City Hall

What can Citrus Heights do to reduce blight, improve neighborhoods?

Citrus Heights
File photo, the vacant corner of Auburn and Grand Oaks boulevards in Citrus Heights has long been an unsightly area, but a new burger drive-thru was approved earlier this year to take up the spot. // CH Sentinel

Sentinel staff report–
Keeping neighborhoods clean was one of the top priorities Citrus Heights residents said the City Council should focus on in a survey commissioned by the City last year. The topic also came up in one of the questions asked to each of the five residents running for Citrus Heights City Council during a candidate forum hosted last month by the Chamber of Commerce.

When asked what the City could do to improve neighborhoods to attract new residents to Citrus Heights, candidates offered a variety of ideas, including paving streets, growing existing housing assistance programs, and slashing permit costs to encourage development. But an area of significant disagreement was whether a new $500,000 Rental Housing Inspection Unit should be pursued as a way to proactively combat blight and improve the quality of housing.

The inspection unit was proposed earlier this year and would bring on two new administrative staff members and three new code enforcement officers to implement mandatory inspections of the roughly 15,000 rental units in the city. The council voted 4-1 in favor of pursuing the program last month, but a final vote is still needed later this year when a draft ordinance is brought before the council.

Related: Citrus Heights council votes 4-1 to move forward with mandatory rental inspections

The five candidates running for City Council this year include three current members of the council who are up for election — Mayor Steve Miller, Vice Mayor Jeannie Bruins, and Council Member Al Fox, who was appointed to fill the vacancy left by the late Councilman Mel Turner. Two challengers seeking to unseat at least one of the current members of the council are Planning Commissioner Porsche Middleton and labor relations manager Treston Shull, who also serves on the board of the Residents’ Empowerment of Citrus Heights (REACH).

Each candidate’s 90-second answer to the question of how Citrus Heights can improve its neighborhoods to attract new residents is included in its entirety below:

Steve Miller: “There’s a number of ways. One, it starts with public safety, and I mentioned before, property crimes are down, and violent crimes are down 8%. So, having safe neighborhoods, having a police department that responds.

“The council’s also considering now an ordinance on a Rental Housing Inspection Program. What that would do — and many folks have complained about it — 93%, when we surveyed our residents last, said blight in the neighborhoods was a big issue. And a lot of this comes from the rental housing. And we want to, in the next three years, inspect every single rental housing unit — and that also includes apartments, (although) that’s really not been the issue, it’s been the houses, and you can see them in the neighborhood. We have an aging housing stock. And a lot of these homes that are rentals are absentee landlords from the Bay Area. They’re not fixing the siding, the roofs, and it’s just causing blight in our neighborhood and a lot of folks have asked for us to correct it and I think that’s one of the tools we can do.

“I’ve also mentioned paving. I know I was one of the fortunate neighborhoods, way back in ’97 – ’98 we had one of the worst streets in the city, and it had never been repaved since it was paved 30 years prior. And just coming and resurfacing the street, just improved the entire neighborhood. So, I think we need to look at ways that we can raise property values, all the surrounding homes, by taking care of some of the blighted issues.”

Treston Shull: “I believe my plan on that is simple. We need to reduce fees on housing, rental housing. Simplify permitting with a one-stop-shop policy so builders have one point of contact at the City who bird-dog all the City departments and outside agencies. Speed up the permitting process. I am examining financial incentives such as community banking and financing as a possible way to encourage private development of affordable housing. I do not and I will not support any efforts for the City to become a housing provider, builder or landlord.

“But I think it’s really important what Steve said, when he said that the City recently voted on the new initiative that pays for code enforcement. I believe that was actually wrong. I don’t agree with the City on that. They voted on that 4-to-1. And what that does is, 25% of the code enforcement problems in the city come from rental properties. But now they’re turning to basically taxing, with the registration fee, 100% of the landlords and property owners of those rentals to pay for 100% of the code enforcement increase of those five additional employees. The City said that the three new code enforcement officers, and two new analytical analysts, will be paid for by the registration fees and it won’t be any cost out of the general fund. Those are employees who have pension plans, and raises, and benefit increases every year. So after one year, that fee will no longer cover those services. And that’s going to come out of the general fund. And we need to make sure we do have code enforcement to fix the issues, though, but (in) a financially sustainable way.”

Al Fox: “I think that the problem that we’re looking at in these established neighborhoods, and we have older families, older residents that have a tax base that they don’t want to give up. We don’t have a way for them to move that tax base as of yet. There’s going to be a proposition on the ballot coming up that talks about: can a property owner, senior citizen property owner, move out of a larger home into a smaller home of equal or near value, and take their property tax exemption with them. We have a situation in all of our communities where your elderly population are being priced out of their homes, or particularly rentals because they’re on fixed incomes and they cannot make that difference. And yet they own a tremendous amount of the land in our city at this point in time. And we need to respect that, and we need to deal with it accordingly.

“The inspection (program) that people are talking about, I will tell you now, I built houses in the 1960s. I built apartment buildings in the 1960s, and the apartment buildings we have in Citrus Heights, built in the late 60s, were built for a lifespan of about 20 years. And they’re still there and a lot of them have not been changed. We have some serious problems. One of the things we need to avoid is the subsequent liability of the City for not being able to inspect and ensure safe housing — like they’re doing right now in Richmond, like they’re doing in Oakland, and like they’re doing in Berkeley. There are court cases out there pending right now, that, if they go the way they’re looking at this point, will make the local jurisdiction liable for not doing inspections for public safety.”

Porsche Middleton: “I understand where our current council is coming from when it comes to the rental inspections, and also understand where candidate Treston is coming from also. And my concern is more so that by adding in these extra steps for these property owners that — to not deal with the hassle — they’ll take apartment buildings and they’ll just convert them into condos. And that decreases our rental housing stock. So basically they get renovated, they get to resell them, and it increases property values all around –but then we have to worry about the end effect of that which is people getting priced out of the area, getting priced out of their homes. Rentals increasing in price, and these individuals end up homeless, essentially.

“I think the more reasonable thing to do is to encourage uses of our community grants, of people going out there and helping to clean up neighborhoods. The old Sylvan school, that’s right across from the community center on Sylvan road, the operating engineers come out there every year and they do development. Rotary goes out every year and they find projects that need to be done within our community.

“We can’t legislate our way out of this problem. We have to be that community that we were 20 years ago that started to fix these issues as a group. And that’s core, but trying to legislate, and make laws and create more issues for our property owners is just going to turn them away and then we won’t have the development that we want.”

Jeannie Bruins: “We start by recognizing who we are today, and what we have to live with, and work with. We are a community that has aging housing stock, and a small level of ability to create new housing from the ground up. So most of our improvements are going to be on redevelopment and development of our neighborhoods. One way to improve our neighborhoods to attract new residents, is to continue to grow the programs we already have.

“We have a first-time home buyer program for people who have not been homeowners in the last three years. It’s a loan assistance program that provides them the ability to make a down payment. It’s a program that they don’t have to pay back until they sell the house. In addition, we have a home repair program that’s very vibrant. We need to continue to grow these programs so that people who are in substandard homes have the ability to pay for repairs that they need to elevate the quality of the home that they live in.

“We also need to continue to offer options in housing. We have over half of our homes are rental homes, and yes, rental homes are necessary. But for a community to grow and to improve, we need more home ownership. And so the programs that we’re offering are a piece of the puzzle that will help make that possible.”

*To read more about the candidate forum or watch a full-length recording of the forum, see story: Citrus Heights candidates tackle homelessness, schools, economy, blight

Want to share your own thoughts on how best to improve local neighborhoods? Click here to submit a letter to the editor for publication.