Skip to main content

How Sacramento County "solves" its housing problem

Architectural rendering of a 24-unit residential building's front elevation.
Architectural renderings of the "New Green Apartments at Larchmont Village"  approved by the Sacramento County Planning Commission

On Jun 24th the County Planning Commission approved a 172-unit apartment complex for a 6.11 acre vacant lot in North Highlands on Watt Avenue south of the FoodMaxx store at Watt and Antelope/U Street. According to the Business Journal (Ben van der Meer, "Sacramento County planners approve 172-unit apartment project in North Highlands", Sacramento Business Journal, June 26, 2024) , the project will be 3 stories tall, with 60 1-Br units, 108 2-Br units and 4 3-Br units. The complex will include a playground, pool and community clubhouse with fitness center, community kitchen, Wi-Fi lounge and business center.

The Business Journal article seemed almost giddy, reporting that new housing is on the way for "an area that rarely sees new market-rate projects". The County staff report parroted the developer saying that the project will develop a vacant, underutilized site with high-quality residential buildings," adding, "The proposed density, though it slightly exceeds the range in the development standards, is justified due to the proximity to the commercial development around the intersection of Watt Avenue with Antelope Road and the Elkhorn Commercial Core as well as the ongoing need for housing in the community." OK, fine. Everyone knows the County has a serious lack of housing, so this project is a no-brainer, right? Hmmm...let's see.

For starters, the project site is a vacant lot on the west side of Watt. There are hardly any trees, yet there is an inhospitable bus stop.  Along Watt Avenue there are sidewalks and a  white-line-defined "bike route", i.e. there is no on-street parking on Watt. There are no convenient side streets that could be used for overflow parking on the project's side of the street. The site, clearly not in a privileged neighborhood, abuts light industrial businesses on the north, residential properties on the west and across the street to the east, and a church and a tire shop on the south.  The site is very close to the shopping center, which has a bank, the grocery store and a pizza place. There is an ice cream store across the street. The County zoning ordinance had envisioned residential mixed-use (typically neighborhood-oriented retail on the ground level and housing above) development at the site. What they got, and caved in for instead, was an ordinary apartment complex - one that's a bit too big for the site.

The vacant site on Watt and the bus stop under the only tree around.
Screenshot of the site and it's bus stop, looking south down Watt

But that's not the only way the County dropped the ball. A zoning ordinance spells out development standards that are supposed to implement the General Plan. The site is addressed in the "North Watt Avenue Corridor Plan" that was based on community discussions in 2007 and most recently adopted by the Supervisors in 2012. The Plan takes an ambitious, kind of new urbanist, approach to revitalizing the area. The drawings in the Plan are not unlike the fanciful utopia the Sili Valley billionaires are trying to build in Solano County's ag lands. Ultimately, though,  it is a corridor plan for residences and town-center commercial development along Watt. While housing is appropriate there, having just another apartment complex doesn't hit the target. The developer did not want to comply with the development standards of the zoning ordinance and the County heeded the developer's wishes. There are state laws that forbid the County from recklessly ignoring the development standards - as was done for this project - but no one enforces the laws and, besides, the County has a desperate,  "Something is better than nothing" approach to land use and economic development. In short, while we can't say the County has no vision for the area, we can easily see that there is a lack of williingness to implement the vision.

Now let's turn to the notion that what the area really needs is "new market-rate" housing. Market rate apartment rents in North Highlands these days are priced around $1075 for a studio, $1246 for a 1-Br unit, $1524 for a  2-Br unit, and $2214 for a 3-Br unit. Conventional wisdom says the annual income levels needed to afford those rents are $38,700,  $44,846, $54,864 and $77,704 respectively. A fast food worker getting $20/hr (the new rate in California) would make $41,600/yr., or pretty much what's needed for a studio apartment. The average recipient of social security gets $21,336/yr. in benefits; maybe two such people could share a studio on that income. The average CalPers retiree makes $42,516/yr. and could thus afford a studio apartment. But there are no studio apartments in the proposed complex, just 1, 2 and 3-BR units.

North Highlands is a working-class community. The median household income there is $62,156, an income level able to qualify for an apartment that rents for $1756. Clearly, there will be some people who can afford to live in the proposed apartments. Some residents, no doubt, will find employment in the tech industry in places like Rocklin, Folsom, El Dorado Hills and Yolo County. Others will work in professional fields like teaching, medicine, engineering or law. The site is served by RT's #26 bus line, which enables access to the light rail system. However, light rail doesn't go to many destinations in the region, like Roseville, El Dorado Hills, West Sac or Davis. Plus, the bus service is on 1/2 hour headways (the interval between buses) M-F except late night buses have 1-hour headways. Saturday service is slightly reduced. Sundays and holidays, the headways are all 1-hour. That means, if you work around the region at jobs that require other than 8-5, M-F schedules, you can't rely on the bus. Further, bus-to-light-rail takes about 25 minutes, with additional time needed to changes modes; driving a car makes more sense. Now you combine those factors with the likelihood of multiple unrelated occupants becoming roommates in order to afford the rent. The County approved letting the developer provide 47 less apartment parking spaces than required, because a "bus stop" was available. Never mind that the bus isn't practical for many people's trips. Pay no attention to the lack of adjacent on-street parking. No, we should all just applaud the County for "providing housing", shouldn't we?

Adding insult to the injury is that drawings indicate the project will likely not have elevators, meaning wheelchair-bound residents will be limited to first floor apartments. And parents with young children in strollers will have to somehow schlep the kids and the strollers up and down stairs (along with their groceries).

Beyond all that is the dysfunctional way projects like this get approved: 1) County staff considers any housing project, no matter how flawed, as a "good project" and will bend or break rules to let the developer get his way, 2) the Planning Commission, consisting of Supervisorial appointees, is disconnected from the commnunity and reluctant to listen to (or inclined to repel) community input, 3) not all projects are appealable to the Board of Supervisors, 4) appeals to the Supervisors require money and time commitments beyond the capabilities of normal unincorporated area residents, and 5) even the slightest concerns the community might have are going to be ignored because, after all, the County is eager to show it isn't "anti-housing". You can see the fruits of the County's labor along those lines  all over the unincorporated area. This project is just another example of why Sacramento County has a housing problem and why the County isn't able to fix it.

Join our mailing list