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Land Use Mess Part 3 -- Housing

"Affordable Housing" is a popular item these days, though it is sometimes improperly conflated with homelessness. This post will explore the housing (or lack of it) situation in Arden Arcade.

Our community began as post-war suburban sprawl, with working-class subdivisions that were handy to the region's original job centers of downtown Sacramento and the Air Force bases at Mather and McClellan. Nowadays parts of our community are a kind of flyover country that barely get noticed by commuters to-ing and fro-ing between "proper" housing areas in Elk Grove, Placer County, and Highway 50 settlements from Rancho Cordova eastward and job centers that are all over the place. Much of our "aging suburb" tends to have lots of inexpensive apartments and the community's older, baby-boomer houses.  The other parts of our community have what the residential real estate industry dearly loves: very nice, very expensive homes.

The combination of cheap apartments, under-priced mid-century ranch houses, really expensive houses and McMansions somewhat obscures Arden Arcade as a place to live. There are a lot of significant differences among the three zip codes in Arden Arcade. A detailed look at look at our housing data (2017 census from and census fact-finder 2012-2016) shows:

We have a whopping number of renter-occupied units, most of which are apartments. This is important for two reasons. First, housing is a significant investment. People who sink down roots by buying a house have expectations of a return on their investment. Thus higher rates of homeownership are associated with caring about what is going on in the neighborhood and the community -- it matters if you perceive your home's value declining vs. accelerating (or at least holding steady). And it irritates homeowners when the land use powers-that-be appear to display little or no interest in the homeowners' opinions about whether their neighborhoods are adversely affected by proposed projects. Secondly, renters are highly mobile. If they don't like a place, they can leave (assuming there are alternatives, and that's not always the case). The inherent transiency of renting implies less long-term personal interest in a specific location. The housing unit statistics also confirm what many here already know: there is an overabundance of apartments. The data show our housing stock to be over 56% rental units, which is sky-high (37.5% higher) compared to the regional figure of 41%. Conclusion: We have enough, we don't need more.

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Occupied Housing Units in Arden Arcade and zip code subunits. Source: US Census American Community Survey 2012-2016

Next, what about the prices of our housing units? How much do the houses go for and how much do the apartments cost? The data can be a little misleading in this arena as well, because Arden Arcade has some fabulously pricey real estate, some highly sought-after neighborhoods and some of the region's most dreadful apartments -- distinctions that get lost in the noise of "median" and "average" price citations. Data on housing costs confirm that:

Our housing costs are at extremes for the region -- this is where you can find "affordable" AND "not affordable" housing. Zip code differences show that the median sale price of houses in 95864 ($545K) makes it one of the pricier places in the region, whereas median sale prices of homes in 95825 ($281K) and 95821 ($335K) are some of the least expensive. And the price per square foot tells you what you get for your housing money in Arden Arcade. You can pay less per square foot for a bigger place in Carmichael or Fair Oaks than in 95864, but those places don't have the sweet smell of 95864, where you get more for your money than you do in East Sac or Midtown. Meanwhile, 95825 and 95821 are not only at the low end price-wise, but also in terms of price per square foot. Those zip codes have become go-to places for buyers looking for affordable housing in the region. But what about renters? Here again, two of Arden Arcade's zip codes have rental units that are more "affordable" than Midtown, East Sac or Fair Oaks and on par with the generally older units built in unincorporated Carmichael years ago and in Citrus Heights long before it became a city. 

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Source: for home sales from 6/6/18-90/5/18 and for monthly rents from 7/12/18-8/12/18

Let's take a closer look at those rental figures, because $1895 seems like a sky-high price for a month's rent in 95825. That figure could be a bit high because of houses that were offered for rent instead of for sale -- they tend to cost more than apartments or duplexes. Or maybe it's because the measurement period reflects high season for the competitive Sac State housing market that strongly influences the southwestern portion of 95825.  If you just look at 2-bedroom, 1 bath rental units, like you might find in an apartment complex or a duplex, and consider a longer period of time, you get a slightly different picture. says median 2BR rents in Arden Arcade over the last 12 months ran from $1253 (in 95821) to $1350 (in 95825) to $1650 (in 95864) versus the entire metro area at $1420. In other words, Arden Arcade has the "affordable" places and the "unaffordable" ones. 

What Arden Arcade does NOT have is a variety of housing types that architects and urban planners call the "missing middle" - a term coined by Daniel Parolek of the Bay Area architectural firm Opticos Design, to mean a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living. We have some of the pieces, but not a full array. Specifically, Arden Arcade has lots of single-family houses and apartment complexes, some duplexes and four-plexes (essentially all rentals) and some condominiums (primarily in large, gated settings). Our housing units are almost entirely one or two-story units, with a few at three stories. Among the housing types we do not have: stacked duplexes, bungalow courts, carriage houses, small multiplexes, townhouses (row houses), live/work units and courtyard apartments. Those kinds of housing units tend to be much smaller than contemporary ones -- their urban footprint is far more sustainable than today's McMansions. We also do not have mid-rise or high rise apartments and condos -- which is too bad because the views are astounding, i.e. prime real estate above the tree crowns. Nor do we have much in the way of mother-in-law units that the state government is promoting. But there is more to "missing middle" housing than just a diverse variety of housing types. To succeed, "missing middle" housing needs to be in a pedestrian-friendly environment where it is easy and pleasant to walk from residence to community amenities. And that can lead to success for neighborhood-scale small businesses and sustainability for the community. Can these kinds of housing choices happen here, like they are being nurtured in other places? Or are we fated to just get what we have always gotten? 

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"Missing Middle" housing types. Illustration by Opticos Design, Inc.
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