Sacramento County wants to nearly halve the share of low-income units that home builders must include and reduce their fees after developers complained the current affordable housing law has hurt the real estate market.
Housing advocates and some county officials question the proposal, saying there isn’t strong evidence to support the complaints. They worry the change would reduce construction of housing for lower-income residents.
Under the current ordinance, developers in unincorporated Sacramento County must set aside 15 percent of a project for housing that lower-income residents can afford or pay a fee that funds affordable units elsewhere.
The proposed amendment would lower the requirement to 8 percent and reduce in-lieu fees that developers can pay instead by a comparable amount. It would apply to all new home construction instead of just new subdivisions.
State law requires communities to identify programs that assist in the development and preservation of affordable housing, show where it can be located and remove barriers to its construction, among other things. The state does not prescribe a percentage of affordable units that developers must build.
Affordable housing ordinances in the region vary. Some communities require lower affordable housing percentages than Sacramento County, such as Roseville, which requires 10 percent. Sacramento has the same 15 percent that the county does, though the city is considering lowering its requirement to 10 percent.
The county’s proposal has generated strong feelings on both sides. For developers, the change could save them hundreds of millions of dollars. Take the proposed 8,000-unit Cordova Hills project, where developers are currently looking at more than $30 million in fees and a land donation to meet the law’s requirements. They could see the fees cut by a third and the land donation cut in half.
Housing advocates say the proposal would undermine a housing ordinance that’s failed to live up to its promise since it was approved in 2004. They say developers fought the proposal in court for two years before the recession halted housing construction, including affordable units.
Since the ordinance was approved, about 263 affordable units have been built and 64 acres have been dedicated for affordable housing, county officials said.
“The choice is between housing for the few and housing for the many,” said Valerie Feldman, an attorney for Legal Services of Northern California. “The market alone will not provide housing for the many.”
Feldman spoke during a workshop on the proposal before the county Planning Commission this week. Another workshop was held this week for the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commission ahead of a scheduled Dec. 10 vote by the Board of Supervisors.
The recommendation to cut the affordable housing requirement came from a committee that included county officials, builders and housing advocates.
Greg Sparks, interim executive director for the Sacramento Housing Alliance, said his organization’s concerns were ignored, and the county unilaterally pushed its proposal. But Planning Director Leighann Moffitt said the county tried to strike a balance between developers who want to end the program and advocates who want the status quo.
Principal planner Cindy Storelli told the Planning Commission that the existing ordinance is a “detriment to market-rate housing.”
John Costa of the North State Building Industry Association made the same argument. He said that over roughly the same time period, Elk Grove’s affordable housing program has produced far more units, 1,528, than the county’s. Elk Grove has a lower affordable housing requirement than the county.
Commissioner Lucille Van Ommering said developers should not isolate the affordable housing fees when a variety of factors play a role in how many homes get built.
While the Planning Commission was not asked to provide a recommendation on the proposed amendment, a majority said the county needed data to support developers’ arguments about the current ordinance hurting development.
“We need more facts,” said Chairman Eric Guerra. “The stakes are too high.”
“More questions were raised tonight than answered,” said Commissioner Keith Bray.
Moffitt said she didn’t think the data requested by commissioners is readily available or worth the cost to produce. “The county believes what the developers are saying,” she said.