Gimme shelter

New, possibly last affordable-housing complex opens in downtown Sacramento

by Dave Kempa
November 11, 2013
News & Review

It’s new. It’s energy efficient. It’s window-rich, centrally located and set to provide affordable housing and medical care for more than 150 working-class, homeless, disabled and elderly Sacramentans.

And yet, it is the last of its kind.

The 7th & H Street Housing Community is set to open its doors this December, providing sustainable shelter to formerly homeless and low-income residents.

But, due to funding issues related to the economic crisis on both the local and federal levels, low-income-housing development has dried up in recent years.

“We have a serious crisis on our hands if we want to end homelessness in our area,” said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Housing Alliance.

This means that for Sacramento’s poorest citizens looking for affordable rent, once 7th & H opens its doors, that’s it. No more. There’s nothing else like this in the pipe for the foreseeable future.

Tucked between the downtown jail and the Amtrak rail yard in the northwest corner of Sacramento’s grid, 7th & H is an eight-story complex that includes studio and single-bedroom units, and extensive ground-floor retail space.

For a lower- to working-class housing development, it is surprisingly industrial chic, with concrete pillars peppering the main lobby, and tempered oranges and yellows coating the hallways.

Residents of 7th & H will pay rent based on their economic status. With half of the 150 units (including all of the 28 single-bedroom apartments) reserved for Sacramentans fresh off the streets, rent will range from $200 to $591 per month. Each unit can legally hold up to two residents, but Mercy Housing Sacramento will make exceptions for couples with a single child in extenuating circumstances.

The building provides an on-site medical clinic, comprehensive resident services and an impressive amount of indoor and outdoor community space—something greatly lacking in most of today’s affordable-housing communities.

All of this is the result of years of hard work on the part of Mercy Housing, the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, and the city of Sacramento, and is part of the city’s 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. In the eyes of those working on the project, it is an impressive success.

But a look at the state’s current homeless situation shows that this project is just a drop in the bucket, with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development revealing that 62.7 percent of California’s homeless remain unsheltered.

So it’s all the more distressing that the city has nothing like 7th & H to look forward to anytime soon.

“Even if we instantly found a pot of money for something like this, it would take three to five years to produce,” said Erlenbusch.

One of the major funding problems facing low-income housing for Sacramento and California at large stems from Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature’s decision last year to dry up funding for redevelopment as a means to combat a massive budget deficit. As a result, hundreds of redevelopment agencies across the state disappeared.

But the state and local homelessness problem is at least equally pandemic. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also reported that while the national homeless population decreased by 2.1 percent in 2011, it increased by 2.3 percent in California, leaving the state with 21.4 percent of the national homeless population.

In Sacramento alone, it’s estimated that around 25,000 residents end up in some form of a homeless situation each year, and the Sacramento County school district last year reported more than 11,000 children living in homeless situations.

“Clearly, the need is growing, but it’s also changing quite a bit,” said Stephan Daues of Mercy Housing. “The methods for solving homelessness for different individuals and different families need to continue to evolve.”

Organizations such as Mercy Housing and the SHRA continue to explore new options. Mercy, for instance, has been looking into the prospect of buying existing buildings and remodeling them into low-income complexes.

The good news on the federal level, according to Erlenbusch, is that the National Housing Trust Fund is set to free up its cash, providing much needed assistance for the country’s homeless and extremely low-income earners.

On the state level, the SHRA has its eye on the Legislature’s democratic supermajority. “This is a terrific chance to pass the California Homes and Jobs Act,” said Erlenbusch, referring to the currently unsponsored bill being championed by state-housing organizations looking to pull together more than $2.75 billion in federal, local and private funding in an attempt to jump-start affordable-housing development across California.

Both of these prospects, of course, are dependent on government funding, something that a constituency swimming in a massive sea of debt may be reluctant to support.

But Daues and Erlenbusch argue that legislation for funding affordable and low-income housing will actually save California money in the long run.

According to Erlenbusch, providing one unit in the 7th & H Street Housing Community to a recently homeless, elderly or disabled person could cost about $42,000 per year, a price tag comparable to what the public pays in the same time frame for the average homeless person’s medical bills or prison expenses.

“Do you want to spend $42,000 on housing people, or do you want to spend that much on [emergency-room] visits and jail time?” said Erlenbusch. “I think the smart choice, the ethical choice, is to help put a roof over their heads.”