Marin County moved a few steps closer last week to transforming a shuttered skilled nursing facility in Greenbrae into permanent supportive housing for 43 chronically homeless people. Despite enthusiastic backing by the County, not everyone is happy about the project.
The Marin County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution to apply for up to $16 million from Project Homekey, a state funding program enabling the rapid expansion of housing units for the homeless during the pandemic.
The funds, if awarded, would go toward the purchase of the property at 1251 South Eliseo Drive, renovations and a portion of the operating costs for three years. The property is in the community of Greenbrae; however, that part of South Eliseo is under the jurisdiction of the City of Larkspur.
California announced last month that $1.45 billion in Homekey funding is up for grabs by local municipalities to provide housing for the homeless. The turnaround time to spend the funds is quick: all capital expenditures must be made within eight months of the award.
To assist with the project, the County supervisors unanimously authorized increasing the amount of a contract with Episcopal Community Services from $49,000 to $1,085,300. The significant increase includes deposits for property purchases and initial payments for professionals, such as architects and engineers. The County selected ECS, a San Francisco–based nonprofit, to identify, vet and secure up to two potential Project Homekey sites, one of which is the South Eliseo property. The other site has not yet been identified, according to Beth Stokes, executive director of ECS.
Some neighbors say the Greenbrae project, which is near condominiums, apartments, MarinHealth Medical Center and medical offices, does not fit into the community. An anonymous flyer distributed throughout the immediate neighborhood urged people to oppose the project.
A man who spoke during the comment period at the Board of Supervisors meeting last week voiced several objections, including his fear that the project would attract homeless people from San Francisco, drug use which could affect children and panhandling.
Complaints about the project on social media also run the gamut, from the high price tag of the property to wasting taxpayer dollars to political graft and corruption. The homeless themselves did not escape unscathed in the comments. One man said the homeless have severe alcohol and drug abuse issues, as well as “mental problems, anti-social behavior, child abuse and shoplifting.”
Little evidence was offered for any of the allegations against the project. Conversely, the data surrounding permanent supportive housing programs is extremely positive, especially in Marin County.
The permanent supportive housing model is a proven success nationwide, housing chronically homeless people with a qualifying disability. In Marin, 95% of the people in the program do not return to homelessness. Currently, 629 people live in permanent supportive housing in Marin. Adding the Greenbrae facility will increase the number of people served in the program by 7%.
ECS, which has worked with the homeless for more than 35 years, will run the planned Greenbrae housing facility. The nonprofit specializes in permanent supportive housing, currently operating more than 1,800 units in San Francisco. With a resident retention rate of 98% in its permanent supportive housing programs, ECS has earned a reputation as a well-respected partner.
Staff will be present 24/7 at the South Eliseo location. Case managers will visit the households regularly to assist with life skills. Over time, some residents gain self-sufficiency. Other services may include connecting individuals with healthcare, education, job programs, addiction treatment and mental health treatment, depending upon their needs.
Residents will pay 30% of their income in rent. They will also be required to sign a lease, laying out policies around quiet hours, smoking and trash disposal. Although there will be no curfew, there will be restrictions on the number of guests on the property, Stokes said.
If Marin County receives the greenlight for Project Homekey funding, not only will ECS run the Greenbrae facility, it will actually own the entire property. ECS has contributed $50,000 to predevelopment costs of the project.
“Marin County isn’t in the business of owning any housing,” Supervisor Katie Rice said. “I think it really makes sense that the operator is the owner of the property.”
Although the County would not retain any ownership in the property if the deal comes to fruition, it would still provide $8 million to fund the project. Marin will also have to give ECS a multi-year guarantee of financial support for an operating subsidy and supportive services. Currently, the County is seeking public and private funding for the multi-year costs.
The South Eliseo property, a 1.3-acre site on Corte Madera Creek, is listed for $11 million. Somewhat of an eyesore after remaining vacant for seven years, the 26,638-square-foot building is marred by graffiti and boarded-up windows. Old, rundown cars dot a few of the parking spaces.
Renovated buildings in the area sell for $1,000 per square foot, according to Nick Egide, the real estate listing agent. The 1251 South Eliseo property is priced at $413 per square foot due to the need for rehabilitation.
Neighbors against the project say that the $11 million asking price is steep. The property last sold eight years ago for $5 million.
“It was a distressed sale the last time the property sold,” Egide said. “All properties in the area have appreciated since then. The pricing is on point, judging by the comparables. Offers keep coming in around that number.”
The renovation costs are estimated at $8.5 million, Stokes said. All in, the price of the property and rehabilitation total almost $20 million.
Critics say the amount is too high to house 43 people, noting the cost comes to $465,000 per person, not including annual operating expenses.
“It is so expensive to develop any kind of housing in Marin County,” Rice said. “As far as the County is concerned, because the state is coming forward with such a big chunk of funding, they’ll be funding over half of the cost of the property, and then part of the operating costs for a few years going out. It really reduces the cost to the County itself. Our costs for this project will be under $250,000 per door. Project Homekey is making this possible financially. It sounds like a huge number, but that’s just the reality of construction and development in the 21st century.”
While not everybody is convinced that a permanent supportive housing project is right for Greenbrae, opposition by neighbors cannot stop the project, according to Rice. At this point, the Board of Supervisors is determined to move ahead, barring financing or property inspection issues.
“I have been addressing homelessness for the last six to eight years, and I have total confidence that this can be a project that will totally work for the community,” Rice said.