Marcos Bretón

Isn't Sacramento richer if you can afford to live here? She's fighting to make it so

What if Sacramento joined San Francisco in the dismal category of pricing working class people out of decent housing?

If that happened, Sacramento would lose what has always been a strength. The ability to rise above difficult circumstances through safe, stable housing has made Sacramento a better community.

Safe, stable housing has been a gateway to the middle class for many Sacramentans. If Sacramento lost that gateway, it would lose generations of human potential. It might lose future community leaders who experienced struggle but rose above and then felt the call to give back to their community.

Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn is in this category. So are City Council members Angelique Ashby, Eric Guerra, and Steve Hansen. The list is long of Sacramentans who grew up in less than affluent circumstances, or were single moms trying to support themselves, or college students sleeping in their cars, or young people whose parents or guardians were on public assistance. Hahn, Ashby, Guerra, Hansen and many others fit these descriptions.

So does Margarita Maldonado.


She has been one of the most influential union leaders in Sacramento over the last decade. At 47, Maldonado is feared and reviled by some because she is a driving force behind an effort to stop skyrocketing rents in Sacramento.

She is the outgoing vice president for bargaining at SEIU Local 1000. As a leader with SEIU Local 1000, Maldonado has been a major figure in pushing for a rent control ordinance that would cap rent increases in older buildings at 5 percent. It would create a rent control board that would rule on rent increases and evictions.

This scares the wits out of Sacramento developers, politicians, landlords and business types, because Sacramento is on an upswing. Downtown is morphing from dismal to dynamic with Golden One Center and all the hotels and restaurants sprouting around it. Apartment complexes are rising in Midtown.

Rent control will kill this momentum, many fear.

“The SEIU initiative, while well-intentioned, I think is overwritten and if it passes would harm our ability to build more affordable housing,” Steinberg told The Bee last week.

OK, but rents are skyrocketing in the capital of California. Last year, rents in the city of Sacramento jumped higher over one year than any other city in California. At a 7.4 percent increase between 2016 and 2017, only Arlington, Texas, and Reno saw bigger increases in the nation.

Consequently, the dynamic tension between Sacramento's ascendancy as a city with big ambitions and the people left out of those ambitions is intense. This could get ugly.

Before it does, we need to stop and consider why people such as Maldonado are as driven as they are. Not everyone in Sacramento had the life experience depicted in the popular film "Lady Bird," where a young girl was raised by two loving parents and sent to expensive parochial schools that prepared her for an expensive liberal arts college in New York.

Maldonado grew up in the other Sacramento, in south Sacramento, a world apart from the "Lady Bird" Sacramento. She made herself into someone of note despite daunting obstacles that might have confined her to a life of poverty had her single mother, Beatrice, not been able to afford a safe, decent house on the salary of a waitress.

"There is no way my mom could have gotten the kind of housing and support today that she got in the 1970s," Maldonado said. "My mom had four kids. There is no way now that she could have bought a house, had a car payment and provided for those four kids (today)."

Maldonado's parents divorced when she was 6. Her mom moved Maldonado and her three siblings from their home in Bakersfield to Sacramento because she had a job offer to be head waitress at a Mack Road Mexican restaurant.

"We drove up the 99 to Sacramento in a red car with a black top," said Maldonado.

"We moved into a two-bedroom apartment and my mom told us we had to be very quiet because she had told the landlord that she had only one child," Maldonado said. It was what they had to do to survive. With her wages, and some money from her divorce settlement, Maldonado's mother moved her kids into a three-bedroom home she bought in an unincorporated area of the county, on Flamingo Way, just south of Florin Road.

As her mom worked long hours, Maldonado and her siblings had to take care of themselves. Maldonado's mom befriended neighbors who kept tabs on her kids while she was working. Maldonado dreamed of being a lawyer advocating for children, until she became pregnant at 16. As a teen mother, she finished her studies at Valley High School but worked as a custodian to make ends meet. She said the stress and responsibility of her life caused her to suffer seizures.

Her older brother died of epilepsy. Her mom was devastated by the death and, more than ever, Maldonado had to make a living to survive instead of pursuing her dream of law school. For a time, she had to go on public assistance, an experience she found humiliating.

"I looked around and said, 'This is not the life I imagined."'

The entire time, the home of her youth on was her salvation. "We never had our lights turned off," she said. "We never had bugs in the house. We didn't have the experiences of some people in our socio-economic space. My mom surrounded herself with community and she tapped into that to provide for us."

Maldonado never intended to be a state worker. She took a job in information systems for the Department of Justice because it offered health care. It became her career. She was promoted four times in her first five years. She made enough to afford her own home, and rose through the ranks of a large and powerful public service union.

She is a middle class success now, raising kids who don't have the daunting challenges that she did.

Hers is a story of how communities grow stronger, when driven people have the chance to move up life.

"Just because you don't make $100,000 doesn't mean you don't deserve safe, decent housing," Maldonado said.

Whatever the outcome of what is certain to be a battle over how to contain Sacramento's rising cost of living, the experiences of people such as Maldonado should not be forgotten. If that happens, Sacramento will lose what has always made it special.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee