Jonathan Cook is the executive director of the Sacramento Housing Alliance (Photo by Andrew Nixon, CapRadio)
Q&A by Chris Nichols, CapRadio

One of the Sacramento region’s leading advocacy groups for affordable housing has a new leader. Jonathan Cook was hired last month as executive director of the Sacramento Housing Alliance, or SHA. 

Cook will help shape the nonprofit’s efforts to promote safe and accessible housing and equitable policies for lower-income households. He’ll be responsible for leading SHA as the Sacramento region confronts the growing and related crises of homelessness and the severe lack of affordable housing

CapRadio’s Homelessness and Housing Affordability reporter Chris Nichols spoke with Cook about his priorities for the organization. 

For people who have never heard of the Sacramento Housing Alliance, how would you describe the mission and purpose of your organization? 

Sacramento Housing Alliance’s mission is to advocate for safe, stable, accessible and affordable homes in the Sacramento region and to build healthy communities through education, leadership and policy change. And our vision statement is for everyone in the Sacramento region to have a home and a healthy and inclusive neighborhood.

Before we get into the details of your work on housing, Jonathan, tell me about yourself on a personal level. Where did you grow up and what’s your connection to Sacramento?

I grew up in the Bay Area, primarily in the North Bay, Napa and Solano counties. So I spent a lot of time in Wine Country, as it were. The last five years I was working as executive director of the Solano Pride Center, which is the LGBT Center for Solano County and also worked previously in the East Bay and Concord. And my husband and I moved to Sacramento a little over two years ago. He was finishing his training as a pharmacist resident. And so we have made Sacramento our home, and we’ve really come to love the city and this region.

You mentioned your time with the Solano Pride Center. Before that, you worked with the Rainbow Community Center of Contra Costa. What skills and experience will you take from those roles as you lead the Sacramento Housing Alliance?

Both of those positions really shaped a lot of the experience that I bring to this position. Both focused on equity for marginalized communities, working with the LGBT community, communities of color, as well as community organizing, work around public policy, around health equity, [and] mental health equity. All of these issues are really closely related because housing is one of those foundational needs that everyone has. If you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s very difficult to be able to focus on your mental health issues or going after your education or furthering your career unless you have a safe home, a roof over your head. So in both of those roles, I really saw how housing was tied to a lot of the struggles and concerns that our clients had, particularly working in a community mental health setting.

What are the biggest factors driving the lack of affordable housing here in the Sacramento region?

Generally, California hasn’t been building enough housing for the last few decades. In particular, the folks who are left out and have the greatest need are low- and very low-income folks. And so our stock of affordable housing is desperately needed. When you’re thinking of folks who need that support, we need to make sure we preserve our existing affordable housing supply. It also ties into the situation that is on the minds of so many folks here around people experiencing homelessness.  

At Sacramento Housing Alliance, we really feel that the solution to homelessness is a safe and affordable home; being able to increase our stock of shelters as well as permanent supportive housing; making sure that we have resources for folks who are coming out of living on the streets. We want to make sure that we’re increasing our affordable housing supply and making sure that we’re not leaving anyone behind, as a result.

I think a lot of people would agree with you that building more affordable housing, that’s the need. How does an organization like yours, from a practical level, make a difference? How do you improve this picture in Sacramento?

We do a lot of the advocacy work around affordable housing. So, working with the city of Sacramento, the county and neighboring cities and counties to make sure that we are prioritizing affordable housing. Some of our priorities for this year [include] advocating for adequate local affordable housing supplies, and that includes funding. There is an effort to develop a 2024 ballot initiative, which would increase revenue for affordable housing that would be permanent. We’re working with a coalition of folks to try to see what that specific strategy will be for next year.

And then, of course, work to get people off the streets. So displacement mitigation, making sure that we are continuing to develop affordable housing strategies which include funding displacement prevention, tenant assistance and mortgage assistance. 

Also, making sure that we do this work with a racial equity lens and really making sure that we’re not displacing folks when we’re continuing to have conversations around economic development. 

What hope can you give to our audience that something could be a solution in the near-term to the affordable housing crisis? 

I do know that housing is on everyone’s mind. I think in terms of optimism, it’s creating solutions around the possibility of a permanent funding source for affordable housing for our region. Whether that’s a sales tax or a transfer tax bond measure that might come from the state. We’re optimistic about that and we really feel like that’s going to be an important part of the solution. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.