By Graham Womack
In the fight to create more affordable housing in the Sacramento region and beyond, people like Roberto Jimenez are on the front lines.
Jimenez serves as the CEO of affordable housing developer Mutual Housing California, which is an affordable housing developer (he is also the head of Mutual Housing Management) that has been in the Sacramento area for about 35 years.
Jimenez spoke to us about the challenges of the work he does and how Mutual Housing is working to meet the demand for affordable housing.
Does your organization do work statewide?
Technically, we have decided we will work statewide. But, in practicality, there’s so much demand for housing in our historic regions of Sacramento and Yolo counties that we haven’t expanded beyond there except to dip our toes into San Joaquin County and Colusa County.
What do you see as the major factors driving the housing crisis in the Sacramento region?
The historic issue has been a lack of resources for affordable housing. … There hadn’t been enough resources, money to develop affordable housing. After 2018, when Propositions 1 and [Prop] 2 were passed, and the voters of California said that affordable housing was important, things really started to shift. So there’s been a lot more support.
Land is actually available in this region. And that’s not the case in some of the other regions of California, where there’s huge demand.
What do you see as the most critical or promising solutions to the lack of affordable housing?
The real solution is a permanent source of funding for affordable housing and a long-term commitment to it. We’re making real progress, although I think some of my colleagues might argue that we actually are making real progress in addressing the supply. So I can only imagine how much worse the problem might have been had we not been so committed to building more housing [and] delivering that.
Again, the biggest issue is the resources to develop the housing. … And the sustained political effort for it. There have been changes in the multifamily industry that are allowing us to build much larger housing communities. A couple of years ago, we were building 40 and 60-unit multifamily properties. Our next property that we’ll be working on will be a 240-unit community. So scale is important.
There’s also a real need for collaboration, and that’s happening, too, at least for us. There are a lot of partners out there who want to work together.
If we talk about the affordable housing market, there’s a spectrum of types of housing that are both really in need of. On the one hand, you have what we refer to as permanent supportive housing, which is housing for chronically homeless. And on the other end, it’s people nearing middle income who just can’t afford to live in most housing markets around the country now. …
So we’ve really concentrated our efforts on three different types of housing right now. One is what’s typically referred to as large families in need of housing. And that’s historically where we have served. We’re focused on senior housing. We’ve completed one and we’re building another. And the third is permanent supportive housing.
What are your thoughts on any efforts to reform Article 34? Could that make a difference in creating more housing in California?
Yeah, I do. I think it’s also more market-dependent. In some markets, that’s really a factor. And in some markets, it’s not.
But at the very least, it’s a blight on the constitution of the state. And it’s a real factor that my colleagues in the affordable housing world, and those who are dealing in social justice, believe needs to be addressed. And I agree. So there is an effort, and it is something we are studying at the moment.
If I understand correctly, there are affordable developers out there whose bread and butter is being able to leverage either tax credits or grant funding. Is that where your organization comes in?
That’s exactly right. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program has been the most productive means of developing affordable housing in the country, ever. That’s the primary source of funding.
Historically, when the program started [in 1986], that money was intended to cover the entire cost of developing housing. But the costs have gone up so much that those sources only cover 50-75 percent. So we’ve filled what we’ve called the gap with other sources of funding. A lot of that is local money — in this case, SHRA [Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency], the city, the county, those types of sources. There’s also some state sources that can come into play.
Sometimes you still have more gaps, and sometimes we put some of our own money in and sometimes we go to foundations where we look to other partners. And that’s really worked for us, for Mutual Housing. That’s where partnerships come in.
Are you working strictly with nonprofits? What about an organization like Mercy Housing — or are they a competitor?
They’re our colleagues in Sacramento and they’re also our competitors. That’s the thing about affordable housing builders. Simultaneously, we’re competing for the same sources of money in the same regions. So we tend not to work as much with the other affordable housing developers, not because we’re opposed to it. … But we’re working with Habitat for Humanity … and another is with CADA, the Capitol Area Development Authority. We’re also working with a group called STAND, down in Stockton. They have historically been a single-family housing provider. But they see the need and want to be able to deliver more multifamily housing so we’re partnered with them.
Tell me more about the most promising responses to affordable housing and homelessness.
In terms of delivery, there’s the affordable housing industry, which has historically worked in its own lane. Historically, we didn’t need to address all needs. The needs have changed and that’s something that is really important for people to acknowledge, that the forces driving the need for affordable housing have changed.
It’s an evolving industry, like any other industry that’s responsive to the needs out there. So there’s a driving demand for, say, permanent supportive housing at this point, and that’s the most visible element that people encounter in their general daily lives.
The affordable housing developers were not structured by and large to address the needs of permanent homelessness and all of the factors that create it. So we’re now going looking for partners who have that expertise and probably don’t have the expertise of affordable housing development and property management. We have both of those.
We’re really looking to partner with organizations, nonprofits, or for-profits or public agencies that have skills we don’t have that complement the skills we have and allow us to deliver more effective housing services together.
What limitations exist around the solutions or approaches we’ve been discussing?
The big constraints are the cost to develop affordable housing — both materials and labor are huge factors.
So right now, it’s the interest rates that are bouncing around, which are wreaking havoc in our industry. It’s pretty dramatic how quickly these factors can impact the development of the housing community.
The other is, I’d say, sustained political support to develop housing. It’s a problem that can be solved, but it feels overwhelming. But it is a problem that can be solved, and I’m very confident of that — if we can maintain the political support that’s needed.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. In 2022, we are focusing on finding solutions to the lack of affordable housing in the Sacramento region. Solving Sacramento is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.
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