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Downtown Sacramento Partnership’s Liz Lorand Williams on creating a pro-housing city

Liz Lorand Williams is the policy manager for Downtown Sacramento Partnership.
(Photo by Fred Greaves)

Liz Lorand Williams, policy manager for Downtown Sacramento Partnership, has worked to advocate on behalf of the downtown community for the last three years. From small business owners to residents, and bigger stakeholders like state government offices and The Kings, her work helps shape the 66-block swath in the “heart and soul of the city.”

As policy manager, she helps facilitate public-private partnerships by fostering conversations between the city and developers on how to better support housing developments at all levels, like advocating for downtown interests in shaping the city’s General Plan.

Downtown Sacramento Partnership, launched in 1995, serves 176 property owners and over 400 retail businesses.

We recently spoke to Williams about the importance of bringing all voices to the table in crafting housing policy and what it means for Sacramento to be a pro-housing city.

Tell me about the Sacramento Downtown Partnership and how it relates to Sacramento’s affordable housing crisis?

The Downtown Sacramento Partnership is a property-based improvement district. We're one of the oldest and first in the state of California. It's our claim to fame. We represent 66 blocks within the urban core of Sacramento City, primarily known as the central business district. As we talk about the transformation of our urban core, we are fundamentally leaning into the conversation around housing and what attainable housing looks like. How do we expedite production for infill development that can open pathways for workers — for people of all kinds — to live, work, play within two to 15 minutes of their homes.

Infill development is an area where we can lean into a lot of the things we're talking about in terms of climate goals, transportation, and livability for individuals who … want to be adjacent to third spaces and other activities without having to rely on vehicles and other means of transportation.

Downtown is everybody's playground. We're looking to build a downtown that has a livable community for all. … So for us, we always centered our conversations around housing, and the diversification of our downtown as [a] priority as we look to the next chapter.

What do you see as the major factors driving lack of affordable housing in the Sacramento region?

The reduction of supply has been a major factor in the housing crisis. Sacramento has been doing a lot of proactive things recently in the last couple of years. When it comes to supply, it's just simply too difficult, time-consuming and expensive to build all types of housing at all affordability levels in California. In Sacramento, we've done a lot to try to move the needle on that specifically. We're the first pro-housing city — we've actually seen an increase in supply. We know that when there's an increase in supply, that reduces the cost of rentals and helps with that affordability component [across all housing].

In 2023, we saw rental prices go down not just once, but twice. And I think that's a really big indicator that Sacramento is doing a lot of proactive things in this arena to bring affordability to the table. We know that the work is not done, but I want to give kudos to the progress that we've made, and those market indicators that show us that we're doing the right thing.

What do you see as the most promising solutions to addressing the issue of housing affordability?

We just passed the 2040 General Plan. I think it is one of the most pro-housing long-term strategies that we've seen for the city. It allows for more housing density across the city by breaking down barriers to outdated zoning laws. While our focus is definitely in the central city, what the entire city is doing is going to uplift every type of affordability. When you are increasing allowable density, it is a driver for long-term housing availability and sustainability.

I would be remiss if I didn't say that we need to not take our eye off the ball in terms of building on this momentum. We want to continue to support ways that can bring predictability to production, reducing barriers and increasing those creative incentives so we can continue to build on that [housing] supply.

What more can you tell us about these solutions and why they offer the most potential to solve the problem?

In our organization, we have our housing policy working group where we bring together stakeholders from our community and our board to talk about these issues and work with experts. … I don't know all the fundamentals and the nuances of development — I'm not an expert in this arena. I go to those people who are experts, to understand these kinds of macroeconomic and microeconomic conditions. We're bringing together that community stakeholder group: an organization for advocacy efforts, our community partners, a pro-housing working group, other property-based improvement districts, chambers of commerce, and our buildings association. We come together monthly to talk about what are pro-housing policies that we can continue to support and innovate, that might continue to address this housing crisis that we continue to talk about. We know we need all these voices at the table to help drive good policy forward.

We also work with the city, participating in their housing working group. A lot of times, when we are having discussions around policy [it’s important that we’re] sitting down with everybody that has different views on this topic, really getting into the arena and dissecting the pieces: How does this work? What are our ultimate goals? How do we get there? Those can be difficult conversations, but I think they're really necessary to have well-rounded policy decisions that are going to be beneficial and have longevity for our community.

One of our housing experts recently said, “California doesn't have a housing crisis, we have a housing policy crisis.” That hit home for me. Because if you look at other states, they're able to streamline a project and get it approved in days, and get it rockin' and rollin'. They're able to make things happen in ways that we aren't necessarily made to make things happen. I think you're seeing a transformation of California rolling back a lot of things and revising and reforming a lot of these policies. Sacramento is definitely at the forefront of that.

What evidence exists to show the effectiveness of these solutions?

Density is our arena. In downtown, we have the ability to create density, which can look so many different ways. I think that's a key area that we've applied our advocacy efforts that's come to fruition through the General Plan. Building this density in proximity to high-frequency transit hubs … prioritizing infill development, that's really where we’re gonna see us achieving housing affordability.

It's not just about the housing project and people coming downtown. When you have land in the central city that's being utilized to its highest and best use, you're going to see an increase in the return on investment to the General Fund for the city. You're looking at a win-win scenario. You're creating this community that can be vibrant, and hit all these goals that we want to see in terms of supply, transportation, climate, but you're also seeing the return on investment sevenfold back to the city in terms of [an] increase in General Fund revenue. … We fundamentally see a higher return on investment than when we build in suburbs. …. It’s about the projects and about also creating a healthy, sustainable General Fund that can then be reinvested into more housing development, and more community-based amenities.

What limitations around these solutions exist?

There are a tremendous number of macroeconomic conditions that are undeniable: limitations to construction and production, supply costs, production costs, high interest [rates] — some of these are fixed costs that aren't manageable on the local economy. These are the limitations that we see on the macroeconomic level that are going to have compression on our ability to be able to bring forward supply on a local level, much out of the control of the city.

The Terner Center for Housing Innovation from UC Berkeley just released a report talking about what it looks like to take a project to pencil in 2023. It outlines some of the difficulties on the macro level, but also what we can do on the local level to mitigate some of these things. As a city, we made a lot of progress, but we need to make sure that we're continuing to look at ways that we can reduce hurdles for development.

For us, we're trying to make sure that we're continuing to stay competitive as a city: How do we send the right market signals to say Sacramento is open for business? We are a city that wants to work with development, we want to streamline these processes, we want to create public-private partnerships. We don't want to put additional red tape in here and we know that it's important that we create the most predictable process so that we can increase that supply at all costs.

Let's do everything we can on a local level to make sure that we're still moving the needle forward. And I would say, most importantly, it's really important that we continue to support housing at all levels. We need all of it, yesterday.
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.
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