Sacramento’s Twin Rivers housing project has long been one of the city’s most isolated neighborhoods, a sleepy, half-century-old enclave hidden among warehouses, junkyards and industrial buildings in the shadows of downtown, but economically and socially detached from it.
That is about to change. The city’s redevelopment agency and a national developer plan to tear down the entire community and its 218 outdated units – often called “The Dos,” a reference to the site’s former Dos Rios name – and replace it with a denser, mixed-income urban village that will house many more people, not all of them poor.
More than 200 of the new units will be earmarked for the community’s current residents, who must temporarily relocate until the new housing is ready. An additional 280 garden apartments and town homes will be marketed to young workers and families who can pay a bit more but have been priced out of housing just to the south in downtown and midtown.
The plan represents an ambitious effort to tackle two of downtown Sacramento’s urgent problems: long-term, systemic poverty and a lack of housing for lower-wage earners.
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Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency executive La Shelle Dozier said the neighborhood’s current 400-plus residents, half of whom are under age 18, have a better shot at pulling out of poverty if they live among people with more means, rather than in isolation.
“The exciting thing is not just replacing buildings,” Dozier said. “It’s about re-imagining communities.”
The project, seeded by federal housing grants, reflects a federal Housing and Urban Development effort in recent decades to do away with older, sometimes monolithic housing projects that served more to warehouse the poor than to help them advance beyond poverty. That effort, formerly called HOPE V1, has seen mixed success and received a reputation for tearing down more housing than it replaced, analysts say.
Twin Rivers is among a new set of projects spawned by a HUD successor effort called “Choice Neighborhoods” that focuses more on rebuilding whole neighborhoods. In this case, the new community will be nearly the size of Capitol Park, and will straddle North 12th Street as it enters downtown near Richards Boulevard by the Loaves and Fishes homeless services complex.
The Twin Rivers remake will include a park, a community pool and perhaps a grocery store. Talks are in the works for a light rail train station on site, and redevelopment officials say they are talking with the Twin Rivers Unified School District about improvements to the school across the street.
The effort has inched forward quietly for six years. It has support from low-income housing advocates as well as from area City Councilman Jeff Harris and business leaders who want to see the area around Richards Boulevard and North 12th Street become more a part of downtown.
Darryl Rutherford of the Sacramento Housing Alliance supports the project. But he said it represents just a small step toward addressing the region’s housing crisis.
On Thursday, the city’s Planning and Design Commission will review the project design, which includes some urban-style four-story town homes. The city council is expected to review the tenant relocation plan in August.
SHRA intends to help about 60 percent of Twin Rivers tenants move to other housing sites, or provide vouchers for non-governmental housing, by the end of this year. The rest of the tenants will be moved later, as demolition and reconstruction progresses.
It’s uncertain where tenants would move at this point. Given the limited housing options in the central city, some may wind up being relocated throughout the county. SHRA officials, who will oversee the moves, said that they will drive people out to look over potential dwellings.
Lauren Levrant, a representative with the project’s private developer, McCormack Baron Salazar, said the first phase of demolition is scheduled for the beginning of next year and will take five months. She said the first new apartments will be under construction by mid-year.
Tiffany Beckwith, who has lived at Twin Rivers for a decade with her husband and children, said she likes the idea of coming back to modern dwelling units, but is afraid she and other residents will get hit with higher rents when they return.
“I feel like people with lower means will get the short end of the stick,” she said.
Dozier of SHRA said that is not the case. Residents pay 30 percent of their monthly income for rent, and that will remain the ratio when they return to the new site.
Levrant of McCormack development company said it is too early to know what the market rate rents will be for the non-subsidized units, but said she said the developer expects to provide rents affordable for people earning less than the regional average household income, as well as units affordable for median-income earners.
“Our goal is for market rates for young working professionals and families who don’t want long a commute to downtown, but who can’t afford other products out there now,” she said. “I’d assume our market rate rents will be on the more affordable side, given the nature of the development and its location.”
Subsidized apartments for the poor and market rate units will be intermingled on site.
The $300 million project is the first of its kind in Sacramento, but is similar to projects underway in a dozen cities nationally, including Chicago, Seattle, Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco. All of them are being launched with federal HUD Choice Neighborhoods program grants.
Sacramento received a $30 million seed grant in 2015. The rest of the funding for the local project is expected to come from tax credits, cap-and-trade funds, other government grants and private construction loans. SHRA will continue to oversee the subsidized housing portion of the new, mixed-income community. The private development partner, St. Louis-based McCormack, will control the market-rate housing portion of the the project. That company will be on the hook for private funding to pull the full project together.
McCormack, a national corporation, is building a Choice Neighborhood project in San Francisco at the site of the former Giants and 49ers stadium at Candlestick Point.
The Choice Neighborhoods program, in existence since 2010, seeks to solve a riddle long faced by publicly subsidized housing advocates and programs. While Twin Rivers and other government-run housing projects offer inexpensive housing to stabilize some of the area’s poorest families, those families often remain in that housing and in poverty across generations.
Dozier of SHRA said the hope is that Choice Neighborhoods may show those families another way. “When you have people at different income strata, you have people learning from each other. It helps neighbors understand opportunities. It allows families to see things differently.”
Though the program’s track record is short, Lawrence Vale, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a specialty in government housing programs, said early indications are that the holistic approach is helping reduce “concentrated poverty.”
Rolf Pendall, a researcher with the Urban Institute think tank in Washington, D.C., cautioned that cities can’t just assemble the housing and assume it will function as a community. Success will require ongoing cooperation among city officials, police, schools and other social service providers.
“It doesn’t always go great,” Pendall said. “But it is so much worse to have neighborhoods that are segregated than to have to deal with the problems of mixing” people of different income levels. “Evidence suggests diversity is good.”
SHRA has applied for Choice Neighborhoods grants for two other large redevelopment agency housing projects, Alder Grove and Marina Vista, near Broadway between downtown and north Land Park. The plan is to demolish those projects too and replace them with mixed income communities.
The Trump administration, however, has proposed deep cuts in federal funding for poverty programs, including potentially eliminating the Choice Neighborhoods program. Federal Housing and Urban Development director Ben Carson explained the administration’s philosophy in a speech last week reported by PBS, saying, “We cannot be satisfied to throw resources at services that merely subsidize homelessness.”