Sacramento mayor blasts housing agency for slow progress on homeless solutions

With his city facing a shortage of homeless shelters and affordable housing, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has expressed serious concern that the city’s primary housing authority does not have the ability — or the motivation — to “actually drive our housing policy around this homeless problem.”

For the first time, City Hall is preparing to take a lead role in tackling the city’s housing crisis. The city is hiring its first staff members dedicated solely to housing policies and projects — a move that indicates the city could take over some responsibilities that have historically fallen to the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. The city may also begin to control new state funding expected to flow through the housing agency.

Steinberg, frustrated the agency is moving too slow to deliver on his request a year ago to build 1,000 tiny homes for homeless, admonished the agency Tuesday.

“I know SHRA’s strengths,” Steinberg said during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “I’ve seen it over the last year and the last two years and it’s formidable. It really is formidable. I’m impressed. But I don’t know whether or not you want to or can actually drive our housing policy around this homeless problem.”

The mayor’s comments were prompted by a presentation by Tyrone Roderick Williams, SHRA’s director of development. Williams told the council about nine proposals the agency received from firms interested in building permanent or temporary “efficiency housing units,” or tiny homes. The ideas included homes on wheels, shipping containers and small, prefabricated sleeping cabins, Williams said.

Many of the proposals did not include cost projections, though, and requested land, construction financing and operating subsidies, Williams said.

“I’m left a bit empty by the fact that I make this speech a year ago, you put together a so-called RFI (Request For Information) and this comes back here tonight without a single recommendation,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg was referring to his January 2018 State of Downtown address, where he announced a plan to build up to 1,000 tiny homes using hundreds of Housing Choice Vouchers — formerly known as Section 8 housing vouchers — to finance the construction.

“I’d like you to please come back on this in a couple weeks and please get us started on 100 tiny homes,” Steinberg told SHRA officials at the council meeting.

The SHRA did not respond to an inquiry from The Sacramento Bee on Friday about whether it would meet that deadline.

“Providing homeless housing is complex and requires many different solutions,” SHRA Executive Director La Shelle Dozier said in a statement through spokeswoman Angela Jones. “The Agency continues to work on tiny homes as one possible solution, searching locally, regionally and nationally for best practices. In addition, the Agency has executed many successful examples to address homeless housing such as the 150-unit 7th and H development by Mercy Housing (that opened in 2013 in downtown Sacramento) and the Courtyard Inn Motel in North Highlands, currently under construction, which will provide 92 units for homeless individuals.”

In the past year, SHRA has “aggressively pursued” new vouchers for homeless residents and currently administers about 2,000 vouchers for homeless veterans, disabled individuals, and families, the statement added.

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby defended SHRA. She said the agency’s projects are often slowed because the federal funding it relies on comes in slower than local funding often does, not because of a lack of desire among agency staff to build more affordable and homeless housing.

“I think it is a fair criticism to say none of us are moving fast enough on homeless solutions, but I don’t think it’s a fair criticism to lay that all on SHRA,” Ashby said. “I would say if we really want to put the pedal to the metal I’d give more (city) resources to SHRA and I would put them in more of a leadership role.”

It appears City Hall is already taking on more responsibility. The city recently hired Matt Hertel as a senior planner in its planning division to focus exclusively on housing, said Mary Lynne Vellinga, the mayor’s spokeswoman. The city is also preparing to hire a “chief housing officer” in its economic development department, Vellinga said.

Both positions were already on the city payroll, but were reclassified and given a new focus on housing.

Steinberg said he plans for the city to take the lead on housing issues and policy, and the two staffers are the first step.

“I want to build up our leadership within the city around these issues where we don’t have any currently,” Steinberg said. “We need somebody driving an aggressive goal to build more affordable housing.”

The new staffers will work closely with Emily Halcon, the city’s homeless services coordinator, and her staff, who worked to open the city’s first homeless triage shelter on Railroad Drive, and plan to open more, Steinberg said.

Steinberg said some new incoming state money for homelessness should be administered directly to the city, instead of SHRA. The No Place Like Home program will deliver $2 billion in revenue bonds statewide for programs to alleviate homelessness.

“I think it’s appropriate that if we’re going to make housing and developing an affordable housing strategy a city priority, that those new resources ought to flow to the city,” Steinberg said.

SHRA, in partnership with Sacramento County, will soon propose how to spend revenue from the No Place Like Home program, the agency’s statement said.

Steinberg has also previously said he would support using revenue from a recent increase in the city sales tax to fund affordable housing projects.

The city could hire additional housing staff beyond the first two, Steinberg said.

“When those leaders get in place and say that they need a team in order to push and push hard, then I will be open to recommending that we dedicate the resources to make sure we can be successful,” Steinberg said.

It’s unclear what housing responsibilities will stay with SHRA and which would fall to the city in the new model.

Steinberg said he has no issues with how the agency runs its public housing properties. He complimented agency officials for their efforts to score funding to rebuild the Twin Rivers housing development at the north edge of downtown, including both market-rate and subsidized units.

“In the best of all worlds, the SHRA will work with our new housing director and in fact, they will work together, and over time, we will determine together how to best meet the goals and that’s all that matters,” Steinberg said. “I’m not looking to pick a fight. I’m looking for results.”

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Theresa Clift covers Sacramento City Hall. Before joining The Bee in 2018, she worked as a local government reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Daily Press in Virginia and the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin. She grew up in Michigan and graduated from Central Michigan University.