By Nick Brunner
Eric Guerra has served on the Sacramento City Council since 2015, and he is currently the vice mayor. Ben Raderstorf is the vice president of House Sacramento, a volunteer group of self-proclaimed YIMBYs. The two met recently at City Hall to talk about the past, present and future of affordable housing policy in Sacramento.
The conversation was recorded for the podcast Housing in the Capital.
Raderstorf: You have been such a leader on housing in Sacramento. Where’d that come from?
Guerra: It all is a part of encompassing what I think is important for government to be involved in: How do we reduce barriers for people to achieve the opportunity that they want — whether it’s political, social or bureaucratic barriers? One of those barriers really is housing.
Where does it originate? For me, it actually comes from when I first immigrated here to the United States [from Mexico], we didn’t have a place to live. We first moved into a little trailer home. Then after that, an abandoned ranch house that one of the ranchers allowed us to rent. At the time, the floorboards were busted, there were rats living in their big barn, rats with long tails. Those memories, my brother and I still joke about the condition of the home — it was pretty bad. And to the point where I remember in the flood of ’86, the roof blew off. So we were living in the back of our Ford Ranger camper until my uncle and a couple other co-workers rebuilt that roof.
Part of it also started back when I was a student at [Sacramento] State. … Students were having a difficult time finding housing near the university campus. Those issues meant that they had to drive further. So what we see today is that housing and transportation are the two highest costs to families. When there isn’t available housing and they have to drive further, transportation costs are higher and there’s less for the family.
So all of that combined has been why I’ve been a big advocate to try to figure out how do we build more housing here where people have to drive less, they’re closer to their kids’ schools, they can have an option to use a bicycle or public transit — all of those things that meet our climate goals. At the same time, better maximizing the available land that we do have. If we do that, I do believe that those reduce the barriers for people to actually achieve their dreams and their opportunities and have that extra time for their family.
Raderstorf: This is something that matters: It matters for students, it matters for immigrants, it matters for various communities. Everyone is experiencing, in different ways, the costs of the housing crisis. … Obviously, not everybody is impacted the same way. But we all feel the effects of the housing crisis and in different ways.
Guerra: The issue of housing becomes very personal, because it’s what people feel of home and community. It’s not just about putting a roof over their head, it’s about building community, and making sure that it’s a diverse community. Sacramento has had a mixed story with redlining issues in the past. I feel very happy about the fact that we’re diverse, but we still have much more to do about making sure we have a much more integrated city.
Raderstorf: What really strikes me when I think about the housing crisis is that we took what is one of the most basic fundamental human needs — probably second to food — it’s the thing we all need. We all need shelter, and we treat it as a sort of optional thing. …
Guerra: Unfortunately, for decades, the type of housing that was being approved by local governments was this four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom, three-car garage home. A lot of those you could date back to a number of policies that made it easier and cheaper to build there. But really what, unfortunately, also did is it prohibited some — [with] NIMBYism as well — apartment development, multifamily housing development and nonprofit affordable housing development.
When I chaired the [County of Sacramento] Planning Commission, I remember advocating for affordable housing, multifamily units, over by Watt Avenue, and the amount of opposition regardless of party came out [with] this project. That type of opposition has led to this lack of supply for diversity of housing. You can’t expect a young family to be able to just immediately go in and buy a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom, suburban home. When my wife and I first moved into Tahoe Park, we were in a two-bedroom house — little house — but we’re not building those anymore.
One thing we’ve pushed at the city is to try to diversify the type of [housing] options. Push for more multifamily housing. Push for more townhome options. Also push for other forms of housing because they used to build them. If you look [at] Tahoe Park, they used to have duplexes on the corner, smaller homes, some bigger apartments. There was a diversity of options. Just like when you go to the supermarket to buy cereal, you don’t have just one option. There are people that have different interests and different price points. And I think that aspect is important.
But even on the affordable and workforce housing side, it’s become even much more challenging with the lack of tools and resources that cities and counties have, after the Big Recession where we lost redevelopment revenue. … It was a tool that, unfortunately, was lost to local governments to fill that gap.
Raderstorf: We should jump to talking about some of the things the city is trying to do right now; some of the really exciting work that’s happening to turn Sacramento into such a beacon.
Guerra: One of the biggest ones that as soon as I came on [to the city council] was just the cost and the process and complexity of permitting housing in general. The time and the delay sometimes could jeopardize an entire project. So one of the things that we took on early — and now we’ve seen the results — is that we streamlined the permitting process. We created a much more ministerial objective process. That has … provided more predictability for the affordable housing projects that are on a very slim margin, even when we get gap financing.
Second, we’ve tried to use different tools and be aggressive about how we match both city [and] county dollars to be able to fill those gap financing projects. More interestingly, when we did have a significant chunk of Measure U dollars, we were able to use those to leverage housing to get financing on Stockton Boulevard. We see The Heights, which is Mercy Housing’s project of 200 units of workforce housing being built. We worked with the county, and now Mutual Housing is building the San Juan Motel that will be affordable housing and even some market-rate housing. …
It’s a mixture of tools that we’ve tried to do by saying: What can we do to make it faster and easier to build more affordable housing? We’re seeing the benefits now. … But the fact is we need much more supply in the city alone. The council members are part of a regional solution, a regional planning — the city alone can’t solve that solution, because our housing challenges are regional.
Raderstorf: Maybe it’s worth giving a little more detail on the idea of a ministerial housing process. … If you want to build a new housing project and your project complies with zoning code and it complies with building code and all those things — if it follows the law, your project gets approved through a stamp process, through an automatic process, which is such a big deal.
Because when you read articles in the San Francisco Chronicle or the LA Times over these big political food fights over new housing projects — because there’s always going to be somebody who doesn’t want a new apartment building in their neighborhood — and when you make it a political decision over every building, not only do you get really inconsistent application, the only places where you end up building new housing are in places with less vocal neighbors, where there aren’t lawyers who live nearby who are ready to sue. But also you just get much less housing because it becomes politicized. Sacramento has been really good at thinking about housing.
Guerra: You don’t even have to say the San Francisco Chronicle. All you have to do is go down the road and Elk Grove is currently in the targets of the Attorney General because of that issue. … I credit the mayor [Bobbie Singh-Allen] for being responsive … but the fact is it was neighborhood opposition for a project that had the ministerial opportunity to move [forward]. …
I’m a big advocate for workforce and affordable housing that comes with the support services. … We need to be able to start thinking more creatively about the challenges that working families need. One of the exciting things in the [City of Sacramento’s] General Plan is multifamily housing, as part of our plan. We also have the developer look at what are the needs, like child care centers, we need to be co-locating child care centers with workforce housing. We need to be able to have on-site counseling, support services for career services, so that folks when they come into workforce housing or multifamily housing units, it’s a chapter in their life, it’s not their life. It’s their ability to find that next step. Maybe they’re partnered with Habitat for Humanity, where they can own their home. Because at the end of the day, we want people to be able to find a path where they can build equity, where they can build their own wealth that brings back to their kids, and we reduce that cycle of poverty that we see as some of the past policies of redlining have left communities.
Raderstorf: You mentioned the General Plan, which is a good opportunity to talk about the next great, exciting thing that Sacramento is doing, which is that we are poised to be the first city in California to [end] exclusionary zoning.
Guerra: Exclusionary zoning basically limits what housing type you can build in a certain area, which is why you have sprawling communities and urban sprawl, where everything is in one area, and you don’t provide the mixture of housing types in a neighborhood. When you do that it creates a particular class of community. If all you have is a community that are these massive suburban homes or mini-McMansions, then that’s the level of income in that community that’s going to be there. If you have a mixed-income community, you learn from people. … Kids grow up understanding different life experiences. I think that communities are richer because of that, but, more importantly, that mixture in housing type creates more options and more supply so that we aren’t competing over the same limited supply of housing.
Raderstorf: It’s part of what makes some of these neighborhoods so vibrant in the first place. Curtis Park has apartment buildings sprinkled through and has small retail, small commercial. That’s why people like living there, but we’ve made that illegal. We’ve stopped [what] we call ‘Missing Middle Housing’ types: duplexes, triplexes, small apartment buildings.
Guerra: Now one of the things that we do have to balance, in any one of these solutions, our tree canopy. It’s always this give and take about how much of the space you use for just the building itself. But thinking through those needs, because when you do build more options, and you bring more people in an area, then you create more walkability. So we also have to plan to make sure that we don’t take up all the space and have enough canopy so that people are walking around.
Raderstorf: That’s what’s so cool about this General Plan update. So, basically, what the city is planning on doing is replacing unit-based, density-based zoning, which says that we’re going to regulate our zoning based on how many units you can have on a lot. Right now, and in most neighborhoods in Sacramento, that’s usually one, sometimes two. …
But the idea is: If you want to build a big single-family home, or a medium-sized single-family home on that plot, great. But, alternatively, when you want to cut that single-family home in two and turn it into two units, or three, or four or even five, as long as it’s the same size, and it’s maintaining the same amount of green space, then from the city’s point of view, that should be equivalent. In some ways, actually, the city’s working hard to incentivize more of those smaller multifamily, which is really cool. It makes a big difference.
Guerra: The movement forward now where we push to make accessory dwelling units, the ADU or the in-law quarters, has been a big effort, because it is providing for families that are multi-generation an opportunity to be able to have them.
I grew up in Mexico, where you always had almost three to four generations in a household. But you don’t always need that forever. It’s also become an opportunity to have that open [ADU] unit to rent [to] someone who needs a smaller space. That’s important for young professionals. Because young professionals are starting their career, the options for housing are limited. If we want someone to go to Sacramento City College and then transfer to Sac State, and then stay in our area, we have to have housing that’s available at that price point. We need to be thinking about what we can offer our future generation, our kids, to be able to live here.
Raderstorf: I’d love to get your thoughts on [the] question of what are the root problems that we’re tackling? How are we shaping solutions based on that?
We really have two simultaneous housing crises: We have our long-term supply crisis, where we have not built housing to keep up with jobs or population growth since, I think, 2008. We have systematically underbuilt housing for a really long time and that’s why everybody’s rents have gone up, that’s why everyone’s mortgage payments have gone up. Housing is just more expensive because there’s not enough to go around.
But then there’s also this acute crisis, where you don’t have enough homes for everybody, some people get left without them. That’s the homelessness crisis. … We live in a county with 10,000 people sleeping on the street every night. … How do we get back on the path to building more supply? … A big part of that has to be market-rate units. We have to build new for-profit housing. You’re never going to be able to have enough subsidized government-funded affordable housing. To build that I think we need 25,000 new units by the end of the decade.
Guerra: [On the] conservative side. If we’re being successful about the things we want to achieve in our city, it’s going to be much more than that.
But your point about those that need homes, many folks before were in, say motels, or they were in the lesser-quality apartments. Because of the crisis of no supply, those folks that were in lower-quality, low-end apartments were pushed into motels, and the folks in motels are pushed out into the street.
What we need to ensure we do is we also build motels. On their own, [this] wasn’t the ideal solution for people, because many of the folks who were in those situations needed wraparound services. What the legislature recently did … [is allowing] us to use some of the state funds to build housing, the mental health support services, because building permanent supportive housing is a critical aspect. And I hope … we function more as a mega-region. So we should think about our challenge … as Sacramento County, El Dorado and Placer [and] the Bay Area.
I hope that those counties start building the level of permanent supportive housing with the mandate that’s coming down from the recent state laws, so that the folks that have been pushed out, not only have a roof over their head, but the the county support services, the mental health support services, the any counseling services or career services that come with that permanent supportive housing, so they can get back on their feet. That’s what we’ve been missing for a long time.
The other challenge we’re facing right now is … just like the rest of the country, inflation has hit us significantly. The cost of construction has hit us much more significantly. Projects that were underway to get built are all of a sudden now having to re-pencil themselves and reduce down to size. … Cities in themselves don’t build housing. It’s the nonprofit developers or the entities. We do have a housing authority, but even then they will contract it with somebody to build it. …
The other biggest challenge that we face as a city — remember 1849 — that’s when our city was incorporated, and later chartered. But our bones are a lot older, and every time you start digging in Sacramento, particularly the central city, you start finding new things. Here at City Hall, we found the remains of the Nisenan people. … It’s much more expensive to do infill. … … Those are the biggest challenges right now that we’re facing: We were able to improve the permitting process and the paperwork process, but we still have the financing process.
Raderstorf: That’s a problem that exists for all housing projects. We’re actually seeing real-time progress in Sacramento. Rents declined last year for the first time in, I think, 13 years and a lot of that is because of all this new supply that’s coming on the market — the big apartment buildings that you see in Midtown or downtown. That’s really good. That’s really exciting. We’re making a lot of progress.
But, at the same time, it’s gotten a lot more expensive to build new apartment buildings. And also a challenge that we’re going to face as we continue to win the war on the housing crisis is that by definition, we’re going to push rents down, which is going to make it less attractive to build new apartment buildings. So we gotta find ways to keep making it easier and more affordable to build new housing. That’s why this has to be a constant iterative process, we can’t just say, OK, we changed our zoning code, we changed our building code. it’s easier to build housing, now we can declare victory and walk away. It’s gonna take a long time to undo the affordability challenges.
Guerra: Those are in the predictability part of it too. … If a project becomes speculative over time then why choose a particular location? It’s easier to build in a greenfield and take up [agriculture] land than an area where you have access to public transportation. … That’s one of the things that I’ve been advocating on the city council … let’s focus on areas that we want to see these vacant lots filled up.
That’s the exciting part about Stockton Boulevard, which we hope will be a model for Del Paso [Boulevard] and Franklin [Boulevard] in all these areas that used to be the old highways. They were built like highways. So that’s why you have gas stations and car repair areas. But now they’re in the middle of the community. Those areas, if we are able to make it easier to build housing in those areas, around public transit and around the grocery stores. … Now you have an option for people to reduce their transportation costs and their housing costs. But it means we’ve got to find ways to look at the utility costs that come in, to build it, and also how we finance it….
Raderstorf: I’m curious if you have any thoughts [on] another issue that the city is thinking about right now — this idea of a mixed-income housing ordinance? Is this something you’re working on or you’re thinking about?
Guerra: In the [city’s] Law and Legislation Committee, we’re going to be hearing what the mixed-income housing ordinance could look like. … The benefits of this is that you create opportunity for different family levels, different income levels, so the diversity of need, and having the diversity of need is good for employers, too, because then you can keep your workforce nearby. …
The thing that I would hate to see is that we see more and more sprawl happening, where we’re making it an incentive for farmland to be sold for sprawled-out development.
Raderstorf: Just to be clear [to readers], a mixed-income housing ordinance is this idea of a city mandate that says if you want to build a new apartment complex and new housing project, there is a set aside — a set of your units to be subsidized affordable housing, right, to be rented for less than market rate are usually less than cost. So it can be a real benefit.
Because, one, It accelerates our progress in delivering affordability for the lowest-income parts of the housing market. It also really produces these more mixed-income, more vibrant, diverse communities, which is something we really celebrate here in Sacramento. But, at the same time, it’s potentially offloading our need to build more affordable housing and defund more affordable housing, on to new housing production. There’s a real fear that can functionally be taxing new renters at market rate in order to fund our affordable housing. And there’s some examples where cities get it wrong. …
Guerra: One thing we’ve noticed was the Gateway Project on 9th and 10th, it’s going be more than 20% of its units affordable without a mandate. And almost every project that’s come in my council district [that] has been proposed has had above that amount of affordability. So it’s not the only tool. I think that is the conversation, we want to find out: Is this the tool to have? Or are there other tools that pencil out for the development? At the end of the day, it’s got to pencil out or it doesn’t get built.
Raderstorf: My impression, the city has done very well in thinking in a non-zero sum way. I think there can be a real incentive to pit subsidized affordable housing and market-rate housing against each other and to see them as things that are in competition, when really they’re both such important parts of this overall solution. One may help more in the short term. But the other is a key part of expanding the supply and reducing rents in the long term for everybody. There are ways when we can find solutions that end up creating incentives to build affordable housing in ways that are not restrictive on the ability to build more housing of all types.
Guerra: We do currently have the option of [a developer that] could either do a percentage or an in-lieu fee. And the in-lieu fee has produced some amount of revenue that we can match. The other thing that we’re looking at is creating an enhanced infrastructure financing district. We created one for Aggie Square. The second phase is to create it for the 4-mile stretch of Stockton Boulevard, so that we can capture that future tax revenue and be able to use that as a leveraging point. So even if we’re getting a chunk from the in-lieu fee for housing construction, can we find other tools, such as an enhanced infrastructure financing district, that doesn’t increase taxes, but captures that future revenue, to also have it as a match so we can get more revenue from the state or the federal government?
The bigger piece is when we think about how this is in tandem with the rest of our region, because housing is a regional issue. The pressures that affect the city also have to be compared to what’s happening around the city as well. … It’s a tricky one because we don’t live on an island, literally.
Raderstorf: … It’s really worth underscoring that housing is an environmental issue too. If we continue to build housing, in far-out sprawl, the distant parts of Sacramento County or even other counties, people are commuting in by car 30 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour, just to go to their job, versus if we’re building in downtown Sacramento. We can see from right here [at City Hall] several plots slated to potentially have infill housing, where people’s commutes might be like a 7-minute walk. That’s an environmental issue.
Guerra: … People forget that Sacramento is in a federal nonattainment zone, which means that our air quality is a challenge to the point that the federal government has had some tight leashes on our federal money, our transportation money. So housing is an important part because it’s a public health issue. … In the summertime, we have all of the smog. Well, if people have to drive less, that means less smog. So part of that is how we build our housing and improve our public health. And, importantly to us, if we can build more housing locally, where it’s walkable, to actually get to the park and not have to drive, jump into your SUV and drive to a regional park because the Master Plan was designed where you have to do that. Now you have people who are walking and biking more, and that improves public health. Public health is a huge aspect of addressing our housing affordability challenge.
Raderstorf: They gave us a list of questions to talk about and, and one of them was how can NIMBYs and NIMBYs come together to address the issue of affordable housing, which I found to be a kind of a funny and interesting question. I’m curious how you think about this.
Something that really amazes me about politics in Sacramento is this question doesn’t really apply that when you think about the the sort of canonical NIMBY people who are really angry about the idea of affordable housing in their neighborhood, I don’t know about you, but but I’m kind of amazed by how few of those people there are in Sacramento, and how, overwhelmingly, this is a city that feels very excited about new, affordable housing, including in their neighborhoods. What’s your sense? Obviously, you represent some neighborhoods that are historically less diverse.
Guerra: Just because they’re less NIMBYs doesn’t mean we go with the end policy or vice versa. But understanding the concerns is the most important part. What ‘NIMBYs’ would say, and I think their concern is, they enjoy the character of their community. They enjoy the quality of life they’ve had and they have a fear of that change. So acknowledging that aspect. And that’s an important piece, because that’s what makes some of our communities so unique is that weird funkiness that exists in Tahoe Park. That old, historic drive down T Street on Elmhurst, where you can imagine the streetcars and others going back in those days.
I think making sure that our conversation is more about what are the tools and policies that ensure that type of quality of life is the focus in conversation, that’s where I think NIMBYs and YIMBYs could work together to address those points. But if we just hash it out to positioning, then it’ll be a political game and not a solution-oriented tactic.
This conversation has been edited for length, clarity and flow.
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.