Erika D. Smith

Want to fix Sacramento’s housing crisis? This is so the wrong way to do it.

Sacramento homeowner talks about believing in Habitat for Humanity

Rozonna Robinson pursued an opportunity to become a homeowner through Habitat for Humanity of Greater Sacramento. Today, Robinson lives in a gorgeous four-bedroom, two-bathroom house that she and other volunteers built over several sweltering mont
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Rozonna Robinson pursued an opportunity to become a homeowner through Habitat for Humanity of Greater Sacramento. Today, Robinson lives in a gorgeous four-bedroom, two-bathroom house that she and other volunteers built over several sweltering mont

Rozonna Robinson moved to Sacramento with the dream of buying a home, just as her parents and her grandparents had done.

Instead, the single mother of two found herself living in water-damaged apartment in Valley Hi, paying $800 a month in rent so she and her children could go to sleep to the sound of gunshots and police helicopters.

That’s what happens when the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment jumps to nearly $1,200 in a matter of months and the median sales price of a single-family home leaps to an out-of-reach $330,000, the highest in a decade for Sacramento.

Dreams die. People get stuck.

The low point for Robinson came the morning she was walking with her then-4-year-old daughter and spotted a teenage boy, dead from a gunshot wound, lying face down in the grass.

“Mommy, why is he sleeping?” she recalled her daughter asking. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I have to get out of here.’ There’s no kind of way I’m going to raise my kids in this environment.”

It was only after pursuing an opportunity to become a homeowner through Habitat for Humanity of Greater Sacramento that things began to change.

Today, Robinson lives in gorgeous four-bedroom, two-bathroom house that she and other volunteers built over several sweltering months. She has a mortgage of $760 with zero interest – completely affordable on her salary as a bus driver for Regional Transit. Her daughters have their own spacious rooms, as does her 4-year-old grandson.

“I would never have been able to do this without Habitat,” she said. “No kind of way.”

Hearing a story like this, one would think the city of Sacramento would be doing everything it could to help the nonprofit turn more poor people into homeowners, especially at a time when Californians are getting evicted and forced into homelessness simply because they can’t afford rent.

But that’s not what the city is doing. That would make far too much sense.

No, the city is nickel-and-diming Habitat for Humanity, needlessly undermining the nonprofit’s mission to rescue victims of California’s housing crisis turned housing catastrophe.

It’s all rather ridiculous.

For every house Habitat for Humanity builds, the city charges it close to $20,000 in fees, for everything from building permits to housing impact fees. There are also school impact fees and utility fees, including those from the county for flood protection and sewer maintenance.

If that weren’t enough, the nonprofit also pays the county thousands of dollars for infill lots on which to build houses. A recently completed house in Del Paso Heights, for example, was erected on a county-owned lot that had been empty for years, with back taxes mounting. It went to a family of four who had been living in an overcrowded, mold-infested apartment.

All told, Habitat doles out about $40,000 in fees to various government agencies and utility companies every time it builds a house in the Sacramento region. That’s consistently the largest share of the $200,000 or so in construction costs.

Why the nonprofit is getting charged at all is beyond me. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of greed. Rather, in talking to city officials, it seems to be more about absentminded, bureaucratic thinking.

It’s the same kind of thinking that has somehow made it OK for California’s policymakers to leave people like Robinson twisting in the wind as housing prices skyrocket and tent cities of homeless people expand under highway bridges.

Last month, the Legislature approved a budget deal that included no new money for affordable housing. Yup, zero. It also exempted the fancy NIMBYs of Marin County from having to meet housing requirements. And now state lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown can’t seem to agree on a path forward.

Meanwhile, six out of the seven least affordable metro areas in the country are in California: Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Riverside and Sacramento. We’re losing talented young people to Texas and Arizona. And experts only expect things to get worse.

“It’s getting harder and harder to live here,” David Shulman, a senior economist for Anderson Forecast, told The Bee. “The state is running out of people who can afford the $3,500 per-month rents so those prices are beginning to fall ... but if you look at the one-bedrooms for $1,500, those rents are continuing to go up.”

In this environment, the very least government agencies can do is help the nonprofits that are fighting the good fight on behalf of poor people who are struggling to stay afloat. And yet, all over California, chapters of Habitat for Humanity are forced to pay counterproductive fees to their local governments.

Laine Himmelmann, a spokesperson for the Sacramento’s Habitat, says members of the City Council have been asked about the fees in the past, usually when they show up for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a newly built home.

“When we have the conversation about the permit fees, it’s always kind of a shrug,” she said. “Like, ‘yeah, that’s bad.’ 

And then nothing changes.

For a cash-strapped nonprofit that already depends far too much on private donations, a shrug is not good enough.

Already, Habitat for Humanity chapters get zero financial support from the state, unlike their counterparts in other states. California used to dole out millions of dollars in CalHome funds. But when the Legislature removed redevelopment dollars from the budget that money dried up.

For Sacramento’s chapter, that meant a loss of $500,000 to $600,000 a year since 2015. That’s a pretty big chunk of its $4 million to $4.5 million annual budget.

President Donald Trump also is threatening to cut funding in his joke of a proposed budget for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Whether Congress goes along with his plan remains to be seen, but the fear is real.

Sacramento’s Habitat can’t afford to lose the $15,000 in federal money it gets for every home it builds. Already, the chapter has gone from building about 12 homes every year for needy families to about eight.

That makes what the city of Sacramento does all the more important. If it waived the $20,000 in fees for each of the eight houses Habitat for Humanity builds every year, that would go a long way to funding the construction of yet another house. And if other entities wave their fees, too, perhaps two more homes could get built in the region every year.

It’s not a lot. But every little bit counts.

Robinson knows this all too well.

“There’s people out here who are trying. They just need a helping hand,” she said. “It’s impossible for a single mother to make it with rent being ridiculous.”

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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