Sacramento County to foster more duplexes, apartment projects

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Homes are seen near one of Land Park’s main corridors, Freeport Boulevard, with the downtown Sacramento skyline in the background Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.

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Faced with a growing housing crunch, Sacramento County wants to encourage more multi-family homes and duplexes in certain neighborhoods.

County officials are looking to streamline housing approvals and speed up home-building in pockets outside of city limits by easing certain development standards for apartment projects and fostering duplexes in single-family zoning districts.

The areas that likely would see the biggest benefit or impact related to the proposed changes are those with a high concentration of small infill lots between existing housing developments. That could include south Sacramento, Fair Oaks, Arden-Arcade, Foothill Farms, Vineyard, North Highlands, Rio Linda, Elverta and Antelope, county staff said.

The proposed changes – which received the blessing from the county’s planning commission last week and will need final approval from the board of supervisors in June – also aim to cut down on how much it costs and how long it takes to have “minor” deviations from the county’s development standard approved for certain projects.

In some cases that could mean cutting the cost to process such a request from $14,000 to $3,000 for a multifamily project, said Jessica Brandt, senior planner for the county. And instead of six months it may just take two to review.

“Definitely something that will reduce the burden of this sort of review significantly,” she said.

The streamlining efforts were born out of a 2019 state grant the county and other local governments received to help cover the cost of reviewing and modifying local ordinances to build up the housing stock.

Among the county’s most substantial measures included in its current proposal: reducing how far smaller multifamily projects have to be set back from an abutting single-family home and allowing builders to construct more duplexes on small infill lots without needing additional approval. County officials hope that the move will especially help some of the area’s lower-income, diverse communities where some of the infill properties are located.

For years county officials heard from developers how difficult it can be based on the county’s current rules to make multifamily projects, especially on smaller parcels, work near single-family homes, said Brandt

Between setbacks, height limits, parking and open space standards, if a multifamily project was anywhere near a single-family home, the county’s current rules “effectively made it unbuildable,” Brandt said. That means a lot that otherwise could house 10 units, for instance, could only fit three without having to ask for a deviation from the county’s standards, triggering an often time-consuming, costly public hearing process.

Under the current standards, not only did some multifamily projects fall through, but landowners would often sell those properties off and the land would then be used to only build one, maybe two, single-family homes, said Wendy Hartman, principal planner for the county. “So we started to lose our inventory of land that was designated for multifamily.”

Sacramento County housing shortage

None of the county’s proposed measures change any zoning designations, meaning a developer will only be able to build the number of units that were already allowed to be built on the parcel. The difference, county officials say, is that now those projects will actually be able to maximize the space and become feasible.

Still, county officials acknowledge that the proposed changes won’t solve the area’s housing woes by itself.

“I think it’s going to encourage small projects, infill projects. We’re not going to see a huge uptick,” Brandt said, adding that the hope is the move will help diversify the county’s housing stock and increase the number of units available for residents.

How many more units the effort might yield is a big unknown. And the need, especially for affordable housing, is extensive.

A 2021 report by the California Housing Partnership found that 58,383 low-income renter households in Sacramento County do not have access to an affordable home. And 81% of extremely low-income households are spending more than half of their income on housing costs compared to just 2% of moderate income households, the report found.

Home builders endorse proposed rules

Builders and housing advocates welcomed the county’s efforts to boost its housing stock, and advocates emphasized the importance of changing single-family zoning standards “that are rooted in historical segregation” to allow duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes in single-family zones.

“While these housing types generally don’t assist families with low incomes, they can be helpful for middle income people (or missing middle) and are important to changing zoning standards that were designed to keep out people of color and to adopt new standards that will promote more integrated neighborhoods,” Cathy Creswell, board president of the Sacramento Housing Alliance, said in an email to the Bee.

The North State Building Industry Association, which covers the greater Sacramento region, applauded the county’s efforts.

“In addressing our ongoing housing crisis, it is thoughtful steps such as this that will help create new housing options that are a win for local residents as well as existing neighborhoods,” said Chris Norem, director of government and political affairs for the association, in an email to the Bee.

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