Bringing ‘efficient housing’ to Sacramento

Jeff vonKaenel

Before I comment on the innovative, desperately needed “efficient housing” proposal that Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg presented at the annual State of Downtown breakfast last Tuesday, I would first like to note how much the farm-to-fork movement has improved the quality of breakfasts over the last 20 years.

In years past, the breakfasts, while having the caloric content needed for an Olympic swimmer, were usually tasteless and boring. Now, they’re delicious and interesting. Thank you, farm-to-fork!

To start off the breakfast, longtime Downtown Sacramento Partnership Executive Director Michael Ault had plenty of happy numbers and a video. He spoke of new businesses opening downtown, increased commercial space, expanded economic activity and more. Downtown is booming. Ault portrayed Sacramento as an exciting place to live and play, like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

And then Steinberg addressed the elephant in the room. Homelessness. All of these West Coast cities are seeing an ever-increasing number of people who cannot find affordable housing and are now living on the street.

The problem is obvious to anyone walking past people sleeping on the sidewalk, or driving under a freeway overpass and seeing people camped out under their Caltrans-provided roof. But it’s not obvious how to solve this problem. Steinberg pointed out that, “The usual approach is build apartments or large supportive living facilities. [But] conventional housing is expensive, and it takes years to build. We don’t have years to wait to house people.”

Facing this emergency, Steinberg proposed fast-tracking 1,000 less-expensive “efficient housing units.” These units would be 300 to 400 square feet each and meet the following minimum requirements: “A secure roof, door, plumbing, electricity—and dignity.” Steinberg suggests we could start by building them on the 100-plus vacant parcels owned by the city and city agencies.

In addition, Steinberg suggested creating a “common sense” housing fund that could lend or grant up to $1,000 in rental assistance for 1,800 families who are housed but at risk of ending up on the street because of “an unanticipated medical emergency, a broken-down car, a lost job.” Chicago implemented a similar plan and “increased lengths of tenancies by up to two additional years.”

Steinberg also wants to triple our 200-bed triage shelter capacity and provide additional support for landlords who experience damages or difficulty with a tenant using a Housing Choice Voucher.

In his State of Downtown address, Steinberg proposed using government funds and private sector money as well as working with existing nonprofit solutions. It will be a challenge to make this happen. But California now has $1.8 billion going to mental health services as a result of the Steinberg-authored Proposition 63 Mental Health Services Act, passed by voters in 2004. The mayor has a well-deserved reputation for pulling off innovative solutions to challenging problems.

In the past year, he has united formerly-warring city council members into a productive, functioning team. To solve the housing crisis, we will need a united communitywide effort that utilizes government, business, labor and citizen groups. We all need to contribute. Increased taxes and donations will be necessary.

What is at stake is not just housing, but a bigger question of who we are. A vibrant city should have people living in homes, not on sidewalks.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.