Will private city-council talks decide fate of area’s largest public-housing residences?

Dream to develop riverfront community has city council fast-tracking work on low-income apartments—despite resident complaints

Sixteen-year Alder Grove resident Ngai Doan gardens with his grandson, Aron Nyguyen. Alder Grove residents might have to move—quickly and without much say in the matter—if city council fast-tracks redevelopment.

Sixteen-year Alder Grove resident Ngai Doan gardens with his grandson, Aron Nyguyen. Alder Grove residents might have to move—quickly and without much say in the matter—if city council fast-tracks redevelopment.

Photo By Taras Garcia

An unfolding revitalization project has some wondering whose interests the Sacramento City Council actually serves: thousands of public-housing residents fearful of being displaced, or one of its own.

City council unanimously agreed last week to request developer qualifications and predevelopment monies from the city and county, important steps on the path to redeveloping two of the city’s largest—and oldest—public-housing structures, both at which lie in Councilman Rob Fong’s district.

Marina Vista on Seavey Circle and Alder Grove on Revere Street comprise nearly 70 acres and more than 750 apartment units for some 2,500 “extremely low-income residents” in the city, according to a staff report. This represents nearly half of the city’s entire public-housing inventory.

The two aging structures—a short mile apart just south of downtown and east of the Sacramento River—recently benefited from $5 million in federal weatherization monies. But elected officials say much more is needed in a neglected part of the city where student absenteeism soars.

“We are a city built on great neighborhoods, but some of those neighborhoods have been left behind a very, very long time,” Councilman Jay Schenirer said during the June 7 meeting, when the idea of a full-scale revitalization project involving Marina Vista and Alder Grove was first introduced.

Since, elected officials have set an aggressive time line to vet the deep-pocketed developer behind a massive housing development at Third Street and Broadway, known as the Setzer site, for possible work on these two public-housing projects. The goal is to have a developer—and preferably this one, who remains unknown despite being in council’s crosshairs—selected by October, so that departing Councilman Fong can throw a vote its way before he leaves office in November.

That motivation was expressed more explicitly last month, when the District A representative asked his fellow council members for support.

“The reason I asked this to come to council tonight is because, frankly—and this is really directed to my colleagues—I need your help,” he said. “I mean, the clock is sort of ticking. I recognize that we’ll have a new District 4 representative in November. But I frankly think that this project is bigger than District 4. It should be a project of citywide import.”

But while Fong’s fellow council members have rallied to his cause, critics worry it’s made for an unnaturally quick pace that could cut down on input from the affected residents—who could possibly be displaced from their homes, neighborhoods and school districts for more than two years.

“The time line is so short, that public and resident outreach and input is impossible,” Sacramento Resident Advisory Board vice president Barbara Stanton told the council last week. “This project is not just brick and mortar. It is about the fate of 750 households and 2,500 people.”

Fong has been trying to realize a revitalization project at the 70-year-old sites for the past five years. While city officials didn’t mention a firm by name, Fong said the development team behind a 31-acre housing development at the Setzer property has also expressed interest in replacing the low-density apartment units and possibly building a community center. Home builder Signature Properties purchased the Setzer site in 2006, media reports state.

“I think now is the right time to push, because the development team that is doing Setzer is doing things now,” Fong said last month. “I don’t know if it’ll be them or someone else, but we really have the opportunity to now realize the dream of a larger, integrated community out there that isn’t separated by walls.”

While public-housing advocates admit it’s a worthy dream, they say the city council is sacrificing community input for speed and transparency for developer cash.

Facade of the Alder Grove low-income apartments.

Photo By Taras Garcia

“There’s no disputing new apartments would be great,” Stanton told SN&R. “But no one knows what this is going to look like.”

Talk was more bullish during council’s June 7 meeting, when no housing advocates or site residents were on hand to speak.

Stanton referred to statements made by City Manager John Shirey, who spoke of the need for a “political strategy” to take lobby federal dollars that might be more available during the current political season.

“You know, we have this great riverfront in Sacramento,” Shirey began, “and like other cities that I’ve worked in, we haven’t taken advantage of it.”

The city manager explained that he has “some grand plans about how [the city] can utilize the riverfront, and particularly in this area where the Setzer property sits,” and that Marina Vista and Alder Grove are an “advantage” because of their proximity to where private investment is already occurring.

Shirey expressed hope to “marry the resources of the private investment and an opportunity to also bring up the fortunes of that poorer neighborhood.

“But everybody needs to understand that this train will leave the station,” he added.

Stanton was one of four public-housing advocates to urge council members to slow their roll and make more time for public participation last week. The Sacramento Redevelopment and Housing Agency issued the same recommendation at its July 18 meeting, but was overruled by last week’s council vote.

Thus far, only one outreach meeting has been held at each affected site, where residents wondered what would happen to them during a lengthy reconstruction process.

Tyrone Buckley, a policy director with the Sacramento Housing Alliance, soaked up the community concern at both meetings, saying folks were most worried about being sent to worse neighborhoods with shoddier schools, increased public-transportation costs, and whether they would in fact be able to return once a multiyear revitalization process was complete.

“The way it was laid out didn’t give residents a full idea of what was going to happen to them over a multiple-year process,” Buckley told the council.

This fast-tracked time line is in stark contrast to the more deliberative process occurring at a distressed public-housing development in Twin Rivers. Thanks to a $300,000 federal housing grant, the significantly smaller property—218 units in all—is in store for eight months of stakeholder meetings, resident surveys and other grassroots efforts before a request for developer qualifications is solicited.

Contrary to that “bottom-up process,” as Stanton calls it, the Marina Vista-Alder Grove project has been the subject of private weekly discussions involving officials from the city, county and Congresswoman Doris Matsui’s office—but no one representing the residents themselves.

“There’s no residents, there’s no housing people,” Stanton complained. “It’s like there’s been no transparency. … The community doesn’t know anything except that they’ve been meeting.”

That message resonated with Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, who voted in favor of issuing the RFQ, but asked housing advocates to “stay engaged.”

They hope they’ll have time to.