House Sacramento co-founder Kevin Dumler says reimagining zoning is key to solving the affordability crisis

Kevin Dumler, a YIMBY proponent and director of House Sacramento. Photo by Fred Greaves for Solving Sacramento

By Catherine Warmerdam

Kevin Dumler is co-founder and director of House Sacramento, an all-volunteer organization advocating for sustainable, inclusive and affordable housing solutions at the local level. Solving Sacramento spoke to Dumler recently to get his take on where Sacramento stands on creating more affordable housing and why he believes a new approach to residential zoning is part of the solution.

How does House Sacramento address the city’s affordable housing crisis?

Our group was inspired by the YIMBY movement that started in the Bay Area. We started getting together in 2016 as the housing crisis was picking up steam in Sacramento. We recognized that renters and low-income residents historically aren’t part of the public process. We wanted to see what can we do at the local level — mostly the city level — to advocate for more affordable housing and other housing solutions that work for everyone.

Our focus has mostly been on infill housing. We are very environmentally motivated in that we understand that infill housing is also a prerequisite for meeting our climate goals and getting people to drive less and bike more. Our advocacy is both on the policy side of things and on individual projects. 

On the project side, for example, we alerted the California Department of Housing and Community Development and the Attorney General’s Office that we thought Elk Grove was doing something illegal when it turned down an affordable housing project in downtown Elk Grove in 2022. In terms of policy, we’re looking at the housing element of Sacramento’s general plan and advocating for an end to exclusionary zoning.

What’s your take on the state of the housing policy discussion in Sacramento?

The state has this new thing called prohousing designations, and the city of Sacramento is the very first one to get that designation. There are a lot of cities in California doing the wrong thing, but Sacramento is not one of them. They’re very much pushing for policies that are contributing towards outcomes that are helping the most vulnerable residents.

In the city of Sacramento, I think if your building is under 200 units and you comply with the street design standards, you don’t even have to go through the planning commission. You just get approved right at the staff level. People in Los Angeles or San Francisco can’t even imagine that. It’s incredible because it allows predictability and speed. If you’re making unpredictable requirements, these are things that add costs to projects and drag projects out, keeping people carrying loans for longer and increasing risk. All of those things have a cost on the final housing product.

Housing Sacramento calls itself a YIMBY organization. Can you explain exactly what it is

that your members are asking residents to say yes to in their so-called backyards?

Historically, the people who are most organized are the people who are most outraged. For example, maybe there’s something being built near them but they’re interested in preserving their community exactly as it is. Classic NIMBYism is saying things like, “We’re not opposed to affordable housing, but we don’t want it here.” YIMBYism is more about organizing the people who are hurt by NIMBYs or are more apathetic about these sorts of things and getting them to acknowledge that these projects are good for people who really need housing. With the general plan update that the city of Sacramento is going through, we’re trying to look at something called the land use element. It’s basically like a zoning exercise. Historically in the city, 75% or more of our land has been zoned exclusively for single-family residential, which means you can build one unit on a lot and that is it. It can be a 4,000-square-foot mansion, but it can’t be a duplex.

What we’re putting forward is instead of regulating things by the number of units, let’s regulate by size by using something called the floor area ratio. That basically says if you could build, for example, one 4,000-square-foot house, you should also be able to build two 2,000-square-foot units, because that duplex is likely to be more affordable for a (median-income) Sacramento resident who can’t afford a single-family home. So that change would allow more duplexes and fourplexes.

The second thing is that in areas that have been historically exclusionary, if you go back to redlining maps, those areas have the strongest protections for white residents. That’s literally how the neighborhood is built, and that’s not a coincidence. Our wish is to increase the floor ratio area to 2.0 in the highest opportunity areas — neighborhoods like Land Park and Curtis Park and East Sacramento — so that we can spur the types of infill housing that we’re talking about.

Opponents of inclusionary zoning often bring up parking, building height and neighborhood character as concerns. Can you respond to each of those issues?

With regard to parking, there’s this cultural belief that there’s a right to an unlimited supply of free parking on our street and in front of our house. One, that’s just not sustainable. And two, that’s not in line with our goals of creating a society where hopefully we’re transitioning to being less likely to need a car. Part of the issue is that because we make parking free, it creates a resource problem because there’s a demand but not an unlimited supply.

Regarding building height, there’s the aesthetic argument, which is what is it going to look like from the front. Compared to the priority of getting people housed, it’s a lower issue to me. We should prioritize getting people housed versus worrying about what something looks like from the street.

We can build that into the design standards. In terms of privacy concerns, we have to look at that on more of a project-by-project basis. It seems like we can find a way to accommodate that with setbacks in order to give a certain amount of privacy where it’s required. At the same time, there’s not going to be no tension on these issues. Hopefully, where there is authentic concern, we can find a way to address it without saying no to the housing completely.

In response to your notion that we needn’t worry about what things look like from the street, some would say that there are plenty of examples of buildings in Sacramento that have not stood the test of time in terms of quality or design. I’m thinking about some of the 70s-era apartments in Midtown, for example. What do you say to folks who don’t want today’s infill to follow that model?

We still have design standards and there’s not a proposal to take them away. I think we should still evaluate them and revisit them to make sure they reflect what we want and we’re not requiring something we don’t want or that has too much cost. I think, as a city, those ’70s apartments in Midtown would not fly today. The counterpoint to that is we are desperate for housing in Sacramento and the affordable housing options are very limited and we’re trying to do more to increase that.

And how about the NIMBY concern about infill affecting a neighborhood’s character?

With regard to neighborhood character, I think that’s perhaps the most important one to talk about, because what do we mean by character? For each person that may be a little different, but what we should all agree on — and this is the point of the general plan — is that we want to create an environment that’s inclusive, that’s welcoming of people, and that creates a city that’s incredibly diverse and vibrant. I hope that fellow residents share those views.

Unfortunately, I think when we hear opposition about community character, it’s often coming from two points: either from an aesthetic perspective, or there’s the question of who are the people who are going to be moving here. I think it’s way too common in America that we associate apartments or affordable housing or low-income housing with crime or other elements, and it’s just not a fair assessment to make of people. Being poor isn’t a crime in the United States. We need to create opportunities for those people to have stable lives, and for them and their children to advance in their careers and have access to the things that we’re all entitled to.

What do you see as the major factors driving the lack of affordable housing in the Sacramento region?

Exclusionary zoning is one cause. We’re not setting aside enough land or opportunities for anything besides a single-family home. We also see declining incomes relative to (the median-income) and the hollowing out of the middle class and the loss of the American dream. In California, there’s no way to get around the fact that we’re not creating enough housing units per job created.

In parts of Santa Clara County, for example, for every 22 jobs we’re creating one housing unit. So, how do we have better balance when we have a state that is very desirable and has a lot of opportunities for jobs? What happens is that people in the tech industry can afford to pay what feels like an exorbitant amount because the incomes are there. So, you’ve got those issues plus the 70-plus years of declining home production.

Some developers say that over-regulation is a driving force behind there not being enough housing inventory. What do you think?

I think it depends on what sort of regulations we’re talking about. There are a lot of requirements on builders and developers, and we need to find the right balance between asking for things that make sense as a community and things that are prohibitive. The big one that often comes up in California is CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act]. We have this environmental law that makes it easier to build suburban homes in Lincoln than to build infill housing in a lot of communities in California. Every year there are new tweaks to CEQA at the state level. CEQA is what stands California apart and is probably why our housing costs are so different from every other state as well.

What are the most promising solutions for addressing the housing affordability crisis?

It’s probably easiest to think of solutions at the various levels of government. At the local level, land use is the easiest thing that we can update. In terms of environmental laws, which are mostly at (the) state level, the question is: How do we create laws that improve our environment and are aligned with our ambitious climate goals? In particular, how do we support more infill housing as opposed to making sprawl the most viable and easiest alternative? 

Then, across local, national and state government, affordable housing funding is a big one. How do we provide more resources for affordable housing? The fact is that any time we have something that’s below market rate, it takes a subsidy to get there. But because the demand relative to supply of affordable housing is so extreme, it’s not realistic to expect local government to fund that on its own.

What’s the outlook for inclusionary zoning? Are you hopeful that Sacramento can be successful on that front?

I’m really optimistic. I think the city and its staff have done a lot of work to push the issue forward. We have councilmembers who are very forward-looking on these issues and interested in solving the problem in a way that’s refreshing compared to other jurisdictions or boards of supervisors. There’s a real interest in creating a good outcome here. I hope we can push things a little more beyond the current staff proposal to get something truly revolutionary, but even if we push what staff have proposed, this will be most ambitious land use housing proposal in the state of California and one of the best in the country, so we’re on a pretty good path in terms of what can be done at the local level.

Of any city in California, do you believe Sacramento has the best chance of solving the affordable housing crisis?

I think we do, and it’s our responsibility to. If you’re priced out of Sacramento, there’s not a lot of other options in the state. We have an opportunity because people here want to be leaders on sustainability. We want to be the jurisdiction that’s forward looking, that people look to for how to do it. That can be us.

Of course, we will not solve the problem overnight; we have to be realistic about the outcome. But if we’re able to pass the plan that we’re focusing on right now, we’ll literally have people flying here from across the country wondering how we did it and what its impact is. We’ll be able to show them buildings that wouldn’t have been allowed to be built five years ago and we’ll be better for it. That’s the optimistic future that I see.

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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