The Elk Grove city staff on Sept. 28 provided a update to the community on the issues of homelessness and housing in Elk Grove.

This update, which was presented during an online town hall meeting highlighting these topics, was intended to educate the public about affordable housing topics, as well as to dispel misconceptions regarding those topics.

In recognizing challenges that many renters and home buyers face, Elk Grove Mayor Bobbie Singh-Allen, in a prerecorded message, noted that these “important issues” should be approached with “compassion and human dignity.”

Elk Grove City Council Member Darren Suen said that the biggest misconception that he hears on the topic of housing are misuses of the terms, “housing affordability,” and “affordable housing.”

“’Housing affordability’ can include both market rate and the government, affordable-type housing, but the two are not synonymous,” he said. “Other than four walls and a roof, they have very little in common. They’re different builders, they’re different ways they’re financed. So, there’s a lot of complexity in that.”

Sarah Bontrager, the city’s housing and public services manager, added that the topic of affordable housing often relates to housing for low-income people.

“(Affordable housing) is a classification defined by the state and by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development,” she said. “And they break down income levels into a few different classifications

“Extremely low income is looking at 30% of the median income. For a four-person household, that’s about $27,000 a year, and they can afford about $700 a month in rent (for a three-bedroom unit).”

Bontrager noted that there are few places where one can live in Elk Grove at that level of income, as well as the very low-income level, which can afford about $1,100 per month to rent a three-bedroom unit.

The low-income level consists of people who have an annual income of $72,500 and can afford to rent a three-bedroom unit for $1,813 a month.

Regarding low-income housing in Elk Grove, Bontrager mentioned that one cannot purchase a home in Elk Grove at that income level.

“You might find the rare rental in our community at that price point,” she added.

Providing examples of careers that fall in the extremely low-income level, Bontrager referred to such workers as retail clerks, home care aides, and food service workers.

She added that preschool teachers, bank tellers, security guards, data entry workers and landscapers generally fall into the very low-income level, while low-income workers include emergency medical technicians, mail carriers, auto mechanics and administrative assistants.

Bontrager mentioned that there are local school district employees who live in some of Elk Grove’s affordable housing units.

Elk Grove’s current median income level is $91,100, which positions a renter to afford $2,278 a month for a three-bedroom unit. The city’s median rent is $1,970, and market rate rentals cost about $1,800 to $3,000 per month.

Bontrager noted that while many moderate-level income households can rent a unit in Elk Grove, many lower income people are unable to find a place to rent.

Bontrager added that compounding this issue is a low rental vacancy.

“Right now, we are seeing vacancy rates that are no more than 2%, and many complexes (have a) 0% vacancy,” she said.

Among the issues causing low housing affordability is a strong demand for housing, rising costs in home construction, and a shortage in construction labor.

Bontrager further described the level of need that exists in the city for low-cost apartments.

“For example, our recently opened apartment complex (The Gardens at Quail Run), we have 96 units and we got 28,000 unique lottery entries for those units,” she said. “But we were able to house 10 homeless households in that apartment complex.”

For those seeking to buy a house in Elk Grove, the median home price is $526,750, and there are no homes available in the city below $250,000.

As for how the city plans for new housing, Elk Grove updates its housing element plans every eight years.

The housing element consists of goals, policies and actions that encourage the development of housing for all income levels. However, Elk Grove is not required to build housing through the housing element.

“Our obligation is to maintain a land inventory, so that if an apartment developer wanted to come into our community and build something, they would have the option of several sites that they could look at to purchase,” Bontrager said.

Bontrager mentioned that housing availability is a driver of homelessness.

“What we saw coming out of the last recession is as the economy got stronger, households became more confident,” she said.

Jennifer McCue, one of Elk Grove’s two homeless outreach officers, said that there were about 317 people experiencing homelessness in Elk Grove in 2020.

McCue added that from 80 to 100 homeless people live in this city at any given time.

Those people, she noted, live in homeless encampments, under freeways, bridges and tunnels, and in their cars.

To assist the local homeless population, the city provides such services as a homeless services navigator, full-time problem-oriented policing, a mobile crisis support team, and transitional housing.

The city also partners with Sacramento County, and various nonprofits such as the Elk Grove Homeless Assistance Resource Team and Elk Grove Food Bank Services.

McCue mentioned that she works weekly with Chris Cahill, Elk Grove’s other homeless outreach officer.

With 11 homeless camps on Cosumnes Community Services District (CSD) land, the CSD regularly monitor those camps and aids Elk Grove’s weekly, homeless camp cleanup program.

Last spring, the city launched a program to pay homeless in Elk Grove to help clean up their own camps.

Bontrager, in a video played at the meeting, noted that she has met with many of the city’s unhoused residents, and has recognized that many of those people became homeless through a single situation.

“It could be a health problem or an injury or an unanticipated car repair, a divorce,” she said. “Once you become homeless, it can be really, really hard to climb out.”

Included in the video was a woman named Cassandra, who said that she became homeless through a “bad marriage and a situation that was unsafe.”

Cassandra, who now lives in a low-income apartment in Elk Grove, described the challenges she faced as a homeless person.

“Being given resources that were outdated and just chasing whatever lead you thought (was good), but they were always old or nonexistent even,” she said.

Also featured in the video was a man named Richard, who experienced homelessness in Elk Grove. He shared his frustration with certain people’s view that homeless people are “the very bottom of the social structure.”

Elk Grove City Council Member Darren Suen shared his thoughts on homelessness and housing affordability.

“Two of our biggest threats to our quality of life are homelessness and housing affordability,” he said. “I still remember when I was a kid, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ station wagon, leaning up on the front seat and my dad saying to me – who spent a career in the appraisal industry – the toughest thing for you when you grow up is affording a home.”

Suen added that this challenge continues, and that he has the same concern for his children, as well as others throughout the entire city.

Bontrager encouraged the community to follow the city’s social media pages account for updates on projects related to housing and homelessness.

To volunteer to assist Elk Grove’s homeless or to recommend a homeless person who needs help, visit www.ElkGroveCity.org/Homelessness.