Homeward Bound

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Who wouldn't want to live here?

Marin County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni was on KWMR recently, the West Marin public radio station in Pt. Reyes Station, talking housing policy, the high cost of living here and what to do about it.

Rodoni’s in an interesting spot insofar as his 4th district goes—his comments on the housing challenges across the county begged for a further exploration of the issues he raised, and the host kept interrupting him to exclaim how complicated the issues were.

The supervisor represents West Marin as well as a swath of San Rafael that includes the Latino-centric Canal District. As such, he’s plugged in to the rich urban fabric that characterizes the Canal District as much as he’s tuned in to the funky ruralism of West Marin.

He sketched out for KWMR’s listeners a raft of housing initiatives and updates that didn’t so much spell out an “East-West Divide” when it comes to housing policy, as much as emphasize the respective challenges in both parts of the county. Call it a dialectical dance between the populated east and the pristine west. Both areas are severely cramped for available space—the East by existing development, the West by restrictions to development. Is there a middle ground?

To the East: The housing challenges are tied in with state efforts to goose the economy of the Canal District by creating an economic enterprise zone that offers tax breaks and incentives for developers. Those incentives, says Rodoni, have in turn led to marked increases in rent for locals, as he’s seen a string of developers come through, purchase properties and make improvements to them—spiking the rent to such a degree that residents have had to depart in some cases.

Last year, a big set-to unfolded in San Rafael after a Vallejo-based entity bought a multi-unit property at 150 Belvedere St. and then sent out notices that tenants’ rents would rise by $900, according to a report in the Marin Independent Journal, which reported that some tenants were already paying $2,200 a month.

To the West: The housing challenges in West Marin are exacerbated by several intersecting factors that include the short-term rental economy and its impacts on housing stock—but Rodoni says the biggest issue may simply be a lack of public understanding about an available program for homeowners looking to rent to federally subsidized Section 8 tenants.

In a follow-up interview a few days after his radio gig, Rodoni elaborated and the timing couldn’t have been more spot-on. After two years of uncertainty, Marin County received the green light to go ahead with a long-proposed purchase of a former Coast Guard housing development in Pt. Reyes Station and redevelop it as workforce housing.

“It’s a done deal,” says Rodoni, to the extent that the county’s been approved by the Coast Guard to buy the property for $4.3 million. There’s still a formal process to complete, a purchase agreement to hash out, “and then some other hoops,” Rodoni says. But he’s sure the deal will close by the end of the year, well in advance of spot legislation pushed through Congress that paved the way for the U.S. Coast Guard to turn over the title to Marin County. That law expires in February, but Rodoni says don’t worry about it; the Coast Guard has already told the county that “if we go over the time limit, they’ll still honor the deal. But we don’t want to.”

The Coast Guard facility is 32 houses spread over 36 acres, and if $4.3 million seems like a good deal, that’s because there’s no on-site waste disposal system, which played in to the appraisal. That much acreage and that many houses, he says, “would be far more valuable than what we paid” if there was on-site septic. Rodoni says he expects most of the eventual renters will be drawn from the local workforce. It’s a simple matter of logistics, says Rodoni: Who is going to apply for a housing unit in far-flung Pt. Reyes if they don’t have a job? The people who apply for the vouchers now in West Marin, he says, are typically connected to the community and working locally.

The resolution of the Coast Guard to transfer its property to the county comes as Marin continues to work housing-related programs in the eastern and western parts of the county.

The county passed an ordinance in 2015 to launch its Landlord Partnership Program and signed on to the Real Community Rentals Program that’s administered by the Community Land Trust of West Marin (CLAM). At its Aug. 9 meeting, supervisors supported two-year extensions for both programs, citing their successes even as they said there’s room for improvement.

The county budgeted $500,000 to the respective programs. The LPP is administered by the county and got $450,000; CLAM got the other $50,000 after it developed 13 new affordable housing rental opportunities in West Marin.

The LPP program has been a success to the east, says Rodoni, but not so much in West Marin. The MHA program is a two-year effort that set out to de-stigmatize renters who participate in the federal Housing Choice program, also known as Section 8. The voucher program allows low-income persons to put 30 percent of their incomes toward the rent, with the federal government picking up the balance. To encourage participation, the county created the LPP, which tells participating landlords: If your Section 8 tenant damages your rental unit or skips town without paying the rent, the county picks up the tab. According to county metrics, it’s been a success, at least in populated East Marin. The problem, or one of them, is that many West Marinites with Section 8 housing vouchers don’t want to move to the eastern part of the county, even if that’s where the buy-in is. “They want to stay in West Marin,” says Rodoni, but there’s just not enough Section 8 landlord participation to house everyone with a voucher.

In an August news release, the county reports that from June 2015 to June 2018, “the probability that a tenant could lease a home with voucher assistance rose 22 percent in Marin, and the Landlord Partnership Program is believed to be a big reason why.”

Rodoni stresses that even if there hasn’t been any buy-in in West Marin, that’s not a criticism of West Marin homeowners but a reflection of the fact that they just may not know about it. Not one West Marin landowner has signed up, while 100 landlords in eastern Marin are participating. He’ll be talking it up, he says, at scheduled community meetings.

Also at play is the absence of large, West Marin landowners with apartment complexes to fill. Rodoni stresses to his West Marin-homeowner constituents that the program is available to them, too, even if they’re just one landlord with one unit for one person. “It’s not a lack of people participating” because the program’s no good, he says, “it’s probably more about education on this issue than anything.”

Social forces at play in West Marin have, over time, conspired to crimp the stock of available rental housing and helped lead to the very crisis now unfolding on the street-camping-choked avenues of West Marin.

First, as Rodoni notes, it’s very hard to build anything anywhere in Marin County. Land is scarce, the neighbors are fussy, and building costs are out of this world. Second, West Marin’s towns and communities have become second-home communities, and with that, there’s less permanent housing for the locals. Rodoni recalls Inverness relatives who used their house for two months a year and rented it out the rest of the year to locals. “Those were different times,” he says. “People needed the financial support to own the home but they still wanted to use it. Nowadays, they’re looking at it as a second-home write-off.”

He’d like to see a return to that dynamic, which is where recent county moves on housing issues come into play. Rodoni sees an opportunity to have the best of both worlds—allow for short-term rentals for their transient-occupancy-tax potential while also potentially requiring anyone who uses their second home as a business to have a full-time renter on site. “So you can get back to the idea of having a caretaker in a rental,” he says. “We’re exploring that idea as a pilot.”

Back in the east, in the Canal District, the housing challenges are less about reanimating a kind of small-town, caretaker-owner dynamic. In the east, housing stress is driven more by a big push from developers who are taking advantage of the opportunity-zone imprimatur that’s been decreed by the state and which comes with all sorts of tax credits for developers. “What we’re seeing in the Canal District is purchases and redevelopment—new owners and landlords are coming in and because they pay today’s market price for these properties, they raise the rent, 100 percent in some cases.”

San Rafael has fought to get those rent-raises on a timeline so that a renter isn’t faced with a whopping spike from one month to the next. But he says it’s not enough and “it’s only a short time before people can’t afford to live in the Canal District anymore. This is displacing families who have no place to go—and this is workforce housing that the county needs.” It’s a tough call for lawmakers who want to see the redevelopment of poorer neighborhoods but not at the cost of the neighborhood itself.

The state legislature gave localities flexibility in their guidelines for how redevelopment in places like the Canal District unfolds, but still says the county was somewhat “blindsided” by the rush to redevelop. “Even the bowling alley may be closing and converted to housing there,” he says. When it comes to housing, everything’s on the table.

To the north, in Sonoma County, an ambitious pilot housing program has been undertaken by Habitat For Humanity to address that county’s own housing crisis, as our feature story reports this week. They’ve teamed up with the developer of the Katrina Cottage program that emerged after Hurricane Katrina, The Cypress Group, to create a nine-house village of next-gen small houses that have all the resiliency bells and whistles one might wish for in this era of global climate change and the mega-wildfire: advocates for the houses say they’re energy efficient, fire-resistant—and could help solve the state’s affordable housing crisis.

The pioneering New Urbanist Marianne Cusato led the Katrina Cottage effort in New Orleans and now she’s leading the Sonoma Wildfire Cottage effort in the North Bay. Cusato says the program unfolding in Santa Rosa could be a model for communities across the state dealing with the one-two punch of unaffordable housing in disaster-prone areas. Marin County qualifies on both fronts.

For Cusato, the affordable housing crisis is as universal as it was avoidable. If civic leaders in previous generations had the wisdom and political will to invest in mixed-use communities, build walkable cities, create public transit and upgrade community infrastructure, she says, “we wouldn’t have the affordable housing crisis that we have now.”

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