Stand and deliver

Firefighters and two City Council members challenge Mayor Steinberg’s plan, raise questions about objectives of sales tax

Tenant advocates and housing nonprofits gathered in front of City Hall May 21 to demand some of Measure U’s funds be deployed against the city’s rental crisis.

Tenant advocates and housing nonprofits gathered in front of City Hall May 21 to demand some of Measure U’s funds be deployed against the city’s rental crisis.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Three years into Sacramento’s worst housing crisis in decades, the situation is not getting better and by some metrics is only intensifying.

That was the message tenant advocates and nonprofits trumpeted May 21 at City Hall, where they implored the Sacramento City Council to keep Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s promises for Measure U’s new funds.

While Steinberg projected confidence in speeches and radio interviews as he stumped to both raise and make permanent the sales tax increase—sharing his intention to use the money on the housing crisis, homelessness and underserved neighborhoods—at least two council members now oppose his strategy to follow through. The other members of the council stayed silent on the matter during nearly seven hours of budget hearings.

For nonprofits on the front lines of Sacramento’s housing crunch, news of the council dispute followed a new report from the California Housing Partnership that identified more alarming statistics across the region. That report found that Sacramento County lacks 63,000 affordable rental units to keep up with local demand, an increase of 5,000 units from the previous year. It also determined that renters in the county need to earn $27.97 an hour—almost two-and-a-half times the state minimum wage—to afford the median rent in Sacramento. In another bleak finding, 80% of extremely low-income households in Sacramento County are paying more than half their income directly on rent.

Finally—and perhaps most relevant to the Measure U debate—the report identified a 68% reduction in state and federal funding to affordable housing projects in Sacramento over the last decade. Advocates want some of the projected $50 million a year in new Measure U funds to back-fill those losses.

“We get hundreds of calls each month from tenants who are struggling to maintain their housing,” John Foley, executive director of Sacramento Self Help Housing, said outside City Hall. “We have seen numerous people who have been given an eviction notice for no reason at all.”

Foley added the crisis is so bad that some landlords know they can easily swap good tenants for wealthier ones.

Housing4Sacramento is advancing a ballot measure for 2020 that would bring rent control to Sacramento. A recent survey by Sacramento Housing Alliance found that 65% of the city’s likely voters support it.

Steinberg doesn’t, though he does want to augment the city’s dwindling housing trust fund. His plan is to use a portion of the Measure U revenues to issue bonds for housing and economic development.

But council members Angelique Ashby and Jeff Harris officially oppose that plan, preferring all Measure U money to go into the city’s general fund, which would allow City Manager Howard Chan flexibility for dealing with sharply rising pension costs, as well as potentially adding more fire stations and police programs down the road.

City leaders are also negotiating a new contract with the firefighters this year.

Chan’s current budget proposal would not only keep nearly $50 million of the old Measure U money for police, fire, parks and other basic services, but add roughly $17 million of the new half-cent revenue to public safety as well. But that is not assuaging critics of the mayor’s bond-issuing strategy.

Cathy Creswell, board president of Sacramento Housing Alliance, urged all council members to find an avenue for using Measure U to push back against the housing insecurity plaguing the city.

“The Measure U ballot specifically talked about affordable housing,” Creswell said at the rally.

Just four hours later, a line of city firefighters stood inside council chambers, emphasizing a different part of the Measure U ballot language. More than a dozen firefighters accused Steinberg of pulling a bait and switch, having urged them to campaign for Measure U as a safety initiative, only to then change the money’s mission after the vote. They also told Steinberg that, by making the new Measure U a full cent, he put police officers and firefighters in the uncomfortable position of either supporting a measure they weren’t sure about, or losing tens of millions of dollars from the city’s budget.

“I’m alarmed and dismayed by the mayor’s plan to divert funds from Measure U from the general fund to his own special projects,” firefighter Chris Harvey told the council. “It was very clear to those of us in our city who were paying attention at the time, that Measure U was heading to a resounding defeat until Sacramento firefighters supported the measure and began campaigning for the public to vote ’yes.’ … Keep your promises to the citizens of Sacramento.”

Steinberg addressed the firefighters.

“I suppose I see the world differently than you do now,” the mayor said from the dais. “I would remind you, those who came up and talked about the ballot label, read the whole thing because it talked about other essential services … so that was also contemplated by the voters.”

The mayor added, “I’m going to continue leading the city in the way I think is best for all of the people.”