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Why Sacramento can’t kick its addiction to big yards, suburban sprawl

See Folsom's massive new development get rolling

Crews have begun laying utility pipe, carving out new road alignments and plotting home sites south of Highway 50 in the city of Folsom for what officials say will be a city-sized area of 25,000 residents, ultimately pushing Folsom’s population pa
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Crews have begun laying utility pipe, carving out new road alignments and plotting home sites south of Highway 50 in the city of Folsom for what officials say will be a city-sized area of 25,000 residents, ultimately pushing Folsom’s population pa

The Sacramento region just can’t quit its big lawns.

As the new-home market slowly recovers from the devastating recession, it doesn’t look much different than it did before, despite a regionwide effort to change the way Sacramento grows.

Most of the homes built in the region in the past four years were constructed on large lots – 5,400 square feet or bigger. The vast majority of those homes were built in the suburbs more than 10 miles from downtown Sacramento.

That’s despite an agreement a decade ago by local governments around the region to squeeze more houses on smaller lots and to build more infill around the urban core, growth patterns that better support walking, public transit and water conservation.

The agreement, called the Blueprint, was ratified by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments during the housing boom in 2004. At the time, fast growth ate undeveloped land at a worrisome pace, creating sprawl and traffic jams. New housing construction subsequently plummeted during the bust, making the Blueprint’s goals seem less relevant.

Today the region is growing again, at a modest but substantial pace. New home construction has increased each of the last three years, with hundreds of thousands more homes in the development pipeline.

The region has made some progress in reducing lot size and encouraging infill, but not nearly as much as its leaders had hoped. About 44 percent of housing units built during the last four years were either attached housing or homes built on small lots, compared to 35 percent of units built during the last four years of the housing boom, according to preliminary housing permit data.

In contrast, the Blueprint called for 69 percent of housing units built in the region through 2050 to be attached housing or housing on small lots. SACOG defines a small lot as less than 5,400 square feet, roughly an eighth of an acre.

About four of every five new housing units built in the last four years are at least 10 miles from downtown Sacramento, including nearly all homes developed on large lots, permit data show.

“In terms of the goals of the Blueprint, we are not tracking to those,” said Bruce Griesenbeck, data modeling manager for SACOG. “Compared to the pre-recession, though, we are significantly higher than those. It’s not like we are back to pre-recession levels.”

The region’s suburbs are keeping large lots alive. More than 70 percent of new housing units in Lincoln, Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Rocklin, Woodland and El Dorado Hills during the last four years were built on large lots. By comparison, less than 20 percent of housing units built in the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento were built on large lots.

New apartment buildings and townhouses rising from many corners in midtown and downtown Sacramento have grabbed media attention, but the number of units is still measured in the hundreds each year rather than the thousands.

“Now that the housing market is coming back, developers are going back to the periphery to build like they always have,” said Matthew Baker, Land Use and Conservation Policy Director at the Environmental Council of Sacramento. “We are continuing the old way rather than investing in the types of development we need. There are small steps in the right direction but not nearly enough.”

Housing built from 2005 through 2015 converted about 60 square miles of undeveloped land, according to SACOG officials. That’s equivalent to 15 percent of the land predicted for development under the Blueprint over a 45-year period, even though the region saw only 8 percent of predicted housing starts.

“We are chewing up a valuable resource, and we are still under-producing housing,” said James Corless, SACOG’s chief executive officer.

Attached housing – often infill, often affordable – comprised less than one in five new housing units built in the last four years, not even half the proportion called for in the Blueprint. Government subsidies for affordable, multifamily housing largely dried up during the recession. Without that money, low rents may not cover costs.

“Insurance, the threat of litigation, building criteria – a lot of these things can prevent folks from engaging in the practice of building multifamily housing,” said Elk Grove City Councilman Darren Suen.

On the other end of the spectrum, developers are keen to build mansions on large estates. The Blueprint called for just 1 percent of new construction to be developed on more than an acre of land. During the last four years, 8 percent of new construction sits on acreage. The top areas for these homes are near Loomis and Granite Bay and in the Martis Camp area of Placer County, close to Lake Tahoe.

“There is a demand for that,” said Greq Paquin, a building industry analyst with decades of experience in Sacramento. “You have this Bay Area component, they are selling their homes for $1.5 million or whatever. They are saying, ‘I can buy a half acre lot for a million.’ I don’t think that goes away.”

Griesenbeck said a significant portion of new homes under construction today were approved during the housing boom, before the region made a commitment to building on smaller lots. As the backlog of those homes clears, he said, the region may see more high density development.

“We have this reservoir of capacity due to the prior planning,” he said. “That reservoir is going to drain out very, very slowly.”

Hundreds of thousands of homes are in some stage of planning or approval around the region. How fast – or even if – many of those homes will be built remains an open question, making it hard to predict whether new homes will be built mostly on large or small lots.

Baker, of the Environmental Council of Sacramento, said most projects under development encourage typical suburban sprawl.

“We don’t have anywhere near the density to sustain a robust transportation system,” he said. “We are not going to get there if we just build on the periphery where it is easiest.”

Paquin, the building industry analyst, sees it differently. Demand for homes built on smaller lots is growing, he said. The region’s new homes, he predicts, will look a lot different from legacy homes.

“You can provide a 4,000-square-foot lot if the community provides what you missed by not having a 10,000-square-foot lot – parks, swimming,” he said. “I think there is going to be a move toward greater density overall.”

Phillip Reese: 916-321-1137, @PhillipHReese

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