Affordable housing advocates settle for a bland bargain

After Chairman Jimmie Yee got done disenfranchising some 20-odd housing advocates with his arbitrary limits on public comment, his fellow conspirators on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors took to replacing their landmark affordable housing policy with New Coke.

The taste in everyone’s mouth is still pretty nasty.

During a roughly three-hour hearing on Tuesday—one that played like deja vu for anyone following the county’s months-long reexamination of its six-year-old inclusionary housing ordinance—planners, builders, advocates and politicians quibbled over everything, from the average square footage of Sacramento County homes to whether progressive housing targets halted development, or if the economy did.

For his part, Yee expressed fatigue with the debate, and enacted a 30-minute public comment limit for each side. Counting up the speaker cards, he gave two minutes apiece to builders, but only a minute-and-a-half to advocates, since there were more of them.

Yee probably thinks that’s representative democracy. Most of the housing speakers, at least the ones who weren’t rattled, just thought it sucked.

“Honestly, I’ve never felt disrespected coming into these chambers until today,” one blasted Yee.

“You’ve still got 30 seconds, if you want them,” Yee politely replied.

Since 2008, the county has mandated that developers set aside 15 percent of project land for low-, very low- and extremely low-income residents. Quickly after the landmark ordinance was approved, the development industry gummed up its implementation with lawsuits. Then the housing bubble popped and the ordinance never really got implemented.

Now that the economy is slowly picking its jaw off the floor, building interests are making the existing ordinance out to be the one thing standing in the way of Sacramento County’s comeback.

Aided by massive campaign contributions, they made a good enough case that all housing advocates could do is beg for a watered-down fee option. In short, big developers would be required to pay a certain amount per square foot into a housing trust fund.

But how much?

Builders wanted to pay $1.50 per square foot, but cap that out at $3,500, even if they were building the next McMansion.

According to Bob Shattuck of Lennar Homes, setting too high a fee “impacts our ability to reach our middle class buyers.

“There’s a gap between what we can feasibly do, and where the market is,” he added.

Advocates said developers needed to pay a minimum of $6 per square foot without any cap to get anywhere near the affordable housing targets that once garnered Sacramento County national prestige.

On Tuesday, supervisors split the baby—then gave both halves to the developers. The fee was set at $2.50 per square foot with no cap, based on the disputed assumption that the average home in the unincorporated county is 2,250 square feet.

The vote was 3-2, with Supervisor Don Nottoli voting against it because he thought it was too weak-tea, and Supervisor Susan Peters opposing it because she thought it was too hard on developers.

For Russell Rawlings, a low-income housing resident and disability rights activist, the consequences had little to do with developer profit margins.

Excepting Nottoli, Rawlings said the board was “on the sideline of declaring war on half the citizens of Sacramento County,” the figure whose median income rates them at low-income levels. All the board was doing now was tossing bones into a graveyard. “You’ve made the wrong decisions already,” he said before the compromise vote, adding that the county should prepare for a homelessness boom.

All the housing advocates in the audience could do was muster some relieved applause that the end result wasn’t the basement figures that Yee initially proposed.

Call it a not-so-grand bargain.

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