With cranes dominating skylines nationwide, redevelopment and displacement are often portrayed as the yin and yang of city makeovers — one a dark but inevitable counterpart to the other. But gentrification, as Susie Cagle wrote for Next City last year, is not necessarily “an act of nature.” Usually, it’s the culmination of policy and investment choices. With that in mind, as California’s capital paves the political landscape for a streetcar — an attempt to both spur and piggyback on new development — city leaders have some decisions to make.
To realize what’s at stake, you need to understand the city’s geography, which I wrote about last year. Sacramento’s downtown, occupied from 9 to 5 by state workers, was the after-hours home to some of the city’s lowest earners — mostly renters — when census data was collected last. But according to long-range planner Tom Pace (with whom I spoke for that 2014 article), many state workers still commute in from the suburbs, meaning that the central core needs more housing of all kinds. Through an arena, several mixed-use projects and an intermodal transportation facility, city leaders want to fill the area with walkable development. The streetcar, which will get a $30 million boost from property owners along its proposed line, is part of that vision.
“We’re attempting to attract a lot more housing into the central city,” says Sacramento Principal Planner Fedolia “Sparky” Harris. Streetcars, after all, are magnets for development, fostering the kind of transit-oriented density that builders, and their funders, tend to like.
But Darryl Rutherford, executive director of the Sacramento Housing Alliance, wonders about the residents who already live near proposed redevelopment sites.
“In the gentrification process, it’s usually the lower-income residents who are most affected,” he says, adding that the advocacy organization supports the city’s efforts toward infill and transit-oriented development.
“The challenge is minimizing displacement,” he says. “Even though we’re really excited about this, we don’t see enough protections put in place.”
The Old Motor Inn in West Sacramento was the subject of headlines last week because it will be demolished for development. (Part of a pilot project to transition homeless people into more permanent housing, it was only envisioned as temporary.) As of the 19th, 30 housing vouchers had been handed out.
But evictions and closures aren’t the region’s only issues. Though only property owners, and not renters, will be asked to help pay for the new streetcar (if another vote goes through), some of those costs could trickle down. According to the Sacramento Bee, developer David Taylor will pay about $56,000 annually over 30 years, but he believes he’ll be able to “charge higher rents at his building because of its proximity to the streetcar line.”
According to Harris, the city won’t allow low-income housing to be eliminated without accounting for displaced residents. A new Mercy Housing development at 7th and H is one example along the proposed line that will remain affordable. And the federal Small Starts grant, through which Sacramento hopes to receive part of its funding, does take such issues into consideration, asking for a calculation of existing affordable housing stock close to the proposed project.
Rutherford, however, worries about the fact that — statewide — no law mandates that any affordable housing be built as part of the city’s new boom. In 2009, a ruling overturned a longstanding law that, previously, had done just that. And with cranes going up, he’s already watching gentrification take hold.
“As the area redevelops you can see it becoming more skewed,” he says.
“Our concern is the amount of public resources that are being put into these types of projects,” he adds, speaking of redevelopment generally. “We’re concerned that it’s just going to handcuff other projects.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.