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The Siting Plan, it was nice(?) knowin' ya

The City of Sacramento seems to have seen the writing on the wall, and has decided to officially let the Comprehensive Siting Plan To Address Homelessness, which they passed last year, die. At a meeting on October 25th, city staff gave the city council a presentation in which they recommended diverting money from the remaining uncompleted Siting Plan shelter locations and instead directing it towards a variety of affordable housing projects.

The Failed Siting Plan

The Siting Plan was held up by Mayor Steinberg back in 2021 as a sign that the city was willing to take bold and ambitious steps to tackle the Sacramento housing crisis. He was wrong - the plan was at best a first step and had a lot of flaws. The Siting Plan did, however, provide funding for shelters, which is not a bad thing.

But, since it was passed last August, the plan has been a massive failure. Initially, the Siting Plan promised to spend $100 million and open at least 20 new shelter sites. Steinberg estimated that the city would be able to serve around 10,000 unhoused people through this plan.

As time passed, the sites continually failed to materialize, and earlier this year, the city reduced that number to only 8 sites. Of the reduced number, only three have actually been opened, according to Cap Radio, and there is space for up to 360 people at the new locations. That’s a far cry short of the 10,000 spaces that were promised, and it’s also short of the 1,100 shelter spaces that the city currently claims to have (they seem to arrive at that number by including things like Project Roomkey, as well as a number of sites that predated the Siting Plan; basically they count every single instance of shelter created in the last couple years, not just the ones stemming from the Siting Plan).

Steinberg, as well as other councilmembers like Angelique Ashby, tried to defend the Siting Plan in the October 25th meeting, but the numbers don’t lie: the Siting Plan was a miserable failure. When asked her opinion, Councilmember Valenzuela cited a lack of initial vetting of sites, as well as unexpected and ever-increasing costs, as the primary reasons for the plan’s inability to get off the ground. In their presentation on October 25th, city staff claimed that they had found, through this process, that shelter spaces actually have a higher operational cost per space than affordable housing.

During the meeting, Steinberg seemed to indicate that he has no interest in attempting to build more shelters at this point, stating that, “We’ve gotten to 1100 beds, and we will go higher, IF we can continue to draw down more federal and state money.” Gee, his tune sure has changed since the old “Let’s spend $100 million” days.

A Shift Towards ‘Housing First’?

The city does not plan to close down the existing three shelter sites it has opened, but city staff have recommended stopping work on any unfinished projects and using that money to instead support a variety of affordable housing projects. The City Council voted to approve the general plan to go forward with affordable housing, although the specific projects and funding will need to go through the committee process and no money has actually yet been stripped from any shelter projects.

In some ways, this change in focus is a positive development. Unhoused advocates have used the slogan ‘Housing First’ for some time now, and it is true that the only way to actually solve homelessness is to house people. Creating more affordable housing is a crucial step toward that solution.

Additionally, as many advocates have been saying to the city for years, shelter does not address the root causes of homelessness.

According to Councilmember Valenzuela, the big weakness of the old Siting Plan is that it was 'hyperfocused on the triage'; that is, it would have helped some unhoused folks experiencing an acute crisis, but because it lacked permanent housing, the size of the unhoused population would continue to grow, and the problem would keep getting worse

The cost of housing must be addressed in order to deal with the long-term problem of homelessness.

But this new plan from the city is not ‘Housing First’. It is, in typical Steinberg fashion, a pitiful half-measure.

First, the plan at best would provide 820 new units of housing, assuming each location gets approved - as we have seen with the Siting Plan, not a safe assumption to make -and even 820 units is crumbs compared to the full scope of housing needed in Sacramento County.

Second, not every unit included in the plan is “affordable housing”: the Stockton Boulevard Gateway Project, for instance, would have a total of 230 units - but only 92 are low-income housing, while 69 are moderate-income housing, and the remaining 69 are market-rate units. Beyond that, only a small percentage of the proposed housing units are actually being set-aside for homeless folks. Advocates are asking for at least 20%, and the city isn’t even close to that yet.

Third, why does affordable housing have to come at the expense of shelter spaces? It is likely that the proposed housing won’t be available until 2024 at the earliest, so what are unhoused people supposed to do in the meantime? Without shelter, people will continue to die.

There is no reason the city can’t do multiple things at once. Build shelter AND housing! Both are necessary. It is not possible to only solve one half of this crisis

As welcome as it is for the city to actually commit some amount of money to building affordable housing, the small numbers and insistence on a piecemeal approach will doom this effort to fall short, just as the city usually does. As we said in response to the Comprehensive Siting Plan last year: Dream a little bigger, Darrell. If you want to solve the housing crisis, pass an inclusionary zoning rule. Fight for rent control. Abandon the incrementalist approach and let your actions match your rhetoric for once.

In the meantime, we can’t wait around for Steinberg to grow a spine. Members of the community need to show up any time the city council talks about housing and demand real solutions, instead of this same lazy status quo.

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