Sacramento’s oldest public housing complex, Dos Rios, is named for its proximity to the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. Its name may convey a bucolic image of languid days in open country as the rivers’ water glides by, but the complex is at the edge of the urban core, just north of the American River bridge that brings traffic downtown along Highway 160.
When built in the 1940s, Dos Rios was an island, with 218 units surrounded by open fields and disconnected from other neighborhoods by the American River, railroad tracks and levees. “It was built out in the middle of nowhere,” says Tyrone Roderick Williams, director of development for the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. “The land was in the unincorporated part of the county, and there was nothing there.”
Over the decades, Sacramento grew, and the open land around Dos Rios was filled, largely with warehouses and light-industrial operations, a stark contrast to residential or pastoral environments. It left Dos Rios still disconnected from downtown.
“It wasn’t considered a neighborhood,” Williams says. “It was considered an island of families surrounded by large industrial users.”
Like many public housing complexes, poverty was common at Dos Rios. The median income of residents who most recently lived at Dos Rios in 2018 was $12,000 a year compared to the median income citywide that is seven times greater. Williams says that reflects the demographic makeup of the people who lived there and in other SHRA housing projects. “The majority of our residents are elderly, disabled or single heads of household raising kids,” Williams says. “Public housing for so many people is the last safety net before homelessness. Contrary to the perception some people may have, the people living in public housing are not young and vibrant.”
A Catalyst for Urban Development
But that could change with the rebuilding of Dos Rios, now known as Twin Rivers, as a redevelopment project that will include public housing and the role it could play in urban development. Armed with a $30 million federal grant, SHRA is in the early stages of turning the complex into a model that envisions public housing as a vital cog in economic development and rebuilding neighborhoods.
“This is a paradigm shift for public housing and represents a unique opportunity to build a stronger future for its residents,” says Rachel Hazelwood, senior economic development project manager for the City of Sacramento. She says this is the city’s first project with the primary goal of integrating an isolated public housing project with a larger community.
Demolition of the 218 living units is underway, and the next phase, installing new infrastructure, will begin in the fall of 2019. “The housing units didn’t look deplorable, but they were run-down, and the infrastructure was deteriorating,” Williams says. “The complex didn’t look bad, but it didn’t function well.”
Construction of the $310 million project will spread over an estimated five years and include 498 housing units.
The original sewer lines were so small that the complex frequently flooded, and replacing them will require raising the entire 22-acre site by 4 feet to accommodate appropriately sized lines.
But the concept of public housing may be just as outdated as the sewer lines at Twin Rivers, Williams says. Planning for the transformation of the site began in 2012 when Sacramento won a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Created during the Obama administration, the Choice Neighborhoods program seeks to change the purpose of public housing. “They looked at public housing as a catalyst for redeveloping whole communities,” Williams says.
Under that vision, public housing projects would do more than provide homes for the disadvantaged or segregate impoverished communities in a city. “There is a proven benefit to decentralizing poverty and giving people exposure to other people with different lifestyles and income levels,” Williams says.
Beyond the original 22-acre site, the project’s design will consider the needs of future residents of the River District along Richards Boulevard and The Railyards.
To achieve that vision, the new Twin Rivers complex will be considerably larger than the original, expanding along 12 acres of Richards Boulevard. Construction of the $310 million project will spread over an estimated five years and include 498 housing units in a combination of townhouses, garden apartments, three- and four-story apartment buildings, and replacements for the 218 units of public housing.
A New Neighborhood
The new Twin Rivers will include other features to create a true neighborhood, Williams says. “We’re adding amenities such as bike trails, a walking trail along the river, a community garden, and we’re planting 500 trees,” he says. “We’re putting in a new park that will sit on top of the city’s largest retention pond to prevent flooding.”
A new light rail stop along North 12th Street south of Richards Boulevard is also in the long-term plans, as are the availability of car-sharing programs from Electrify America to increase transportation options throughout the area. “It’s a very challenging project and on the cutting edge of national policy,” says Dan Falcon of McCormack Baron Salazar, Twin River’s lead developer. “One of the major challenges is integrating the site into the surrounding communities, and improving transportation is a key element toward meeting that goal.”
Williams believes the variety of housing and mixing people of different income levels will be one of the biggest benefits of the new Twin Rivers complex. “It’s going to be transformational, but not exclusionary,” he says. In between market rate and public housing, some units will be set aside for people with relatively low incomes who could be at risk of being priced out of housing if rents and home prices continue to rise in the region.
“They could include restaurant workers, school teachers, policemen or some state workers who are gainfully employed, don’t qualify for public housing, but don’t make enough to afford market rate,” Williams says. Mixing people of different incomes and lifestyles offers the benefit of exposing people to more economic opportunities or different career choices, he says.
Over the last 18 months, residents of Twin Rivers were relocated with the help of case managers assigned to each family to other SHRA-managed housing or given housing vouchers, if they preferred that option. “No one was forced to move to a place they didn’t want,” Williams says.
The federal funding granted to this project requires that all 218 public housing units are replaced, and the first 140 units in the construction’s initial phase will be offered to the families who lived at Twin Rivers.
Planning the new Twin Rivers as a mixed-income development can also solve another housing issue in a rapidly rising real estate market. “Gentrification often becomes an impediment to people remaining in the neighborhoods they have lived in all their lives,” Williams says. “This project, by its financial design, gives people a home they can remain in for a long time.”
Bill Sessa is a Sacramento-based freelance writer.