Mayor Steinberg has a plan to build tiny houses, and lots of them

Sacramento took a huge step last year by agreeing on a strategy to get homeless people off the street and give them services. Now, it’s time for specific proposals to get the homeless into real housing.

So Mayor Darrell Steinberg was on point Tuesday, suggesting the city and county use 750 to 1,000 rental vouchers to entice developers to build as many as 1,000 tiny homes as quickly as possible.

“Conventional housing is expensive, and it takes years to build,” Steinberg said. “We don’t have years to wait to house people.”

The mayor addressed the right audience – the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. As he explained, homelessness – besides being a humanitarian and public safety crisis – is also the “single biggest threat” to the “renaissance” happening in the central city.

Developers also attended the annual State of Downtown event at Memorial Auditorium, and their interest is essential for this proposal to work.

Under the mayor’s plan, the city will ask developers next month to submit ideas for houses of 300 to 400 square feet. They could be modular or manufactured, pods or stacked units, or container units inside warehouses – anything with a secure roof, door and plumbing. While potential locations are unclear, Steinberg suggested that 100 vacant parcels owned by the city would be a good place to start.

Developers would partner with nonprofits already working on tiny homes and with homeless service providers. In return, the vouchers would translate to $21 million in guaranteed rental subsidies over three years. That’s a lot of money, but far less than the public money that would be required to add that many conventional affordable housing units.

Steinberg plans to ask the City Council and Sacramento County Board of Supervisors for the funding early in the summer.

It is crucial that supervisors Phil Serna and Patrick Kennedy are on the same page with the mayor on this “efficient housing” plan. The other supervisors should get on board, too. As we said repeatedly, it took far too long for the county and city to get together on a game plan for homelessness.

In his first State of the City address last week, Steinberg challenged Sacramento to dream bigger and focused on economic development and jobs. Yet he knows that a city’s greatness is also measured by how it treats its least fortunate. Last year, 112 homeless people died on the county’s streets, the most ever. That is shameful.

The tiny homes proposal is only one piece of Steinberg’s homeless strategy. He called Tuesday for a $20 million community fundraising campaign; Sutter Health has pledged $5 million if it is matched by other donations. Combined with $64 million in Whole Person Care funds the city secured with local hospitals, plus $44 million in mental health services money overseen by the county, Steinberg says Sacramento can:

▪ Offer emergency rental assistance grants or loans to 1,800 families who are one unexpected expense away from ending up on the street.

▪ Triple the space at triage shelters from 200 to 600 beds so that if 200 people are connected with services and housing every 90 days, these shelters can serve 2,400 a year.

▪ Compensate landlords, who accept rental housing vouchers, for any property damage or disputes with tenants.

Other leaders will have more ideas. Good. Homelessness is a complex challenge that requires a multifaceted response. With this plan, the mayor is on the right track.

Now it’s up to private developers and generous residents to pitch in. Sacramento built a solid foundation last year to finally do something lasting about the homeless. It would be a travesty to waste that momentum.

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