Hey look, progressive grassroots activism actually works
Activists gathered in a downtown cathedral last week to discuss an old-fashioned storming of City Hall—at least of its podium. Longtime homeless advocates had recently learned that city leaders plan to declare a homeless shelter crisis. That’s something those who work on behalf of the homeless have been demanding—and it was one of two recent developments in Sacramento that showed that determined advocacy can indirectly pay off at the policy level:
The shelter crisis announcement occurred at roughly the same time news broke that Mayor Darrell Steinberg was meeting with tenant and housing advocates to discuss a potential rent-stabilization ordinance. By all accounts, Steinberg was brought to the bargaining table only after progressive housing and labor groups made a credible threat to circumvent his administration at the ballot box.
For more than a year, the City Council heard from working-class renters who are being priced out of their homes or targeted for no-cause evictions. Until now, council leaders refused to enact the modest rent-control measures at their disposal under California law. But a hard-charging effort to bypass politicians and place a rent-control measure on November’s ballot compelled Steinberg to negotiate with the very factions that give him the most grief during City Council meetings.
Whether this is a sign of things to come or a more nuanced example of money’s influence on politics, progressive activists say they’re just getting warmed up.
It was a two-year march to this moment. Local homeless advocates have been pressing public officials to declare a homeless-related emergency to free up state and federal resources since at least 2016, when the Sacramento County Grand Jury made the recommendation in its annual report. Eye on Sacramento, an advocacy group that focuses on the use of public finances, joined the call in February 2017.
Declaring a homeless emergency or a shelter crisis—there are subtle differences between the designations—isn’t foreign to California cities. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Santa Rosa have all announced one or the other. Elected officials in Sacramento County balked at the prospect, however, until now.
“So many things we’ve done in the past has fallen on deaf ears and created these undignified moments in public,” said Kimberly Church, a Sacramento City College faculty member who runs a weekly space for young homeless adults. “No one can figure out why Sacramento hasn’t [declared a crisis] already. … The more we look at it, the more we see that it’s not complicated, even if it’s politically dicey.”
So why the change of heart now? The governor’s office recently enacted the Homeless Emergency Aid Program, or HEAP, which offers one-time funds to large cities and counties that declare “a shelter crisis.” For the city of Sacramento, that declaration could mean an additional $5.6 million for homeless services, with the potential to steer another $12.7 million to Sacramento Steps Forward, the lead agency for facilitating homelessness-related resources. It’s money that officials would have far more flexibility to spend on shelters, emergency beds and housing than the much-publicized $64 million Whole Person Care grant.
But just because officials will have more discretion with the money doesn’t mean advocates trust them to spend it wisely.
Church has teamed with members of Eye on Sacramento, the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee and the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness to form a new working group called the Alliance to Address the Shelter Crisis. The alliance sees momentum in the city’s sudden willingness to declare a shelter crisis, but wants to keep the pressure on—specifically, the pressure to finally get the city to repeal an anti-camping ordinance that makes it illegal for homeless people to sleep outdoors.
Civil rights attorney Mark Merin, who unsuccessfully challenged the ordinance last year, has made it known he intends to sue the city over the outdoor camping ban if it declares a shelter emergency.
An overnight census last winter estimated homelessness had increased 30 percent to approximately 3,600 people in Sacramento County. In May 2017, SN&R reported that 13,362 county residents identified as homeless while enrolling in a special CalFresh program, dwarfing the official tally.
At the alliance’s July 18 meeting inside Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, member Richard Wade said the group needs to combat what he views as the council’s “politics of incrementalism.”
Church says she and other alliance members are also concerned that the city’s bumpy launch of a temporary shelter in North Sacramento last December foretells a process by which city officials will designate emergency shelters without transparency or meaningful community input.
And while it’s the promise of government cash that prompted the expected crisis declaration, Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, believes that nonstop activism has helped nudge local leaders to this moment.
“I’d like to think the constant pressure from the coalition and other groups has laid the groundwork and the framework for declaring an emergency,” he told SN&R.
Meanwhile, tenant rights advocates are still fanning across the city, discussing skyrocketing rents and gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to stem the tide. The mayor isn’t hiding the fact that this makes him nervous.
Steinberg, who’s running his own campaign to get voters to double the temporary Measure U sales tax and make it permanent, has until recently been against any form of rent control, despite Sacramento suffering some of the highest year-to-year rent increases in the nation. He and the council have instead echoed a common refrain from developers and the building industry—among their top campaign donors—that enacting rent control would stall investment in creating new housing units.
Tenants Together, a statewide renters’ advocacy group, maintains that there’s no data to back that up.
For nearly two years, the City Council has heard from hundreds of people who have been displaced by escalating rents. Some have been single mothers with tears in their eyes. Some have been seniors on fixed incomes who fear becoming homeless. Some have been severely disabled, a few needing their caregivers to speak for them.
None of the public testimony appeared to move the political needle.
The stagnation caused several groups—including Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, Public Advocates, Organize Sacramento and Democratic Socialists of America—to team up with local labor leaders to form Housing 4 Sacramento. The group says it’s collected more than enough signatures to put before city voters a ballot initiative that would limit rent increases to a yearly percentage tied to the consumer price index. It would also bar evictions without cause and establish an elected rental board to mediate disputes between tenants and landlords.
Now that there’s a solid chance voters could get their say in a city beset by rent increases and a lack of affordable housing, Steinberg has agreed to come to the bargaining table. Michelle Pariset, an attorney working with the Housing 4 Sacramento campaign, says her side is waiting to hear whether the council will offer up a strong rent stabilization ordinance. But, contrary to some early reports, Pariset didn’t say Housing 4 Sacramento is willing to take the rent control initiative off the table just yet.
“There are negotiations happening,” Pariset confirmed. “Basically, we’re looking for the fastest relief for tenants. But if we can’t find a solution that serves tenants—and not just landlords and developers—we’re absolutely ready to go to the ballot box.”
Pariset isn’t sure if a ballot showdown can be avoided, but she is sure that the scores of people flocking to City Hall to demand relief made a difference.
“None of this would be happening were it not for community pressure,” she added. “Unless you’re a developer, the city is complaint-driven when it comes to responding to the community, so that means community members have to keep up the pressure.”
In some ways, the people on the front lines of the shelter and rent-control debates can feel bolstered by the changes police reformers successfully pushed for in recent years. Groups such as Black Lives Matter Sacramento, the Law Enforcement Accountability Directive and Sacramento Area Congregations Together mustered enough collective energy to prompt the creation of a police oversight panel, a mandatory video-release policy and more deescalation training for officers. The groups who fought for those changes aren’t resting on their laurels.
In June, numerous community and faith leaders participated in a campaign called “Eight Shots, Eight Days,” meant to draw national attention to the police shooting of Stephon Clark, as well as the recent in-custody death of Brandon Smith. Richard Owen, co-chair of Law Enforcement Accountability Directive, said that all of the police reform groups that he works with want to know why it’s taking so long for authorities to issue reports on the deaths of young men like Clark and Smith.
“The time it’s taking to finish these reports is absolutely brutal on the families,” Owen said. “How is it that we’re a year-and-a-half out from some of these incidents and still don’t have a report?”
Owen said he shares BLM’s concerns about the Facebook page SPD Underground, which opposes law enforcement oversight and trolls some of the activists calling for it.
“It produces some things that are very frightening,” he noted.
As for the future, Owens has no doubt that residents will continue to demand real consequences for officers who engage in brutality or reckless killings. Too many people in the African-American community understand, he says, how easily that can happen.
“If you’re a black parent in this city, and your son just goes out to the movies with his friends, you don’t go to sleep until he gets home,” Owen said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re in law school or medical school, you don’t go to sleep—you can’t sleep.”