‘Segregation' will happen if the city of Sacramento ditches inclusionary housing

President Barack Obama’s Department of Housing and Urban Development this month announced a new initiative to fight housing segregation in U.S. cities. The policy requires cities to look at ways of “replacing segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns, transforming racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity.”

Ironically, the city of Sacramento is about to abandon its “inclusionary” housing laws, adopted 15 years ago to help fight racial and economic segregation.

“Segregation” is a nasty word. You don’t hear city officials use it. But even in Sacramento—which we like to remind ourselves is one of the nation’s most diverse cities—neighborhoods and schools are divided along class and color lines.

After the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore, writers revisited the history of how America’s cities became so segregated, and why segregation persists.

Ta-Nahesi Coates’ blockbuster, “The Case for Reparations,” published last year in The Atlantic, outlined the ways racist housing policy in the 20th century left African-Americans “locked out of the greatest mass-based opportunity for accumulation in American history.”

Richard Rothstein’s “The Making of Ferguson” showed how the Federal Housing Administration “financed the construction of entire segregated subdivisions,” but refused mortgages to blacks.

The political right complains that Obama’s new anti-segregation initiative is “social engineering.” They ignore that segregation was engineered in the first place, with government help. Those patterns of racial segregation linger today, and economic segregation of neighborhoods has been getting worse for decades.

Sacramento’s inclusionary housing ordinance, adopted in 2000, was meant in part to disrupt those patterns. The inclusionary rule required that 15 percent of the new housing projects built in the city’s new-growth areas be affordable to low-income families.

The idea behind inclusionary housing is that, by building more mixed-income communities, low-income workers can live where the jobs are, poor kids could live near the good schools, families of modest means could buy homes in neighborhoods that help them to build equity.

It never had a chance to work in Sacramento. The recession meant that little housing was being built, affordable or otherwise. Then, in 2009, the California Supreme Court put strict limits on cities’ power to implement inclusionary policies.

Developers never liked the rules, and the 2009 decision and the recession gave the Sacramento County officials justification to ditch similar inclusionary rules last year.

And developer representatives have more clout than ever in Sacramento city government. Mayor Kevin Johnson’s housing adviser, Scott Whyte, used to be a legislative advocate for the North State Building Industry Association, the No. 1 opponent of inclusionary rules. Councilman Rick Jennings hired former BIA vice president Dennis Rogers as his chief of staff. So, it’s an understatement to say council isn’t the same, ideologically, as it was in 2000.

The city’s proposed new housing rules require developers to pay a fee into an affordable- housing fund. There will be no requirement for developers to include low-income units, though they can avoid the fee by building 10 percent of their units to be affordable.

City planner Greg Sandlund says over the next 20 years the new policy will generate enough money in fees to build about 1,500 affordable units. By comparison, the old inclusionary policy would have required construction of 3,000 units. But Sandlund says the policy was “inflexible” and likely would have fallen short.

Sacramento’s inclusionary policy is not the only tool. For example, the city also requires commercial development to kick in to the affordable-housing trust fund.

But now there will be no policy to require mixed-income communities. “Without the mandate, you run the risk of re-segregating,” says Veronica Beatty, with the Sacramento Housing Alliance.

That’s because affordable housing is less profitable than high-end housing, so developers want to stick it where land is cheap: in low-income neighborhoods. The pattern reinforces itself. “Segregation is not going to get better. It’s probably going to get worse,” says Beatty.

A fee-based policy could work, she says, if the fee were much higher. SHA is asking the city for a $4 per square foot, though they say the need is more like $10 to $13.

Sacramento’s inclusionary housing ordinance is obviously not going to be saved, not by this council. Still, why isn’t the word “segregation” part of the discussion? What a strange disconnect, given the moment we’re in.

What is the city’s affordable-housing strategy for, if it’s not for building more inclusive neighborhoods? And without the inclusionary rules, what tools does the city have to fight racial and economic segregation? “It’s a good question,” says Sandlund.

It’s one the city ought to answer, before changing the rules.