This is the fallout of the housing bust: enough vacant dwellings in the Sacramento region to harbor every El Dorado County resident or to shelter all the state's homeless on a typical night.
New 2010 census figures show downtown Sacramento hit hard by the trend. Nearly one-fourth of the housing units in the city's downtown redevelopment zone sat vacant last year.
In Oak Park and North Sacramento, a few blocks had vacancy rates approaching 50 percent. More distant suburbs fared better, but some have seen vacancy rates double.
The census figures, which do not distinguish between rental and owner-occupied properties, provide the most comprehensive snapshot to date of a region battered for several years by foreclosures and high unemployment.
Excluding the Sierra, which is dotted by seasonal housing, the Census Bureau counted roughly 55,000 vacant housing units in the region, up from 28,000 a decade ago. That's about one vacant unit for every 14 occupied ones.
All those vacant houses have pushed down home values, depressed new construction and sucked the livelihood out of communities.
"People are reluctant to move into homes when there are only other vacant units around," said Joany Titherington, a longtime Oak Park resident and activist.
Sacramento now has the second-highest housing vacancy rate among the state's 10 largest cities, behind Oakland. A lot of that comes down to the city's downtown core.
For much of the past decade, city planners have attempted to revitalize downtown. The city has spent more than $55 million to subsidize downtown housing projects since the 2000 census.
The challenge has been daunting. It's more expensive to build housing in downtown Sacramento than to build it on an empty field in the suburbs, so developers have to charge higher rents or sales prices. Projects that receive city subsidies must also provide affordable housing.
"It's just a more cumbersome place to build," said developer Paul Petrovich.
From 2000 to 2010, the number of housing units in the downtown redevelopment zone increased by 400, to 3,100. But the number of occupied housing units increased by only 135.
In other words, for every three new housing units built in the core during the past decade, the city gained roughly one occupied unit.
City officials said some large downtown developments were being rehabilitated when the census occurred, creating more vacancies. They specifically cited a project at 630 I St. and the Maydestone apartments on 15th Street.
"When you pull out the ones that were under rehab, I don't think (the numbers) were that surprising," said Leslie Fritzsche, the city's head of economic development for downtown. She said the city is reviewing the census data.
Vacant lofts and condos
Still, many downtown projects are having trouble attracting tenants or buyers, residents said.
One of downtown's newest projects is a loft development at 800 J St., which got $16.4 million in redevelopment funds.
Taylor Greer spent a year living in those lofts. He said rents there and elsewhere in downtown are too high to sustain high occupancy. He paid $3,000 a month to live in a penthouse unit. The building is currently advertising 800-square-foot units starting at about $1,600.
"They're charging as if we're living in San Francisco," Greer said. "There's a lot of empty parking spots."
Greer now lives in midtown, where he pays $900 a month in rent; midtown's vacancy rate is lower than downtown's, census figures show.
Dulce Farmer moved into 800 J a couple of months after the building opened in 2006. She is now in the process of moving, although unlike Greer it is for family reasons.
"I wanted to be downtown because I was very excited about what was happening downtown at the time," Farmer said. "Things kind of stalled."
Jim Pachl lives downtown in a high-rise condo building at 500 N St. He keeps tabs on the local market and believes high rents, coupled with the recession, might have contributed to the vacancy rates.
"I haven't heard stories of people moving saying, 'Oh, I don't like it down here.' I hear people say, 'I love it here, but the costs are too much,' " Pachl said. "An awful lot of people lost jobs. I know people who left the building because they lost their job and couldn't find one locally."
Pachl lives at a focal point of downtown vacancies a large swath of older condos and apartments between N and P streets, near 5th street, where about 200 of 1,000 housing units were vacant on census day, April 1, 2010.
At 500 N St., a 134-unit development called Bridgeway Towers, developers were converting the early-1980s building from apartments to condos when the recession hit. The project fell apart and the unsold portion of the building nearly half the units is in foreclosure and unoccupied.
If downtown's problems revolve mainly around cost, it's possible the area will gain more residents as the economy improves. The advantages to living downtown are obvious: fewer transportation expenses, proximity to restaurants and clubs, the possibility of walking to work.
"The amount of interest in downtown high-rise residential living is huge," said real estate agent James Dinse, who is trying to sell three condominiums at Bridgeway Towers. "All of (these projects) were victims of the timing."
Judy Davis concurs. She has lived for three years at 500 N St. in a penthouse condominium she bought for nearly $1 million.
"I started just enjoying the city going out, having lunch, meeting people," Davis said. "Particularly for a single person, it's really nice."
Oak Park revival cut short
Some of the region's poverty-stricken neighborhoods may face a steeper climb to normalcy.
Outside downtown, the region's highest home vacancy rates were in Oak Park and south Sacramento. In Oak Park, about one of every seven housing units sat vacant at the time of the census.
Oak Park seemed to be approaching a renaissance five years ago. Skyrocketing housing prices elsewhere left homes in Oak Park relatively affordable. A wave of young homebuyers moved in.
But many of those newcomers didn't stick around, because they either couldn't afford to pay their loans or were unwilling to keep paying them as their homes lost more than half their value.
At the same time, some long-term Oak Park residents borrowed against the increasing and illusory value of their homes, and lost them to foreclosure.
"People took a lot of money out of their homes and then walked away without really making any improvements," Titherington said.
The problem is especially keen in south Oak Park, where roughly half of the blocks have at least four vacant housing units.
"I've seen an increase in apparent homelessness," said Michael Boyd, president of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association.
Farther from the city, vacancies also rose, though not to such stratospheric levels. In Roseville, for example, vacancy rates rose from 3.5 percent in 2000 to 5.6 percent in 2010. In El Dorado Hills, they climbed from 2.9 percent to 4.2 percent. And in the more economically challenged suburb of North Highlands, vacancy rates jumped from 4.7 percent to 9.6 percent.
"The thieves breaking in and stealing copper from the homes we're getting tired of that," said Jim Simpson, who operates a window tinting business in North Highlands.
Despite all of these trends, several community leaders and developers said they're optimistic about the future, and believe the recovering economy eventually will cause empty homes to fill up with people again.
There are numerous revitalization plans in the works for Oak Park and downtown. And with very few new housing units being built right now, demand will eventually catch up with supply, real estate experts say.
Petrovich, one of the region's largest developers of commercial properties, pointed out that the census data captures a moment in time.
It "shouldn't be confused with a 10-year trend in rentals," he said. "It's a snapshot."