Erika D. Smith

Erika D. Smith: Trying to keep housing affordable

Jim Eychaner, of Saint Marks Methodist Church, carries a sign supporting affordable housing during a pilgrimage with the Sacramento Housing Alliance and Sacramento Area Congregations Together (ACT) to a Sacramento city council meeting in Sacramento, Calif.
Jim Eychaner, of Saint Marks Methodist Church, carries a sign supporting affordable housing during a pilgrimage with the Sacramento Housing Alliance and Sacramento Area Congregations Together (ACT) to a Sacramento city council meeting in Sacramento, Calif. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Affordable housing. Mixed-income neighborhoods. Low-income communities. Rent control. Call it whatever you want, but it’s the quandary of the ages for cities in California.

Even moderately priced Sacramento is taking a new stab at a solution.

Last week, the City Council agreed to revamp its mixed-income housing ordinance. Following Sacramento County’s lead, developers will be required to pay a fee that will go into a trust fund to finance new affordable housing projects during the next 20 years.

That’s a switch from the previous model, which required developers to include a certain amount of low-income housing in their projects and, unfortunately, led to housing that has segregated the poor in “new growth” areas such as North Natomas.

The new fee structure is supposed to change that, allowing affordable housing to be built citywide. But whether it’s actually a step in the right direction remains to be seen.

There’s certainly lots of speculation about it.

Sacramento Housing Alliance director Darryl Rutherford insists the city will see more pockets of poverty and fewer inclusive communities because the fee of $2.58 per square foot of new construction isn’t enough to meet the city’s needs. It should be $9 per square foot.

Meanwhile, many on the council, while admitting the revamped ordinance isn’t perfect, believe as Councilman Steve Hansen believes that the plan hits the “sweet spot” of encouraging developers to take on more difficult infill projects downtown and in midtown.

In truth, no one knows whether the $2.58 fee will help the city achieve its goal of building 4,000 of 10,000 new housing units in the central city for lower-income working people during the next decade.

Yet it’s critical that Sacramento gets this right before it’s too late, before what’s already a hot market – thanks to the shot in the arm provided by the new arena – becomes too hot to handle. Sacramento has that chance, assuming city leaders track the effects of the revamped ordinance and are unafraid to make adjustments along the way.

No one wants the alternative.

We all know the horror stories about living in other, more unaffordable parts of California. One-bedroom apartments going for $3,500 a month in the Bay Area. Spaces on couches going for $400 a month. Couples making $100,000 a year sleeping in their cars because they can’t afford housing. Lines snaked around the block for a condo that went on the market a mere 30 minutes before.

These things don’t happen in Sacramento. But that doesn’t mean they cannot.

As someone who has searched for an apartment in the central city recently – and will again soon – I’d say there’s reason for concern.

Here, good apartments go fast. In hours or days, not weeks. It’s not unusual to see a half-dozen people lined up for a showing, potential tenants scribbling as fast as they can to turn in their rental application before the next person does.

In truth, no one knows whether the $2.58 fee will help fund 4,000 of 10,000 new housing units in the central city for lower-income working people during the next decade.

I’ve seen people haggling over their leases, shamelessly pawning them off on other people so they can sign a new lease at an apartment that just opened up.

One kid tried to sell me the rest of his lease while standing in the lobby of a property management company.

“It’s a good deal,” he assured me, while I continued to fill out my own application. It wasn’t, not even for $400 a month.

What I figured out is that there are rules of thumb for apartment hunting in the central city.

Any apartment under $700 a month is basically pretty dumpy. Some are downright gross. More often than not, you can expect old carpet that will give you an asthma attack whether you have asthma or not, leaky faucets, kitchen appliances that have seen better days, and sketchy parking options.

The $700 to $1,200 range is decent. The sweet spot, if you will. Anything over $1,200, you’re golden, but not everyone makes enough to pay that.

And that was in May. Rent prices are undoubtedly higher now.

I’d hate to see midtown and downtown become a domain for people with only solidly upper-middle-class-sized bank accounts, while the poor continue to head to south Sacramento. It’s still within the city’s grasp to make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s the right thing to do.

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