Housing advocates tell mayor his administration is skirting the California Surplus Land Act
Sheetrock dust blows through the courtyard of the Johnson Greenbriar Motel, sweeping past dumpsters, bandsaws and discarded furniture. Three months ago, the city of Sacramento detached its code enforcers to shutter this Stockton Boulevard complex, taking control of it through receivership and transferring it to a new owner. It’s now being renovated into “boutique hotel rooms.” Officials and business leaders cheered the move, describing the Greenbriar as urban blight and a nuisance magnet.
Left out the conversation was the fact that the Greenbriar was one of the few complexes in Oak Park that catered to extremely low-income renters.
Liane Bruckstein, operations manager at Harm Reduction Services, works near the Greenbriar. She said closing the property propelled scores of people into homelessness.
“The Stockton Boulevard Partnership constantly complains about homelessness in the area. Well, this literally put people on the streets,” said Bruckstein, who’s also a board member of the partnership. “Half our clients are homeless but used to live in places in Oak Park—until they were priced out.”
The same city government that chose to close the Greenbriar also declined to sell a piece of its property less than a mile away to an award-winning affordable housing developer, opting instead to steer that land to a company now building pricier, market-rate units. That happened in 2017 and wasn’t an isolated incident.
An SN&R analysis of city records and documents from the Sacramento Housing & Redevelopment Agency, or SHRA, reveal that, between 2016 and last summer, officials sold seven city-owned properties—but only one was brokered to an affordable housing developer. Tenant advocates say that pattern constitutes a violation of the California Surplus Land Act, a piece of legislation Mayor Darrell Steinberg himself voted to strengthen in 2014 while he was in the state Senate.
One thing is certain: Sacramento’s wheeling and dealing of public land to market-rate developers happened during a crisis that hurts low-income renters more than anyone.
The controversial land sales were brought to Steinberg’s attention in July when the Sacramento Housing Alliance and the Environmental Council of Sacramento sent him a joint letter expressing concern. Specifically, the two organizations questioned whether the city is in compliance with the Surplus Land Act, a law that requires prioritizing surplus government land for affordable housing. One case that the nonprofits found particularly “alarming” was the city’s sale of 4722 Ninth Avenue and 4601-4625 10th Avenue, near Stockton Boulevard.
When the city put this collection of lots up for sale in August 2017, it received a competitive bid from Community Housing Works, a reputable developer that’s built more than 3,000 apartments for low-income renters across the state. In the proposal Community Housing Works submitted to the city, it said that its aim was to build 130 to 195 rental units that would be “an affordable and stable platform for low-income residents and seniors on fixed incomes.”
CHW added that its prices would be set for single households earning less than $29,160 annually, and four-person households earning less than $46,640.
Instead of prioritizing that offer, the city sold the property for just $55,000 more to College Town International LLC, which is planning a mixed-use, market-rate complex the company says will cater to “students and faculty of the UC Davis Medical Center.” In CTI’s proposal, it said it primarily wanted to “take advantage of the growth of the Medical Center and ancillary medical services.”
Another deal that perplexed housing advocates involved the sale of 14 city-owned lots in North Sacramento. When the buyer, Del Paso Homes Inc., first submitted its proposal to SHRA, it said it wanted to purchase the land to build 14 single-family homes with starting prices of $185,000. Del Paso Homes also wrote in its proposal documents that the houses would cater to people earning roughly $39,000 a year.
“This is approximately the pay of a shift manager at a local fast food restaurant,” the development group noted.
That was in February 2017. Yet, seven months later, when SHRA asked the Sacramento City Council to approve the sale, Del Paso Homes had changed the starting price of the units to $314,649.
District 2 Councilman Allen Warren recently told SN&R that, from his perspective, $300,000 is an affordable home price in Sacramento.
Cathy Creswell, board president for Sacramento Housing Alliance, said elected officials should think twice about making statements like that.
“When they say $300,000 is affordable, the real question is, ’Affordable to who?’” Creswell stressed. “The reality is that $300,000 is likely not affordable to a lower-income household.”
Not only is Del Paso Homes’ project now less affordable than promised, but SHRA’s decision to sell the land to the developer prevented it from going to Habitat For Humanity, which was also bidding on it.
SHRA declined to comment for this story.
Multiple studies released in the last two years have identified a lack of low-income rentals as one of biggest drivers in Sacramento’s housing crisis. This week, Steinberg said his office is looking into the issue Sacramento Housing Alliance and ECOS raised.
“The Surplus Land Act is an important law and the city should absolutely comply with it,” the mayor told SN&R.
Creswell agrees and thinks City Hall needs to pressure SHRA to change its tactics on selling public lands.
“I think people are seeing—given the extent of the housing crisis—that we really have to use every resource we have,” Creswell said. “To lose this precious resource for working families, and for people in danger of being homeless, it’s just a tragedy.”