West Sacramento City Manager Aaron Laurel has a passion for affordable housing

Aaron Laurel has been city manager of West Sacramento since 2018. (Photo by Fred Greaves)

By Ken Magri

West Sacramento City Manager Aaron Laurel loves to talk about affordable housing, and he is in the right place for it. In 2022, his city was one of the first six to be designated a “prohousing” jurisdiction by the California Department of Housing and Community Development, making it eligible for additional millions in state housing funds.

The state cited “impact fee reductions, standards that allow for greater development intensity, and reduction of constraints such as parking” in making the designation. This kind of focus is demonstrated in West Sacramento’s recent completion of West Gateway Place, a 77-unit project in the Bridge District that includes retail shops on the ground floor. Two new affordable housing projects are also under construction with more solutions in the pipeline.

“Growing up, I had this strange fascination with places and I traveled to a lot of U.S. cities with my parents,” Laurel said. That curiosity inspired Laurel to study city planning and community development in college. “I honed in on local government in graduate school, as the place where you can really affect that the most.” 

Originally from the Bay Area, Laurel went to work for the City of West Sacramento in 2005. Over the years, he worked his way up from a housing project manager to a housing director before being promoted to city manager and Port of Sacramento CEO in 2018. 

Laurel said projects like the family friendly West Gateway Place have added to the diversity and appeal of West Sacramento. He believes that density is the best solution for more housing, and that building infrastructures in advance helps lure in projects with that sought-after high occupancy.

What is your role in housing as the city manager?

I see my role as to make sure that our staff and council understand the importance of affordable housing, not just from why those principles matter, but how also it helps us leverage other priorities. The cost of affordable housing is so great that we can’t possibly shoulder that burden alone, so it’s important to have the ability to get state and federal funding.

How do you define “affordable” housing as opposed to “market rate?”

When we say “affordable housing,” it implies that there is a regulatory requirement for units to be set at certain rents. [The notion that] there is already affordable housing in the market is a fallacy to me because … it could be that the quality of the housing isn’t the greatest or the environment isn’t the greatest. So, we look at it as “quality affordable housing” in an environment that is conducive to people having the best outcomes in life. 

What projects are you building right now?

West Gateway Park, Phase II is probably the most well known. It will add 70 units right on a transit corridor, a future light rail line, and it is right in the middle of this mixed-use area, a vibrant urban area we are developing. The city assembled that property years ago from a former freeway. We were able to leverage other funding from the state to help put in more infrastructure.

Another [project] that is notable, but a little more under the radar, is called the Huddle, on 5th Street. I believe it’s only 18 units. With the type of finance they’re using, the units will be available to low-income parents who are active college students. It’s a pretty cool niche and the first of its kind in the region.

But if we look at the region, the state and beyond, the need for affordable housing is so great that, if we are really going to have an impact on the housing crisis it needs to be done in the most efficient way possible, and that’s best achieved through density. It doesn’t mean that we repeat mistakes of the past of federal housing policies by concentrating the highest numbers of people possible in one place, not that.

As long as it’s done right, West Sacramento has no problems with multi-story high-density?

We encourage it here. We’ve done everything we can to develop mixed-use and high-density projects and remove barriers to them. We put infrastructure into all of our riverfront districts, we’ve changed zoning standards to eliminate things like height limits.

When planning these projects, does the proximity to mass transit allow developers to reduce the amount of parking spaces in their design?

Exactly. The highest cost item of any infill housing, and by that I mean in an urban setting, is parking. But if you don’t reduce people’s need for a car, you’re going to have to have parking. We’re building parking lots or garages that can be shared by different multi-family properties. That allows for more density and ideally more affordability. 

What limitations do you encounter when trying to build affordable housing?

The state has created rules to add time, complexity and unnecessary steps to be able to get to the goal of building housing. It’s a trust factor. If we are a good actor, let us do what we do best … which is to make housing happen. It is a combination of giving cities more tools, more power to be proactive in helping both types of housing, market-rate and affordable, to be developed, and not add costs to housing in the process.

Has West Sacramento built any middle-sized housing, like duplexes or triplexes on smaller lots?

We have a really good success story over here in West Sacramento. It’s called the Kind project, it is 180 units or so, in the Washington District. It was a market-rate project in the sense that we didn’t provide funding. It was built-by-design as smaller units. We did some work to get the fees to limits where it was reasonable for the types of units they were building. The units are about 300 square feet. It absolutely gets to that issue of the missing-middle housing.  

What have you done to allow more Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) to be built on existing residential lots?

We are very supportive of the concept of ADUs. Just [recently], the city council had a workshop a step farther into that. We may be allowing tiny homes on wheels, which are technically vehicles, beyond foundations with hooked-up utilities, and let them serve as an ADU or a primary unit. If you have an infill lot and someone wants to put a tiny home on it, the council is looking at policy to let that happen.

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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1 Comment on "West Sacramento City Manager Aaron Laurel has a passion for affordable housing"

  1. How much will these units cost?

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