In front of a room crowded with concerned residents, two Marin City pastors had a come-to-Jesus meeting last month with an Idaho real estate developer who is planning a controversial affordable housing project.
Rev. Rondall Leggett and Rev. Floyd Thompkins did not mince words. If developer Caleb Roope, CEO of the The Pacific Companies, proceeds with the five-story, 74-unit apartment complex, he’ll be another in a long line of racists who think they know what’s best for Marin City, a historically Black community.
“We want you to go,” Leggett, of First Missionary Baptist Church, said. “We know that you may potentially have the capital you need. You definitely have commitment from the county. But you don’t have our consent.”
The meeting was hosted by Save Our City, a local group opposed to the planned project at 825 Drake Ave. The pastors, along with AJ Lambert, who lives across the street from the currently vacant lot, outlined some of the community’s numerous objections to the development, including that it’s dangerous to substantially increase the population of the small neighborhood already rife with serious infrastructure issues.
Not only is the property in a state-designated high fire hazard zone, but the area is also prone to flooding. Public safety problems are compounded because there’s only one road in and out of Marin City. In addition, the building will block the sun from reaching the two-story senior housing project behind the property.
“I’m the first guy to acknowledge that this project, from a neighborhood character perspective, is way too big for the neighborhood or for the surrounding area,” Roope said.
Roope confirmed to the pastors that he had read about Marin City’s history, which includes decades of racism experienced by the residents at the hands of the county government. Through the use of racially restrictive covenants in property deeds, the Black population was excluded from purchasing and renting homes outside Marin City.
Redlining, the discriminatory practice of denying mortgages to Black people, also occurred. Marin City residents were prevented from owning property in the county when it was still considered an affordable area. Black people weren’t given the same opportunity as white people to build generational wealth in what is now one of the most expensive real estate markets in America.
“You have started in the middle of a racist, classist story…,” Thompkins said to Roope. “And so, to think that somehow you’re not perpetuating that by erecting a building that does nothing but make us more unsafe–and by doing the paternalistic, small-minded racist thing that’s been done for years, which is not even talking to us before it’s done–then we look at you and say you are what we always see, a racist doing nothing but hurting us.”
At the end of the 90-minute meeting, Roope said he would consider walking away from the project and that he may need help to break the news to county officials, who he called “stakeholders.” The pastors and Roope agreed to continue their discussions.
Roope, it seemed, saw the light.
But on May 24, just eight days after the meeting, Roope closed on the purchase of the property at 825 Drake Ave. Two days later, the county issued a building permit for the oversized development.
The county didn’t have much of a choice on the building permit. While all five members of the county’s board of supervisors have been critical of the development, they have said their hands are tied by Senate Bill 35, a 2018 state law which restricts local governments from rejecting multi-family residential developments that satisfy specific criteria. The project at 825 Drake Ave. checked all the boxes.
Roope, however, did have a choice. In fact, Roope stated during the meeting that he was the sole decision-maker on whether he would move forward with the development.
I was at the meeting, which Thompkins called an “intervention,” and I thought that Roope was going to throw in the towel. Roope has told me more than once that he wouldn’t have become involved with the project if he had understood the community. I called him to find out what happened.
“I definitely considered it and did a lot of research for the past couple of weeks,” Roope said. “I had a call with the lender and investors. The financing–there would be an enormous penalty for me. I had an interest rate lock. It would be a permanent problem for me walking away from the lender.”
The county, too, is providing funding to Roope, despite the supervisors denouncing the project. Last year, the board of supervisors unanimously approved an allocation of $1,850,000 for the development from the Marin County Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
Then, in March, the board voted 3-2 to approve the issuance of $40 million in tax-exempt bonds from the California Municipal Finance Authority, enabling Roope to finance the bulk of the development’s cost—pegged at almost $57 million in a recent application for state funding. That includes a $6 million developer fee for Roope.
The Marin Housing Authority has committed to provide 25 Section 8 project-based housing vouchers for the project, providing a revenue stream of $463,728 in annual rental income. And the gifts keep on coming. The agency is now considering handing over ten more vouchers, Marin Housing Authority Director Kimberly Carroll told the Pacific Sun.
With the building permit in hand, Roope could break ground tomorrow at 825 Drake Ave. Instead, he said that he’s taking the next 90 to 180 days, and possibly longer, to make improvements to the project. On April 30, Roope signed an agreement with the county regarding the changes.
The four-page document contains a few solid commitments, such as providing one parking spot, either on- or off-site, for each of the 74 units. That’s a substantial increase from the original 24 spaces planned on the property.
However, other terms in the agreement simply require a “good faith” or “reasonable” effort that may or may not result in change. One of those vague areas addresses reducing the size and scope of the building.
“Some of the language might be soft because there’s so much subject to other people’s decisions,” Roope said. “I have to deliver a certain amount of units , since I’ve gotten my financing–not just from the state, but from private lenders and investors. Could I deliver that in multiple locations? I have to secure another place to do that and I’m exploring those kinds of things right now.”
Another aspect of the agreement involves Roope possibly making a donation to local projects. Although the amount of $2.5 million has been bandied about by community members and recently reported in the Marin Independent Journal, the agreement does not specify a number. In fact, the agreement stipulates that a donation is dependent on whether Roope earns a profit during the development phase. I asked Roope for clarification.
“No determination yet on how much will be donated,” Roope said. “It will also be TBD based on whatever costs are incurred for project changes, etc. It will depend on what is left. I don’t take any developer profit until the project is built and fully leased.”
The community has concerns about the affordability of the apartments. The rents are calculated based on the median income for Marin County, which is substantially higher than Marin City’s median income. Unfortunately, that puts the rent out of reach for most Marin City residents.
The agreement has a clause that covers this issue, stating that any cost savings resulting from project changes will be used for “increased affordability.” It remains to be seen whether any savings eventually materialize.
Critics have indicated the agreement doesn’t guarantee lower rents or much else. But Marin County Administrator Matthew Hymel, who signed the agreement on behalf of the county, believes it is responsive to issues raised by the community and will ultimately improve the development.
“I think one of the structures of the agreement is that things like affordability and size and scope require more analysis,” Hymel said. And part of the agreement is that Roope will come back to us for subsequent approval.”
However, it might be difficult for the county to withhold approval on the terms that only obligate Roope to make a “good faith” or “reasonable” effort.
Regardless of the agreement, Bettie Hodges, a Marin City native and founder of Save Our City, remains adamantly opposed to the project. Last month, her group filed a lawsuit, paid for by an anonymous donor, against Roope and the county. The legal action seeks to reverse the board of supervisors approval of $40 million in tax-exempt bonds.
“The project is ruining the fabric of the community in so many ways,” Hodges said. “Consider all of the issues people have raised. It’s an assault in ways that are hard to describe. If you place a non-native plant in a garden, it takes over. The building at 825 Drake is a large foreign object that will undermine the garden of Marin City. We have to do everything we can to throw a monkey wrench in this process.”