In summary

The city of Sacramento approves groundbreaking housing reforms that will lead to more inclusive, affordable and equitable neighborhoods.

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By Steve Hansen

Steve Hansen is a former Sacramento City Councilmember, who served from 2012-20 and championed infill housing and YIMBY policies, steve@steve4sacramento.com.

Brian Hanlon, Special to CalMatters

Brian Hanlon is co-founder and CEO of California YIMBY, brian@cayimby.org.

The city of Sacramento recently took a giant leap toward becoming a more affordable, equitable and sustainable city. By making it legal to build up to four-plex homes throughout Sacramento, city leaders put an end to unjust and discriminatory policies, established throughout the state decades ago, that were designed to keep our cities segregated and unaffordable. 

With these groundbreaking reforms, Sacramento offers a model that can – and should – be embraced by every city in California, as well as the state Legislature. 

Weaving multi-family homes into our neighborhoods is not a new concept. Up until the late 1960s and 1970s, California’s cities built an abundance of small apartments and condos. In their final vote to approve the changes, Sacramento City Council members cited examples from across their city of existing homes that would be illegal to build today.

How did we get here? In response to a racist backlash against integration and the desire to increase real estate values, cities made fundamental changes to their housing laws, banning new urban homes and mandating only one home per parcel of land across vast swaths of their jurisdictions. 

The impacts of those decisions surround us. Skyrocketing home prices; glaring racial inequities in housing; toxic pollution from long commutes; and abject poverty and homelessness are all directly tied to deliberate policies to limit housing supply. 

Addressing California’s housing shortage and affordability crisis will require equally deliberate action to reverse these unjust laws.

Sacramento’s housing reforms took a decade of work and collaboration between city leaders, civil rights and housing activists, planners and affordable housing builders. The new rules build on a solid foundation of research that demonstrates the clear link between multi-family housing, affordability and equity. City leaders should be credited for their creativity, honest community conversations and commitment to separating fact from fiction. 

The results of this approach were evident in the tone of public comments in Sacramento: Residents were overwhelmingly in favor of legalizing more homes in their neighborhoods. 

Elected officials in other California cities, and in the Legislature, can learn much from Sacramento’s leadership. First, the loud, “not in my backyard” activists who often dominate housing policy discussions are not representative of the state as a whole, but rather, a diminishingly small group of politically active but self-interested residents. Their dire warnings about the risks of letting teachers, nurses and other middle-income workers move to their neighborhoods should be dismissed out-of-hand.  

In fact, we suggest that leaders who catch the rising, pro-housing, “yes in my backyard” tide are not only likely to succeed, but will be rewarded with safer, more livable and affordable cities. 

The overwhelming majority of relevant scholarship shows that increased home building leads to lower prices, less displacement, reduced racial and economic segregation, and less air pollution.

UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute proposed a set of remedies to reduce racial segregation, starting with the need to end exclusionary zoning. UCLA scholars affiliated with the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies echo concerns about the racist history and effect of single-family home zoning, and find the practice to be “inequitable, inefficient and environmentally unsustainable.” UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation supports Sacramento’s move by declaring, “Sacramento can serve as a model for other cities.”

As the Legislature rolls out its 2021 housing agenda, we hope they’ll take a hard look not just at what is happening in Sacramento, but at the historic opportunity to address the systemic barriers to affordability and equity across our state by: 

  • Legalizing affordable, multi-family housing in all cities;
  • Protecting and empowering tenants vulnerable to displacement;
  • Making it faster, cheaper and easier to build homes by eliminating excessive fees and red tape;
  • Providing more public funding for subsidized and social/public housing to ensure all Californians have safe, secure housing without rent burden; and
  • Ensuring everyone has secure housing during and after COVID-19.

For too long, local and state leaders have been afraid of reactionary, anti-housing voices. Sacramento shows there is nothing to fear. The vast majority of Californians support inclusive, affordable and equitable neighborhoods. Our Legislature should legalize them.

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