The city is buying 102 acres in South Sacramento for affordable housing and plans to convert a downtown hotel into homeless shelters

The City of Sacramento launched two efforts this week to address severe shortages of affordable housing and homeless services in South Sacramento and downtown.

City leaders said they have purchased 102 acres of land in South Sacramento suitable for affordable housing and other uses. Officials said the property is likely to be used as a city-approved parking lot for people living in vehicles in the near future.

They said the land could later be home to new amenities like a community park.

“This is truly our chance to work together to create something incredible for our community,” Councilor Mai Vang, representing South Sacramento, said at a Friday news conference.

Vang said she will hold a series of community listening sessions to brainstorm ideas for what the city should do with the land at 3100 Meadowview Road.

The city purchased the land for more than $12 million with a combination of general funds, Measure U and Affordable Housing Trust Funds, according to Mayor Darrell Steinberg. The acreage had been declared by the federal government as surplus land. Federal laws require the city to use 25% of the land for affordable housing, city officials said.

Steinberg said there is no timeline for when the city will establish a Safe Ground parking lot on the property or come up with additional plans.

Earlier this week, officials announced plans to convert the Best Western Hotel on H Street downtown into 92 housing units for the homeless. Officials hope construction can begin within a few months and residents can move in by the fall of this year.

The city received $24 million from the state’s Homekey project, which provides local governments with funds to buy hotels, motels and other properties and turn them into long-term shelters for people affected by homelessness.

Money for what is called the Central Sacramento Studios project will be used to add small kitchens to each room and give residents access to a case manager that connects them to health services.

This will be the third hotel in Sacramento to be converted to permanent lodging using Homkey funds, and the first downtown. The others are in South Sacramento and North Natomas.

City council member Katie Valenzuela, who represents downtown, said the Homekey grant offers a faster and cheaper way to create long-term housing for the homeless. Local governments can take years and much more money to build new affordable housing projects.

Valenzuela is one of many city leaders and advocates who believe sustainable housing is the ultimate answer to the homeless crisis.

“We all know that the ultimate solution to homelessness is no shelter. It’s not those safe campsites,” Valenzuela said this week. “There are permanent units where people can get the services and long-term support they need.”

She said Sacramento County will pay for “deeper case management services,” including mental health care for residents in 15 of the units.

Steinberg added in a press release, “More projects like this will bring relief to people without shelter and people who live and work in the inner city.”

Faye Wilson Kennedy, co-chair of the Sacramento Poor People’s Campaign, said she supports the housing plan. But she hopes residents will be given more freedom to come and go compared to other recent nationwide initiatives.

Kennedy said the state’s Homekey predecessor, Project Roomkey, had strict rules prohibiting residents from receiving visitors and limiting when people could come and go. Statewide, these efforts protected tens of thousands of homeless people in motel rooms early in the pandemic. It has been renewed several times in Sacramento County over the past two years, although it was never intended to be permanent.

“We’ll just have to wait and see how the Best Western project works,” Kennedy said. “We hope this project learns from some of the mistakes or challenges that other Project Roomkey (endeavours) have had.”

Homeless social worker Trygve Snyder, who sits outside the now-closed Best Western in downtown Sacramento, said he’s optimistic about the property’s future.

“If it does well, if it’s run by a competent agency, it’s going to be great,” predicted Snyder, who said he was homeless for about two decades before finding housing a few years ago. “You get people off the streets, you stabilize them and a lot of people will want to stay. A lot of people are going to want to get out, pull themselves together, put some money in the bank, go to school.”

Sean Wright, president of the Alkali and Mansion Flats Neighborhood Association, said his group opposed the project.

“The city continues to be overly concentrated,” said Wright, the downtown homeless services.

He said he believes the shelter will bring more homeless people to the neighborhood, some of whom will camp outside the former motel.

Valenzuela said she is aware of the concerns and has been working with the community on plans to prevent it. She added she hopes the project will get homeless people off the streets, including some camping in nearby Cesar Chavez Park or near City Hall.

The project’s residents are selected solely on a referral basis, said Lisa Bates, chief executive officer of Sacramento Steps Forward. The nonprofit organization helps local officials prioritize selection. Elderly homeless people, people with medical needs and people who have been homeless for a long time will be at the top of the list, Bates said.

It’s not clear how local officials will pay for housing and support services when the state’s nearly $24 million runs out. Valenzuela said the city must decide at this point whether to cover the running costs.

Angela Jones, a spokeswoman for the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, said no additional funds would be needed for 15 years “beyond those already approved by the City Council.”

Long-term funding for homekey projects is a major concern for at least some local governments.

Yuba City announced last week that it would not pursue a request for homekey funding to convert a motel into a homeless shelter.

That community already has a homekey project, but a Yuba City official said in a news release that the city doesn’t know what the long-term funding commitments are for the new application.

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