By Casey Murray | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Brown Sugar

Brown Sugar Davis can’t help but make every house a home, even if that house is two tents fused by insulation.

She has been unhoused for a few years, but it has done nothing to change her instincts as a homemaker. Out front, she has set up a neat array of plant stands and Christmas decorations. Inside, photos of her loved ones hang on the walls. Everything is clean and orderly.

“I was just raised up like that. It’s still in my bones,” she said of the care she takes in creating a comfortable home.

Now in her 60s, Davis raised five children with her late husband, who died in 2009. She still tears up when she thinks of him. He took care of her, and life without him has been difficult.

Now, the $1,200 she gets in widower benefits makes up the majority of her income. It’s not even close to enough to afford housing in Sacramento County, where the average rent is $1,625.

Davis said getting some kind of affordable housing is the only way she’ll be able to get off the streets.

Brown Sugar Davis sits in front of the tents she lives in off the side of the road in Midtown Sacramento.
Brown Sugar Davis sits in front of the tents she lives in off the side of the road in Midtown Sacramento. She has been unhoused for several years due to the rising costs of rent and says she has little faith the city will fix the problem. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

The city is trying to address the issue and provide more housing, but its response so far has caused people such as Davis to lose faith. In 2021 the city passed the Comprehensive Siting Plan outlining an ambitious strategy to open more housing and safe spaces, but many of the initial projects didn’t materialize.

The city has taken $35 million from that plan originally marked for temporary housing and reallocated it toward eight new permanent housing sites.

The city frames it as a better strategy to address homelessness. However, Davis’ response to news of the city’s latest effort to create more housing was muted.

“I don’t think they’re going to do anything,” she said. “We’ve been promised the world and we’ve been let down so many times.”

Davis isn’t alone in her sentiment. Many have voiced frustration over Sacramento’s housing crisis and the government’s seeming inability to address the problem. The OBSERVER has spoken to activists, unhoused community members, renters, business leaders and government officials who all say the same thing: the city needs more affordable housing.

But, in such a moment of rare political cohesion, why does it seem as if nothing is being done?

City Can Do Only So Much

The inside of Brown Sugar Davis’ Sacramento home is covered in rugs and decorated with plants and photos.
The inside of Brown Sugar Davis’ Sacramento home is covered in rugs and decorated with plants and photos. She says that though she’s homeless, she still wants to create a comfortable place to live. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

As Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg sees it, one answer is that the problem still outpaces the city’s ability to create solutions.

“The city is not a homeless service agency,” he said. “Those limitations run headfirst into the increasing problem.”

There are some indicators he may be right. Housing production in Sacramento has increased significantly in the past few years, though gains in the creation of units for low- and very low-income residents has lagged comparatively.

Graph showing new housing units approved via building permits in Sacramento

He also said that when he was first elected in 2016, the city had less than 100 shelter beds and safe spaces to function as temporary housing for those experiencing homelessness, but now has about 1,100. With the new allocation of funds, the city says it has nearly 3,000 permanent affordable units planned or in production.

While these gains aren’t trivial, they’re overshadowed by the 67% increase in homelessness since 2019, which brought the raw number of people experiencing homelessness in the county to more than 9,000, in what is likely a conservative estimate.

And some of those 3,000 units will take years to open.

The time it takes to create more housing and the frequent delays in doing so are things Danielle Foster, the City of Sacramento’s housing policy manager, works on daily. She said the process of creating housing is complex.

The original Comprehensive Siting Plan, started in early 2021, is a good example of potential pitfalls.

Councilmembers identified sites in their districts that they thought could be turned into shelters, safe spaces or permanent housing. The plan initially proposed 20 sites that the city claimed could shelter 3,600 people. Of those, Foster said, the city was able to move forward on only five.

“The big challenge was that the initial process of identifying those sites then led to sort of vetting them and looking at them from more of a predevelopment perspective,” she said.

Foster said some proposed sites were privately owned and that the owners changed their minds about selling to the city, while converting others to housing would be cost inefficient.

To the public, it looks as if the city made a big promise and did not follow through. 

But Foster said the new allocation of money from the plan focuses on housing sites that are more of a sure deal.

“Most of them just needed the final piece of assistance from the city to prepare towards construction,” she said. “They need to get the building permit and get to construction, which will take a little bit of time, but we really believe that these are projects that are teed up.”

She said the new sites should break ground within six to 12 months.

The Search For Innovative Solutions

Brown Sugar Davis stands in front of her home off the side of the road in Midtown Sacramento.
Brown Sugar Davis stands in front of her home off the side of the road in Midtown Sacramento on Nov. 10. Since her husband died in 2009, the years have been difficult, but she said her Christian faith has helped her persevere. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

Despite delays, Foster said the city has made a lot of progress in making Sacramento an attractive place for housing development. Last year it became California’s first city to receive a “prohousing” designation from the state, which recognized its policies meant to make bringing housing online easier. Foster said the award resulted from efforts to streamline the process for developers, offering guarantees on timeliness of review of housing proposals, and other policies such as lowering fees for affordable housing proposals.

“We are trying to just think almost with that developer lens of how would it be easier to develop here and what can we do better,” Foster said.

Still, Foster said one of the biggest challenges is funding. Affordable housing often balances contributions from the state and federal governments, and it can take awhile to learn if a project will be awarded funding. Foster said the city is trying to be more innovative and bypass those delays.

“Rather than having to go through state and federal processes to get grant funding that’s highly competitive and takes a lot of time, we are working on the local level to see if we can find solutions with a private developer and with a nonprofit partner that benefit all of us,” she said.

That, she added, is how the latest eight sites proposed under the Comprehensive Siting Plan are being funded. The city looks to do more, particularly by partnering with the county to provide more services and “a more comprehensive response when it comes to homelessness.”.

“In the meantime, the city is working hard to ensure we’re providing as much affordable housing as possible,” Foster said. “We’re hoping that (the new housing sites are) really going to make an impact on the levels of homelessness that we’re seeing in the community.”

Steinberg said he was proud of steps the city has taken so far to create more housing.

“I can very confidently and proudly say that the city has done more in these areas than any previous time in its history,” he said.

Davis isn’t quite so enthusiastic.

“I don’t have any faith,” she said. “We’ve been promised so many things and nothing’s been accomplished.”

The city this year has managed to open a hotel-conversion project and broken ground on an affordable housing project on Stockton Boulevard. But when so many are unhoused, it can feel like a drop in the bucket.

Davis said she doesn’t know anyone who has made it into housing and that it looks like prices just continue to rise.

“Seems like everybody out here is just trying to make a profit and not really caring about the homeless,” she said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Casey Murray is a Report For America Corp Member and a Data Reporter for The Sacramento OBSERVER. 

Casey Murray

Casey Murray