Historic Marin City Housing Complex in Dangerous Disrepair

Residents left in limbo as Marin Housing Authority considers development plan

A Marin landlord won’t fix apartments rife with mold, rodents, plumbing leaks, broken heating, faulty wiring and fire hazards, according to residents.

We should run the bum right out of the county.

Too bad we can’t, because this landlord is the County of Marin. The Marin Housing Authority (MHA), to be specific.

For years, residents of Golden Gate Village, a 60-year-old public housing development in Marin City, say they have been forced to live in deplorable conditions. Rather than perform critical repairs now to the 300 deteriorated units, which house about 700 predominantly Black residents, the MHA developed a plan that will continue to postpone maintenance for many years.

The proposal includes hiring a private developer based in New Jersey, The Michaels Organization, to demolish 16 existing units at Golden Gate Village and replace them with two new high-rise towers containing 156 units. Although it’s not yet clear what income brackets the units will serve, the high density of the proposed development will no doubt change the fabric of the community.

After the new construction is complete, renovations will then begin on the existing Golden Gate Village apartments. Not surprisingly, the MHA is having a difficult time selling its plan to residents.

“You’re going to have residents waiting forever until they get their units renovated,” said Royce McLemore, president of the Golden Gate Village Resident Council. “That’s ridiculous. We need our deferred maintenance done now.”

Residents and other opponents of the MHA scheme say it could take five to 10 years to complete the planning, approval and construction process of the new buildings. Because Golden Gate Village is listed on the National Historic Registry, the project is subject to special reviews. Aaron Green, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the unique complex, and renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin planned the outdoor spaces.

Why has the MHA decided to let the historically significant site deteriorate and leave residents living in squalor? Theories abound—from a lack of funding to systemic racism to a nefarious plan to defer maintenance until the buildings are no longer salvageable. Razing Golden Gate Village would lead the way for further gentrification of Marin City and the possible displacement of low-income Black residents, many of whom have lived there for generations.

“Their whole goal is demolition by neglect,” McLemore said.

Regardless of the motivation, residents say the Board of Commissioners governing the MHA should stop this ill-conceived scheme in its tracks and insist renovations begin immediately on the existing units in Golden Gate Village. So far, the commissioners refuse, even though grants are available to help pay for the costs.

Perhaps the residents should circumvent the commissioners, and state their case directly to the Marin County Board of Supervisors? Unfortunately, that strategy won’t work.

All five county supervisors sit on the MHA Board of Commissioners, along with two public housing tenants. Ironically, though Golden Gate Village is by far the largest public housing complex in Marin, it does not have a resident on the commission.

Obviously, the next step is legal action. Done. In August, Golden Gate Village residents filed a lawsuit against the county seeking an injunction against the MHA plan and an order requiring timely repairs.

As the wheels of justice turn slowly, the residents still have no relief in sight. Since January, a federal court judge has been mulling over a motion from the county to dismiss the case.

Meanwhile, a group of concerned citizens, which includes architects, lawyers, a real estate developer and a certified public accountant, are working on behalf of the residents. They scrutinized the proposal from The Michaels Organization and the MHA, and found alarming financial discrepancies and irregularities.

Even a layperson can determine the project’s price tag is out of whack. Let’s examine the overall estimated renovation cost released in November by The Michaels Organization and the MHA.

The estimate came in at $282.3 million to renovate 300 units. That’s a whopping $941,000 per unit, which sounds mighty high when the MHA and its consultants say the foundations, cores, shells and roofs of the buildings are in good condition.

The amount becomes even more absurd considering that just two years earlier, the MHA released an estimate of $63 million for the renovation project. How in the world did the amount increase by 348% in a couple of years?

Diane Hanna, pro bono attorney for the Golden Gate Village Resident Council, outlined some of the specific issues with the ballooning costs in a nine-page letter sent to the MHA in December.

It appears the project’s soft costs, which are fees other than labor and materials, do not align with industry norms.

“At over $172 million, the soft costs account for a shocking 61% of the $282.3 million budget,” Hanna wrote. “Most experienced developers would utilize a soft cost rate of 15–25% of the overall budget.”

The estimated hard costs also are out of line, increasing 120% in two years. A 2018 estimate of $50 million for labor and materials swelled to $110 million, which far outpaces reasonable cost increases, according to Hanna.

“I understand the Housing Authority has been working on a revised report to address those concerns,” Marin County Supervisor Stephanie Moulton-Peters said. “The board has not received it yet.”

By now, the residents are used to waiting, but they haven’t been sitting idly. In 2013, the Golden Gate Village Residents Council developed a deep green revitalization plan for the complex and a path to home ownership for residents. They’ve been refining it ever since.

Though the MHA and Marin County Board of Supervisors have ignored the residents’ revitalization plan, the tenants recently partnered with a diverse group of advocates. After the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, white people began offering their time, professional expertise and funding to the residents’ cause.

“As word of what happens gets out into the community, we get more and more support,” volunteer Barbara Bogard said. “We have the support of the Sierra Club, The Redwoods in Mill Valley, Rodef Sholom and the First Presbyterian Church in San Anselmo.”

While the residents may have been at the mercy of the MHA for years, they now have a growing watchdog group looking out for their interests. Still, unless the MHA decides to become a responsible landlord or a jury forces them to act, 700 residents in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States must contend with major—and dangerous—disrepair in their homes.

This is part one in a series on Golden Gate Village. Next up, the rich history of Golden Gate Village and the residents’ revitalization plan versus the MHA proposal.

Nikki Silverstein
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