to approve the change on January 28.

Why? Between the developers’ monkey-wrenching and the economic recession, the ordinance was never really given a chance to work. County planner Cindy Storelli says the affordable-housing rules need to be relaxed to stoke Sacramento’s lagging real-estate sector.

“In Sacramento County, it feels more stalled out,” said Storelli. “We’re trying to help those developers to get their projects going again.”

Affordable-housing advocates say there’s no connection between inclusionary housing rules and the slow pace of building. Building slowed because of the recession. And there are studies showing new-housing production is more strongly correlated with factors like the local unemployment rate.

Storelli acknowledged that “There is no empirical evidence that shows the inclusionary ordinance is slowing the housing market. There is no way to evaluate that.”

This seems like a decision based on politics rather than one based on facts.

Storelli said that the county is still committed to planning mixed-income neighborhoods as a general policy, and developers will still help out with their fees. But housing advocates say the fees are too low to keep pace, and the new rules won’t require low-income housing to be built concurrently with the more profitable higher-income homes. “You can go years and years without producing a unit of affordable housing,” said Rob Wiener with the California Coalition for Rural Housing.

“This is just about caving to the developers and giving them the least painful alternative,” he added.

Supervisor Don Nottoli has been the lone holdout on the board, still arguing in favor of inclusionary housing. He’s the only supervisor left from the group who voted for the ambitious plan back in 2004.

Last week, Bites lamented the lack of progressive candidates running for county supervisor who are willing to take on the developers. Sacramento’s backward move on affordable housing shows why that’s such a problem.