Sacramento Housing Alliance Policy Director Peter Cohen on how affordable housing solutions boil down to money, land and capacity

Peter Cohen is the policy director of Sacramento Housing Alliance. (Photo by Fred Greaves)

By Dakota Morlan

Peter Cohen is policy director of Sacramento Housing Alliance, an organization of around two dozen member organizations that works to increase affordable housing supply and bolster the efforts of affordable-housing developers through advocacy and education.

Cohen is “an urban geographer by training” who spent 20 years working in the realm of land use, housing policy and community planning initiatives in the Bay Area. He previously served as policy director at East Bay Housing Organizations and, more recently, executive director of the San Francisco Council of Community Housing Organizations.

We spoke to Cohen about SHA, and its work as a trade association, and around policy advocacy and communications to shape the narrative of housing issues.

Tell me about your organization and how it relates to the need for more affordable housing in the Sacramento region.

Fundamentally, the collective work that we do is mitigating the shortcomings of the housing market that’s leaving many people without adequate housing or without secure housing or, in some cases, without a home at all. Our homelessness crisis is increasing. … It’s really important to point out that this is not just about poor folks. It’s a wide range, and it’s growing.

The pattern over the last decade or more has been that more workers, skilled workers, who might be considered middle class, find they are paying huge parts of their paychecks just to keep a roof over their heads. So solving for the growing majority of people, not just a small minority of people, who are left out of the housing market is the challenge of our times, frankly. It’s no different in Sacramento than it is in all the other major metros of California, but it’s kind of an existential moment. SHA’s position is to try to be right in the center of all that effort. It’s truly a crisis, as people say.

What do you see as the major factors driving the local housing crisis?

One is a supply issue, and the other is a displacement issue. In terms of supply, we need an increase in affordable homes reaching people at a lot of different income levels. It’s not just about homeless [people] … [but] a very wide income level range and a lot of different types of housing. It’s not just one-size-fits-all. With everything from getting folks who are currently unhoused into permanent supportive housing where there’s not only a home but services to help them rebuild and move [and] have economic mobility, to basic housing for low-income and even middle-income working families, these are folks who are working hard and their paychecks don’t afford rent. So we need to have housing for those folks. 

It’s important that we need to have both large apartment buildings … but also there’s a lot of efforts around what they call infill, small two units, four units, maybe garden apartments, maybe even accessory dwelling units. It’s a smorgasbord of types of housing and different income levels.

To give some numbers to what the scale is of that need, the State of California has issued very specific affordable housing targets for Sacramento and for every city in the state. … About 50% of all the new housing that’s needed, like every single home that needs to be built, needs to be below market. … That’s 19,000 new affordable homes over the next six years. It’s kind of astronomical, but that is our charge. And it’s not just numbers. … Those represent people, households.

It’s not simply an issue of supply. People are also being priced out and pushed out of their existing homes. That’s another existential problem we have at [a] big scale, and there’s a tremendous need to preserve existing lower-income or lower-cost housing. … Sometimes people call this “naturally affordable,” in other words, it’s not restricted to be affordable. It just is less expensive on the open market. But that also makes it very vulnerable to people to be priced out or evicted as areas gentrify. 

When rents rise, or for folks who are low-income homeowners, when their mortgage is, as they say, underwater, residents are destabilized. As a result, households are at risk of being evicted. Communities start to deteriorate. So it’s not just the individual household, it’s actually the threat of gentrification and displacement of communities in a larger way, and we see that in Sacramento, we’ve seen that in all the urban areas of California. … It’s usually the older, lower-income — usually communities of color — neighborhoods that somehow get hot, get enticing to real estate developers or gentrifiers. Those push and pull forces of the housing market create a displacement crisis that’s as acute and significant in scale as the housing supply crisis. Those are the two sides of the coin that drive what we need to tackle.

What do you see as the most promising solutions to lack of affordable housing?

It can’t be over emphasized how important it is to have strong and proactive political leadership, as well as an informed and proactive general public. Affordable housing is essentially infrastructure in our community that gets attention and love through the democratic system.

Communications and policy advocacy is really important for us to be able to tell stories [and] amplify voices of everyday people struggling with housing insecurity. Also the idea that folks realize it’s the collective. We have agency. It’s not just somehow the government’s going to take care of this, or the nonprofits. … It’s internalizing the issue and then demanding our leaders take action. But also the citizens take action — talking to their neighbors and also going to the ballot. When there are measures on the ballot, which I’m sure there will be in November of next year … folks are educated and motivated to [vote].

Honestly, I think the mood and prioritization is really changing. I’ve been doing this for about 30 years or so, and more than any time in my career I see that people get it. It’s a good time to have a crisis because I think the appetite for the citizenship to see change and be part of that change is really key, and we need elected leaders who will lean in on the issue. We have some great political leaders in Sacramento Valley.

If we have a positive environment, the nuts and bolts of affordable housing solutions boil down to three basic ingredients: money, land and organizational capacity to do the work. In Sacramento, the good news is there’s land. It’s not as land-constrained as the Bay Area or Los Angeles. [Also] they have a lot of organizational capacity. … Money is what makes the whole thing go ‘round. It’s sufficient money to buy land, because it doesn’t come free; to buy existing homes if you’re trying to preserve at-risk housing; to capitalize construction, if you’re building something new; to continually invest in building capacity organizations. They need to scale up their staff. They need to continue to professionalize and be able to do things faster at more scale.

This sector is well built. We have organizations, and we have land in front of us. We also know the programmatic solutions. It’s not rocket science. … So if there is that money that really starts to be unlocked, it goes immediately into action. I would say confidently, if the funding were to come, we could double the amount of affordable housing that’s made available to folks.

Another key ingredient is creativity. A lot of the innovation has been happening around this idea of acquisition. How do you acquire existing housing? How do you acquire existing land? How do you stabilize communities where you’re losing folks, you’re losing communities? A lot of the innovation has been focused on that. To take it one step further, there’s questions like: How do we get ahead of the land speculation market and buy land? Even if you’re not using it right away. … They call it banking land, and this is what real estate speculators do all the time. They’re constantly purchasing land in Sacramento Valley, and then they sit on it for a long period of time until they figure out when the market’s going to come around. The challenge for us is we’re always behind an eight-ball as opposed to being able to compete in the same way of controlling land when it’s inexpensive and being proactive about providing the housing when and where it’s needed.

Another big real movement is first-time homeownership. … It’s no longer just owning a home or renting a home. There’s a lot of interesting variations on what ownership models are like, whether they’re co-ops or land trusts or sweat equity models or shared equity models. There’s a lot of cool stuff happening that’s trying to create more of that progression from renting to owning. … It’s really important to point out this growing sector of land trusts all across the state. There’s like 25 of them now. … Most all of them are driven by communities of color who are organizing directly. It’s a self-determination thing about thinking of the housing that’s needed within those communities and how to build organizations that can directly provide that with and for those communities themselves. I don’t see that as a challenge to our traditional affordable housing. I see it as a real compliment.

Lastly, there’s even innovative work happening around financing. Across California, and I think there’s some talk in Sacramento Valley, about municipal banks or public banks — new sources of capital that aren’t constrained in the same way that we traditionally have for affordable housing. And it gets into some really esoteric weeds, but the point is that the needs for a variety of housing to meet this kind of complex landscape have driven innovation to come up with new models and new providers and new types of financing. I just think that’s the coolest thing happening in our industry.

What evidence exists to show the effectiveness of these solutions?

When people have adequate, safe housing and usually services or connections to the community, their lives are very stabilized, and they don’t drop out. One of the things you see in the private housing market is a lot of instability in people’s lives and in the continuity in their homes for whatever reason. We don’t see that in affordable housing. … The stories tell that again and again and again. A lot of us use this term “housing first” — that the solution to a lot of our instability in housing and our crisis that we talk about, including from homelessness, is housing first. When you give someone the opportunity to be in stable housing, especially housing where they have mobility in their lives, everything else sort of falls into place.

Affordable housing actually helps the whole housing market and helps our communities. Even folks who don’t need affordable housing, they benefit when their neighbors are actually stably housed.

What limitations around these solutions exist?

The nuts and bolts thing is the funding necessary to actually deliver at the scale and the diversity that we need. That said, you don’t get there just because you claim there’s a money shortage. The challenges we have are continuing to change hearts and minds and educate the general public about the existential situation we’re in with housing and [not] “othering” affordable housing as though it’s just about homeless folks or just about poor folks … those kinds of old stereotypes. It’s frankly about a lot of folks. It’s about everyday people who are now experiencing some insecurity in their housing, middle-class folks, union workers, folks who want to get into homeownership but who can’t. Our first challenge is going to be a public narrative shift to have folks who demand that their communities be stabilized and invested in.

The other limitation is political leadership. It has changed a lot in the last three, four or five years. We’re getting some political leaders who are more proactive. … A lot of them are younger folks and people who themselves experienced the challenges of stable housing, and they’re now in leadership positions. They’re like, “We’re gonna fix this.” I like the impatience. I like the fact we have new political leaders. There’s also some older kind of mindsets, though, that need to be changed in our overall political culture. Not only in Sacramento Valley but at the state capital. We have a lot of work to do to get political leadership to really drive forward and then unlock that funding that is necessary, and I think they’re going to be compelled by a broad citizenship that basically says, “Look, guys, you know we put you in office. It’s time to do something.”

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and 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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